It all started for Topaz McGarrigle on 6th Street, the epicenter for musical activity in his hometown of Austin, TX. Performing on his tenor saxophone for tips from passersby, he reached to the limits of his musical vocabulary to pursue his hopeful dreams of becoming a jazz musician in New York City. His musical identity began to take shape in the muscular twists and turns of his phrasing, in his cool, soulful feeling and in his grooving rhythmic energy. Topaz, his jazz group, formed in 1997 in New York City. The group may very well have been a distant goal on that day when McGarrigle first set foot on the streets of Austin to perform in public, but it has become the realization of a long musical journey for the Texan. The odds have been against Topaz. The group arrived on the New York scene well after the pinnacle of acid jazz and in the wake of a resurgent interest in the electric music of Miles Davis. Jazz was a downsized market in 2000 with major labels dropping many of the young lions of the '80s and '90s from their rosters in preference for the safety net of rock and hip-hop. Listen!, Topaz's second CD, was released in 1999 and defied the odds because of its eclectic beauty. Growing up in Austin, McGarrigle heard all sorts of music. His father constructed and repaired American folk and Middle Eastern instruments and exposed his son to the mystical music of Hamza El Din. From his mother, he gleaned an appreciation for Texas jazz fusion saxist Kirk Whalum. That experience led him to Jean-Luc Ponty and David Sanborn. Further exploration of jazz pushed him into the music of Lou Donaldson, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. A year abroad studying in England during his senior year in high school in 1990 placed him squarely in the midst of a burgeoning acid jazz scene of the Brand New Heavies and the Young Disciples in London. Stanley Turrentine, Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane, and Fela Kuti eventually became McGarrigle's main influences on sax. McGarrigle returned to the States in 1991 to study more music, this time at the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., where he learned about orchestration and further developed his interests in acid jazz, house, drum'n'bass, and the Grateful Dead. During his years in Washington, D.C., he performed with a Dead-inspired jam band called Amalgamate and in the acid jazz group Exodus. In 1994, he arrived in New York City to study music and liberal arts at New York University. There he met his Topaz bandmates: Takuya Nakamura (trumpet, synthesizer), Squantch (trombone, didgeridoo), Tewar (guitar, sitar, viola), Justin Wallace (electric bass), Ethan White (keyboards), Ernesto Abreau (percussion), and Phelim White (drums). They began performing Fridays at the former Bell Cafe in TriBeca in New York City. After a while, the band got gigs at the Mercury Lounge and the Bowery Ballroom. On Listen!, recorded at Phillip Glass' old studio in TriBeca in New York City on Velour Recordings in 1999, he showed his allegiance to the electric period of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Live/Evil. He also displayed his love for the melodicism of Middle Eastern music. Both the vibrant energy and the gentle, cool romance of Brazilian music surfaced as well as the influence of Gato Barbieri and Pharaoh Sanders. He explored the hypnotic grooves of acid jazz and the splattering beats of drum'n'bass as well as the spirituality of John Coltrane in a mixture of rich textures, colorful orchestral hues, energetic grooves, and soulful spirituality.
- Robert Hicks