Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Todd Marcus Orchestra Play a Riveting, Epic Set at Smalls

Last night Smalls was packed for the New York debut of the Todd Marcus Orchestra’s new Middle Eastern jazz suite In the Valley. Much as the band onstage was cooking, these people had come to listen. Bass clarinetist and bandleader Marcus gets a mighty sound, bigger than you would expect from a nine-piece outfit. Part of that stems from Marcus’ use of the whole sonic spectrum, Gil Evans-style. The other is how much gravitas he builds in the lows, best exemplified by the punchy contrapuntal interweave during the first set’s towering final number, Horus, Marcus teaming up with trombonist Alan Ferber against the highs: Troy Roberts’ tenor sax, Brent Birckhead’s alto and Alex Norris’ trumpet, pianist Xavier Davis hitting the midrange hard.

Marcus’ compositions draw a pretty obvious comparison to Amir ElSaffar’s work. But Marcus relies more on chromatics than distinctly microtonal melodies, and typically employs the traditional jazz model featuring individual soloists instead of pairings of musicians or seesawing between contrasting frequencies. And as formidable as Marcus’ orchestra is, it’s smaller than ElSaffar’s current huge ensemble: if ElSaffar is the Red Sea, Marcus is the Nile.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, and the suite draws heavily on his recent travels there. The group opened with the towering, cinematically suspenseful, chromatically pulsing title track, inspired by the Valley of Kings, featuring long, methodically crescendoing solos from Norris and Roberts. The night’s most colorful number was Cairo Street Ride, a depiction of a crazy cab negotiating what Marcus called “controlled chaos.” Rising from a bustling thicket of voices, the music straightened out with a jaunty bounce and eventually an irresistibly funny interlude where the cab’s engine revs up, then the driver shifting through the gearbox. People still drive stickshift in Egypt!

Ferber got to add some wry, Wycliffe-style humor of his own in the next tune, The Hive, the bandleader finally adding a rapidfire, spiraling solo of his own over the band’s lustre. The brooding ballad Final Days built artful variations on a somber stairstepping riff anchored by Jeff Reed’s bass. And the closing epic was a real showstopper. Drummer Eric Kennedy took a regally tumbling solo against Davis’ eerily circling piano loops as it gained momentum, Marcus launching into the most wildly gritty, intense solo of the night before the jousting at the end kicked in. Chamber Music America, who commissioned this piece, got plenty of bang for the buck. And that was just the first set.

You’ll see this on the best concerts of 2017 page here later this month.

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December 4, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Todd Marcus Brings His Mighty, Majestic Middle Eastern Jazz to Brooklyn

Todd Marcus is not only one of the great individualists in jazz, he’s also a great composer. His axe is the bass clarinet, which he’s worked hard to elevate from mere anchor of the low reeds to a lead instrument, something that requires some pretty heavy lifting. If you have to hang a title on his new album Blues for Tahrir, you could call it big band jazz, which with a powerhouse nine-man cast of characters it assuredly is. But it transcends genre: it’s Middle Eastern, and it’s cinematic, and it has a mighty angst-fueled majesty that under ideal circumstances also ought to reach the rock audience that gravitates toward artsy bands like Radiohead or Pink Floyd. There’ve been some amazing big band jazz albums issued in the past few years, but none as good as this since Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society released their withering anti-gentrification broadside Brooklyn Babylon in 2012. As happened with that album, time may judge Blues for Tahrir to be a classic.

It’s a complex, bittersweet response to the hope and also the disappointments in the wake of the Arab Spring. The band comprises Greg Tardy on tenor sax, Brent Birckhead on alto sax and flute, Russell Kirk on alto sax, Alex Norris on trumpet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Xavier Davis on piano, Jeff Reed on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Jon Seligman on percussion and Irene Jalenti on vocals.

Taking its title from Tahrir Square – ground zero for the freedom fighters of the 2011 revolution in Cairo – the album opens with Many Moons, stately horn harmonies joining in an enigmatic march before Marcus introduces the lively, dancing central theme. Brightly assertive voices shift shape throughout the orchestra, setting the stage for the bandleader to pensively weave up to an uneasily sailing crescendo, Davis leading the band into a clearing and a triumphantly cinematic coda.

Adhan, the opening segment of the four-part Blues for Tahrir Suite, foreshadows the revolution with both angst and determination, variations on a fervent muezzin’s call to prayer, a lively and purposeful alto sax interlude at the center. Reflections, a new arrangement of Blues for Tahrir, from Marcus’ previous album, Inheritance, follows a judicious pulse that alternates between optimism and dread, Marcus’s solo channeling the former. Tears on the Square vividly mirrors the horror and loss of the government’s deadly assaults on the revolutionaries there, stark solo bass introducing a funereal theme pairing bass clarinet and wordless vocals with a wounded, distant outrage from the full orchestra. The suite winds up with the bustling, noir-tinged Protest, leaving no doubt that the struggle is far from over.

Wahsouli – Arabic for “my arrival” – mingles a gripping, sternly majestic theme within an intricately orchestrated swing groove and clever tempo shifts, Tardy bobbing and weaving overhead. Bousa – meaning “a kiss” – draws on the emotionally charged balladry of legendary Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, a slinky, suspensefully dynamic anthem with subtle Latin tinges. The album’s two selections not written by Marcus are Gary Young’s Alien, a moodily enveloping but kinetic and soul-infused platform for Jalenti’s brooding alto vocals, and a darkly resonant, driving take of Summertime. This album will give you chills. And you can see Marcus and ensemble play it live at Shapeshifter Lab on May 18 with sets at 8:15 and 9:30 PM.

May 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Incendiary, Articulate Jazz and Poetry on Bobby Watson’s Latest Project

Saxophonist Bobby Watson‘s “I Have a Dream” Project commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic address to the crowd of protesters gathered at the Washington Mall. The band’s album Check Cashing Time pairs many of Watson’s most politically-fueled compositions with incendiary, spot-on, Gil Scott-Heron influenced spoken-word lyrics by Glenn North. The rest of the band includes Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Richard Johnson on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Pamela Baskin-Watson on vocals and Horace Washington on flute. Its theme is that it’s payback time for 200-plus years of slavery.

Sweet Dreams, a wickedly catchy, bitingly bluesy, Frank Foster-ish swing tune with concise solos from trumpet, alto and gently ringing piano opens the album. The title track is a variation on that theme and a launching pad for North’s searing commentary, which elegantly connects the dots between the murders of MLK and Trayvon Martin, and doesn’t neglect to address the prison-industrial comples. As North puts it, “The new Jim Crow has enormous wings.”

The lively At the Crossroads follows a more optimistic tangent, steadily pulsing with a purposeful, determined Mohari solo. North juxtaposes a series of alternately celebratory and grisly images over a more-or-less rubato piano-and-cymbal backdrop on Black Is Back. The band follows that with the bristling, modally-charged A Blues of Hope, with its lush horns, dancing piano and a similarly dynamic, rising and falling solo from Watson.

They go back to jazz poetry with 40 Acres & a Mule, a rather petulant new take on a bitter old African-American mantra: the nonchalant defiance of Mohari’s shivery solo is one of the album’s high points. The slow, brooding Dark Days makes a good segue, guest Karita Carter’s ominously looming trombone paired off against bluesy, pensive upper-register piano, North quoting both Dr. King and Bob Marley. Baskin-Watson sings her Seekers of the Sun, a syncopated, blues and gospel-tinted shout-out to keep hope alive, the band maintaining that mood on the briskly swinging Progress, with its stilletto-precise solo by Johnson.

After a brief, Marc Cary-esque solo piano reprise of the fourth track, the band cuts loose on Triad (Martin, Malcom, Ghandi), Watson’s sailing sax holding it together as individual voices diverge: it’s the most ambitious number here. The band works a brisk Taxi Driver-style clave on My Song, a clever update on the dozens: “I was born in the briar patch behind the old woodshed, held a klansmen by the throat until he was dead,” North intones. Lundy’s brief MLK on Jazz – quoting the King speech that opened the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival – and then his pensive ballad Revival (Ovedia) follow. Baskin-Watson ends the album with Ellington’s  Come Sunday, vividly underscoring its gospel roots. This album succeeds  as food for thought, eloquent expression of righteous anger and just plain good jazz. If Sonny Stitt desesrves to be in a certain jazz hall of fame, so does Bobby Watson.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment