Interview: Marcus Elliot and Michael Malis

I conducted this interview with saxophonist Marcus Elliot and pianist Michael Malis, while they were on a U.S. tour in Washington, DC with their duo, Balance. They are both native to Detroit and are some of the most interesting players from the next generation of creative musicians in the city. We talked about their creative process, their collaborative approach, and Detroit’s community of musicians from which they grew. The original interview was conducted on July 18, 2023. The duo released Live at the Congregation in April.

Cisco Bradley (CB): I’d love to hear about how you guys first met and how you got into this position of making music together. What sparked the group?

Marcus Elliot (ME): We both met in a youth program in Detroit through the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

CB: Around what time?

ME: I got there 2005.

Michael Malis (MM): Yeah, sounds right.

ME: You were there the year before, right?

MM: I was there 2004. So we met in 2005. We were in high school when we met.

ME: Yeah, we were in high school.

MM: Marcus is two years younger than me, I think, so I was probably a junior and you were maybe a freshman or something like that?

ME: Yeah, I was in sophomore year and you were a senior, and it was a program that was originally led by Marcus Belgrave. He was the director of the program, kind of started it. When I got there, Rodney Whitaker was the director.

MM: I was there for Marcus’s last year, so that’s where I met Marcus, was through that.

ME: That’s crazy that that was Rodney’s first year, right?

MM: It was. That was Rodney’s first year doing that. So that program really is the source of a lot of, let’s say, post-2000, anyone who’s been playing jazz coming out of Detroit. I think you could say pretty much everyone has gone through that program on some level.

ME: Yeah, to some degree.

MM: It’s just a really important youth development program and a lot of people are in a lot of different scenes now. Someone like De’sean Jones who’s doing techno and orchestral music to Endea Owens, who plays on Stephen Colbert’s Late Night Show, and all sorts of people in-between, and us. It’s almost like an alumni situation. Everyone came through that program.

CB: Obviously Marcus Belgrave and Rodney Whitaker are incredible teachers and musicians in their own right.

MM: Exactly. That was the thing about that too. Meeting Marcus, that was my first experience, being around musicianship at that level, being around that type of oral tradition type of thing, was very alive and well in the way that he was operating that group. He would just get on the instruments and show you what to do if you weren’t doing something correctly.

CB: He would take your instrument?

MM: He would kick me off the piano and he would sit down and show me. Actually I’d say, I learned about 80% of what I know about how to accompany someone from Marcus Belgrave just sitting down and hammering it out. He was really no pianist to speak of, but he had the rhythmic sensibility and he knew exactly what it was supposed to sound like. He would just sit down and be like, I remember distinctly, like this, like this, and it was just like, okay. But it was a big band.

The first year that I did it, it was in this basement of this social services agency while they were building what is now like the fancy wing.

ME: It’s called The Matrix.

MM: Yeah, it’s called Matrix Social Services. So I caught this vibe, which is, now it seems like something from a bygone era, after the rehearsals, it was just people’s parents and people were just showing up with all this food. It would be like chicken and pizza and potato salad, and we’d be there just hanging out, eating, and whatever, until like 10, 11:00 PM sometimes after rehearsals, and it was crazy. It was just a deep hang. And this was like the DSO’s program. That actually persisted in the first year that we moved back into the DSO’s space. But basically as soon as Marcus was gone, a lot of that type of stuff went away and it became a much more codified youth program kind of thing.

But it was still cool, high-level musicianship. Everything about it was great. The way I met Marcus Belgrave was auditioning for the program. I was just like sitting there waiting while they all were rehearsing, and not to turn this into a whole thing, but anyways, he forgot about me, totally forgot that I was there to audition. Three or four hours later, as they’re doing their family picnic thing, I’m like, “Oh, Mr. Belgrave, I’m here to audition.” He’s like, “Oh yeah, you.” So he just opened up the real book to a random page and he was like, “Let’s play together.”

So the first thing we ever did was play together and I stumbled my way through the tune and he played and I sounded like shit. At the end of it he just looked down at me and said, “Yeah, you’ll do,” and that was it. They already had piano players. They didn’t need another piano player, but he just brought me on, so it was cool. Anyways, the Civic Youth Jazz Orchestra was a thing, is a thing still, and we met each other through that a couple years later. We stayed in touch after I went to Ann Arbor. Marcus ended up going to Lansing for school.

CB: You went to Michigan State?

ME: Michigan State, yeah.

CB: And you went to University of Michigan?

ME: Yeah, that’s right. For me, Michael was there for really key moments in my development. I specifically remember one time at a performance where it seemed like it just was starting to click for me, just this idea of improvising and Michael was piano for that, to me that was like, to still be playing with someone who was there for those very, very really important moments in my development is very special.

CB: Something about coming up together in a way.

MM: Yeah, exactly. I think now when we play, we really just tend to be pretty easy to get on the same page musically and I think it’s just because we share a lot of language. After we both graduated from school, we both decided to move to Detroit, and we hooked up again in a more efficient way.

CB: So you both moved back to Detroit?

MM: Yeah. I had taken a 5th year in school because I did an English degree too, so we were only one year apart actually at that point. So just took us a year, I think, past me to catch up. Marcus got a weekly gig at a club in Detroit, Cliff Bell’s, and he asked me to be a piano player in that band. That band ended up playing weekly for about five years and a bunch of other stuff too. Put out some records together and all sorts of things. Became the nexus of a musical community. A few different bands branched off of that band, including a trio of mine, was like the rhythm section of that band and we had our own lifespan as well.

So that was an important part of our development. But also, I would say, just as importantly, we were both playing in bands led by elders as well during that time, especially by Marcus Belgrave. We were both playing in his band, and sometimes together too. So we were sharing a bunch of post-college musical experiences where we were just deepening our musical language and stuff. Also, both of us were expanding our musical languages too, because we were also playing a lot in that era in ad hoc improvising groups.

Sometimes we’d end up playing together, sometimes not, just sharing bills, that kind of thing. There was this nascent community. There still is, of course, but the community’s different now than it was. But at the time there was a nascent community of improvisers that we were both participating in.

That era of, I’d say, 2012 to 2017 was an important development period for both of us, where we were just growing together, and separately, and in community together.

CB: Since you mentioned elders, I’m just trying to think, and this may have been before your time, I’m just trying to remember, but would either of you ever have encountered Harold McKinney?

MM: No.

CB: He passed in 2001.

ME: We lost Harold McKinney, Kenny Cox, Donald Walden, and others too. There was a period there where that whole generation, there was multiple people that left around the same time. I got a chance to interact with Donald Walden a little bit.

MM: So did I. I met Kenny Cox once, but that was it. Donald and I knew each other for a little bit. Marcus Belgrave was a really big one for us. Honestly, I considered Geri Allen an elder. I studied with her for five years at U of M, so she was probably the most important musical teacher in my life.

ME: Wendell Harrison for sure. He was a big influence, and still is a big influence.

MM: George Davison.

ME: Marion Hayden.

MM: Marion was huge, and Jaribu Shahid. Marion, Jaribu, George, Dennis Coffey is another one.

ME: I never played with him.

MM: I played with him. I was in his band for six months, weekly. You do know him because he’s the guitarist on Cloud Nine. He put out some records of his own in the ‘70s, like Funk Brothers, underground classic kind of stuff. He produced the SIxto Rodriguez Searching for Sugarman stuff. He produced those records. He’s like a local legend dude. He was someone who I was working with in that era.

ME: Spencer Barefield.

CB: Now you mentioned weekly gigs. There aren’t very many cities where that even happens anymore. It hardly happens in New York. I don’t know anyone who has a weekly gig, especially not for four months, six months, two years, five years or whatever.

ME: It was kind of crazy for that to happen.

CB: How does that happen in Detroit?

MM: The owners are being lazy and cheap.

ME: Yeah. They get you young, easy, and cheap. They know you’ll work for very little.

MM: And they don’t want to deal with the hassle of booking a new band every night. The weekly is usually, not entirely, but usually happen on off nights. Like week nights, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursdays, you have a residency. Although there was a legendary jam session, I played in this band too, run by trumpet player, John Douglas, who was about 25, 30 years older than us. That was at Bert’s on Friday nights. He had that gig for about 20, 25 years.

CB: That’s crazy.

MM: It is crazy for a lot of reasons. It is just a thing and yeah, it’s nice because you can develop something. Although, to be honest, I have no desire for a weekly these days. It’s a lot of work to cultivate something, but when you’re in your 20s, you can do that.

ME: A huge part of my development was that, for sure, was getting a chance to put in that work over and over and over, was very good.

CB: Well, I always think of this thing, a musician said to me once, which is something, he’s like, people in the past, one of the reasons why they were so good is they played five nights a week or whatever.

MM: Totally. That is something of a bygone era from a house band.

CB: Griot Galaxy had a weekly at Cobb’s Corner like a year and a half or two years or something.

MM: Totally. The lineups in that era were crazy.

CB: Especially a band like Griot Galaxy, it seemed like getting a weekly then was a lot easier.

MM: Especially a band like that, that’s amazing.

ME: It’s nuts.

CB: How do you go from playing together to then deciding you’re going to really dig in and chart something out or start composing together or whatever? I’d love to hear about that.

ME: I got a call from the DIA to play, a Sunday brunch kind of thing. They were doing these performances and they called me to put something together. Also at this time, the bass player and drummer that we usually play with were planning on moving to New York. So I knew that I wanted to continue some sort of dialogue with Michael that was outside of the quartet, to some degree. And so I just called him and said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing this?” And he was just like, “Yeah, let’s do it,” and I just called it Balance.

MM: That’s pretty much how it started. We wanted to keep playing together even though the band was breaking up, basically.

ME: The day that we ended up playing was the day that Trump got inaugurated.

CB: January 20th, 2017.

MM: That’s right. We passed a hat and gave the money to the ACLU.

ME: Yeah, ACLU. That was an intense performance.

MM: And there were a shit load of people there too.

ME: People needed some music.

MM: People were freaking out. It was actually a very affirming moment. So that’s how that band was born. We kind of dug it. This is cool. This is a good performance. It was very challenging, actually.

ME: Yeah. It was hard.

MM: It was super hard, and we were both like, this might be the next step. It’s quite a bit harder than playing in a quartet. So we decided to write a bunch of music for it. Self-produced our first record off of that.

CB: Do you individually compose and bring things in and then workshop it together? Is that the process?

ME: It’s basically how it works, yeah. We both individually bring stuff in and then take it to the basement.

MM: Pretty much. You’ve been to my basement.

CB: I have. Is there any sort of discussion about the arc of the record? Or is it more like you get components and put it together that way?

MM: That’s a good question. We have two records out, but actually the scope of our work is larger than that because we’ve done a number of these performance pieces that have had their own lifespan. So it’s different project to project.

CB: So there’s a bunch of material that hasn’t been recorded. Is that what you’re saying?

MM: Kind of, yeah. I mean, if you really think about it, like the string quartet stuff. We did these pieces with string quartets. We each wrote a piece for us plus the string quartet. Then the other kind of big one we did, I Got to Keep Moving. We did this project with, have you encountered Bill Harris any time in Detroit?

CB: Yes, I’m honored to have met him.

MM: So we did a project with Bill Harris and Gerald Cleaver called, I Got to Keep Moving. It was basically Bill live-narrating some short stories of his around music that we composed for us, plus Gerald. So that was, I would say, probably the most all around collaborative project that we’ve done where we actually co-wrote a lot of that music. Marcus wrote a section, I wrote a section, we put it together. Some of the sections we co-wrote though. And then collaborating with Bill to figure out how it worked around the stories or whatever.

CB: You guys approached Bill? Was that it?

MM: I guess, but Bill, in my memory at least, was like, “We should do something together.”

ME: I don’t remember that.

MM: I don’t know. I just remember him walking out of a show one time and just being like-

ME: Yeah.

MM: Maybe it was just a signal, but I felt like he initiated it. Although we definitely approached him about the actual project. He just kind of put up a bat signal about [crosstalk 0:18:49] we could do something.

ME: He was like, “Hey, whenever you guys want.”

CB: Were there reasons in particular that you wanted to work with him?

ME: We were just fans, honestly.

CB: He has an amazing body of work.

MM: Talk about an elder. He’s another one to throw in the mix.

ME: Straight up. My God, there was a moment there I was just calling him for life advice. He’s a real elder. Then he was just coming to our shows, so he was just into the music. He was like, “Yeah, this is some cool shit. I’m down to-”

MM: We both knew his writing and stuff, and we were like, “Man, if he wants to do-” This is why I think he said something, because I think we were like, “If he wants to do something with us, we should figure out a way to do something.” I think it was like that.

CB: He seems to be a very approachable person.

MM: He is actually.

CB: Something he also told me really stuck out when I talked to him. He said something about, he called it the Detroit way. Have you heard this phrase?

ME: No.

CB: I think Harold McKinney is the one that told him this, and it was about the elders bringing up the next generation. It’s like it was expected of the elders. They’d bring the next generation into music and art. I forget who originally coined the term. He started talking about this as a process, going all the way back to the ‘40s, at least.

MM: Totally. Goes into the mix. I’d consider him a musician.

CB: He’s been around a lot of music for years, I mean, as a poet performing in those contexts, and a lot of his work is about jazz, right?

MM: A lot of it is, exactly. That was a really special one.

CB: How do you prepare or think about working with a poet in the jazz setting? It’s a different kind of improvisation or is it not?

MM: It’s funny because this latest record has a poet on it too that’s a former student of Bill’s, Chase.

ME: Chase Morris. I’m trying to remember how it went down with Bill. I remember reading. He gave us the book, we read the book, he gave us specific sections that he would like to focus on.

MM: It’s a collection of short stories, so we kind of bridged it.

CB: Can I ask which book?

MM: I Got to Keep Moving.

ME: Which was the name of the project. The way I did mine, because we had different sections, I would take one section and Michael would take another section. I know for me, I would just read it, then write whatever it inspired. That’s how I did it. Read the chapter and then just went into composition mode with what I had in mind. Then from there, just workshopped it, made sure that it worked, if there were sections we had to loop for whatever reason or move around. That’s what we did.

MM: Pretty much, yeah. It’s funny, my section, I scored the whole thing out. Remember I had the text in the score.

ME: That’s right. You did.

MM: We actually have really different compositional processes, which I think is nice. I think it’s actually why everything works.

ME: I agree.

CB: Can you guys talk about that a little bit or whatever you feel like sharing.

MM: In my estimation, I feel like Marcus’s process creates music that feels really organic. It’s really organic and it really breathes and it really flows. I think that I have more specificity sometimes. So these two things tend to offset each other in a way. What’s funny is that there was a third section to that project and we co-composed that third section. So he had the first section, I was second section, and we co-composed the third section, which was cool.

ME: Yeah, that was cool. And also for that project, Gerald Cleaver was on it.

CB: How was it to play with Gerald?

ME: Great.

MM: He’s on our latest record too.

ME: He just fit right in.

MM: The beginning of our relationship was on that project.

CB: I must confess, I think Gerald is maybe my favorite drum on earth right now.

MM: Me too.

CB: Certainly one of them.

MM: Literally, he’s my favorite drummer in the world. Every time I’m around him, I can’t get past the fan stage. That project was also special because it brought together three generations. Gerald and Bill didn’t know each other. It was cool.

CB: I don’t know anyone who really has the same rhythmic feel that Gerald has.

MM: It’s so rare to find someone who has that degree of rhythm and that degree of freedom.

CB: He never loses either one of them.

MM: Exactly. I don’t know anyone else who could do it like that. At least Tyshawn Sorey is probably the other one. Probably a different thing.

CB: Very different. But yeah, I know what you’re saying. Gerald also strikes me as one of the only drummers I’ve ever heard who I don’t think I’ve ever heard over play. I say this all the time, but I just think he never just fills space to fill space. He does it when he’s trying to do something.

MM: He has such a refined sound on the instrument too. I had this realization playing with him. For the first time I truly realized that playing with him, this was the ideal sound of a drummer that I have in my head at all times. I love a lot of the drummers I play with, but of course whenever there’s a thing where I’m like, oh man, I wish you were like this or something like that. It’s just that I’m comparing them probably unfairly to what I imagine Gerald would do in that moment. So it was amazing to be playing with him because it was like, this is the ideal sound actually.

CB: Well, I’ve gotten to see him play so many times in New York. Even played a couple of house concerts that I put on which were amazing. Anyway, do you have any plans to release, some of these other projects or they’re like, you had to be there?

MM: It’d be cool to, I think we’re just focusing on moving forward right now.

ME: Yeah, that’s how I feel.

MM: They’re all on YouTube. They’re kind of out there.

ME: They’re out there to some degree, we just haven’t put them on wax. I think probably the next thing is new music. It’s going to be good to get back into creating some new music.

MM: Talking about going into the studio again next year, but we don’t have anything yet.

CB: Do you want to talk about what you might be aiming for or is it too early?

MM: No, we can talk about it.

ME: It’s not too early. I think we’re in an interesting space right now where we’re working this music out and workshopping, finally getting a chance to really get some miles in on this music because we wrote it beginning of 2020 and never got a chance to really play it. So I feel like right now we’re just finally getting some miles in on the music, and looking forward. One of the things that this group allows us to do is collaborate and that seems to be really important thing. So we’re trying to figure out what our collaboration could potentially look like.

One way could be collaborating with multiple artists from different communities across the country and that could be a lot of fun. Another one could be where we just choose one person and just really do a thing with that one person, one or two people or whatever.

CB: So to bring in some guests.

ME: Yeah.

MM: We’re kind of thinking that way.

ME: The other third option is we just do another duo record where it’s just us again, just to keep things going.

MM: We did a combination of those two things on the last record, because it’s mostly a duo record, but Gerald’s on two tracks and then it’s a poet on two tracks too. So it’s a collaborative record, but it’s very much a duo. So we could go in that direction again, but I think both of us are, at this stage at least, drawn to the idea of bringing someone else in just to see what that would be like. And because this project has been a forum for collaboration in the past, even if that hasn’t been documented on record, really, all these projects we’re telling you about, we’ve done a lot of collaboration using this as a vehicle.

So it might be nice to document that process, which is another phase of what we did. We did toss around this idea, that Marcus alluded to, of bringing in, on like one track each, different people from different places in the country, around North America, or even around the world. Just to open up the musical process to people from different communities because what we do is related to the Detroit Way. It’d be nice to bring that into another process and bring another process into that, keep that moving.

CB: Is there particular places around the world that that would be great to connect with?

MM: That’s what we don’t really have a big concept with right now. We had a really good experience in Toronto. So we were like, oh shoot, we should find some Toronto musicians to work with.

ME: Yeah, it was in Canada, and Toronto specifically. You know, like the major cities, New York, Chicago, Paris. Who knows?

MM: We’re in the car dreaming right now.

ME: Yeah, we’re just dreaming it up.

CB: There’re so many possibilities.

MM: Actually tomorrow we’re supposed to talk through some more concrete stuff between.

CB: Between here and Pittsburgh.

MM: Exactly. That’s the goal for tomorrow.

ME: Lay it down there.

CB: To back up to an earlier time, I’m curious, how did you guys keep things going during the pandemic?

ME: We actually gave it a little bit of a rest.

MM: We did a little bit. January 2020 we recorded this album. So we had this album. And then a whole lot of life happened for both of us, is the thing. I had a kid in November, 2020. Marcus had a kid in April 2021, and also moved.

ME: And moved into a house right across the street from Michael.

MM: The very same day that the kid was born, they were moving.

ME: It was a crazy experience.

MM: But the fact that we had this record and the fact that they were moving in right across the street, honestly, it never really felt like a very urgent thing. We knew that this was going to happen, and I think relatively early on, we got in touch with Joel and Sam [of Two Rooms Records]. So we knew that they were going to put on the record and everyone was on pandemic time and we were dealing with our families and our houses and just trying to get things stabilized a bit. So we knew that things were going to-

ME: I was working a completely different job at the time. I was working with my friend who was an arborist. So I was spending like 10, 12 hour days doing that. I was very much not thinking about music. I mean, I was thinking about music, but not in terms of career sort of thing. I mean, gigs weren’t really happening.

MM: Not at all.

CB: It’s just a tough time to-

ME: We did do that DSO thing

MM: We did have one crazy gig.

ME: We had a massive gig. If we would’ve done it now, it would’ve been a really freaking big deal. It was at the DSO we played in Orchestra Hall. It was like Charles McPherson and Bob Hurst. Who else was on that? Regina Carter.

MM: Regina Carter and us.

ME: Was it Xavier Davis?

MM: He was playing with Regina, yeah. You know Mark Stryker?

CB: Yeah.

MM: He curated this festival, Jazz from Detroit Festival and it was supposed to be a performance and interview series. It was supposed to be a series of events or whatever, and COVID and stuff, it ended up being basically a virtual thing. It was supposed to happen in their smaller space, but they ended up putting us in Orchestra Hall and having an audience of 50 people socially distanced throughout the hall. It was that era of stuff. And then they filmed it and, and then they live streamed it.

So we actually got to perform in Orchestra Hall, which was crazy. It’s an amazing acoustical space. Like Marcus said, if it had happened now, it would have been a big deal for us, but it got lost in the shuffle of the pandemic. That was the one gig we had during the pandemic.

CB: Do you guys have two records out?

MM: We do. We have one that we self-produced and self-released in 2017. And then the one that we just put out last year.

CB: Do you want to say anything about those two records in terms of putting those together? Like where you started and where you are now.

MM: It is interesting to see the development. We’ve definitely grown as musicians and grown in terms of our musical language as well together too. I feel like we cracked open a rock and inside of that rock was a gem. We’re just now exploring the different facets of that gem. The first record and the second record are connected to each other in terms of the language and stuff. We’re just going deeper in. We have more chemistry, we have a more detailed writing process. We have more expansive attitude. I think we’re better players.

ME: Hopefully.

CB: Definitely.

MM: So it feels like a continuation of what we started. And all of that feels like a continuation, going all the way back to 2005. Going on 20 years now having that conversation.

CB: Right. You’ve been speaking to each other for that long. Beautiful! It sounds like there is a lot more to come in the future.

Cisco BradleyInterview: Marcus Elliot and Michael Malis