Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Todd Marcus Releases a Vivid, Bittersweet, Fearlessly Relevant Celebration of Freddie Gray-Era Baltimore

Todd Marcus’ hard-hitting new suite On These Streets: A Baltimore Story – streaming at Bandcamp, more or less – was released this past April 27 to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Freddie Gray. Gray was thrown in a Baltimore police van just a few blocks from Marcus’ dayjob at the nonprofit Intersection of Change, where he works as a community organizer. Over the past two years, the world’s only bass clarinetist big band leader found himself at ground zero, immersed in the furor over the killing. This quintet recording is a sometimes grim, bittersweet reflection on the events that brought Baltimore to its knees in April of 2015, and afterward.

And it’s as relevant as any protest jazz from the Civil Rights era, right up there with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Although Marcus’ music is profoundly lyrical, spoken-word passages by community members provide additional context in between a handful of the album’s individual tracks. It’s not only one of the year’s best jazz records –  it’s one of the most potently catchy albums of 2018 in any style of music.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, so it’s no surprise that his music often draws as much on the Middle East as it does on African-American traditions. Marcus’ long, darkly magisterial solo in the album’s opening cut, On the Corner, finally brightens as a latin noir groove picks up, George Colligan’s piano spiraling through Marcus’ chromatics.

A local pastor introduces Marcus’ hometown shout-out An Intersection of Change, underscoring community efforts to combat crushing poverty and a persistent scourge of heavy drugs by reclaiming real estate, creating arts programs and providing rehab for addicts  – in other words, everything a reasonable government should be doing with taxpayer money. The song itself begins as a brightly propulsive, bustling shuffle, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone and Colligan’s piano rippling over drummer Eric Kennedy’s restless rustle until an ominous march foreshadows what’s to come.

Ground Zero (At Penn and North) is a real Shostakovian showstopper, drenched in sarcasm: a big splash for an intro, more of that march theme, a wickedly hard-charging Marcus solo contrasting with Paul Bollenback’s guitar, endless unison head-bobbing and then frantic scampering from Colligan up to a hard charge out. A Baltimore city councilman comments bitterly that “This is bigger than Freddie Gray, this is about social economics…lack of opportunities…this isn’t about West Baltimore, this could occur anywhere.”

Marcus’ brooding, spare low-register solos and Davis’ incisive drive propel Fear of the Known, centered by Kris Funn’s emphatic bass. Bollenback flares acidcally, then hands off to the bandleader’s biting Arabic chromatics.

PTSD in the Hood brings back the brooding clave of the album’s opening cut but more insistently – bad memories come back to haunt you with a vengeance. This time Marcus is both more somber and more frantic, and the march is more of a sotto-voce strut.

Fueled by Wolf’s carillon-like cascades and the rhythm section’s frenetic swing, Pennsylvania Avenue Hustle is Marcus’ salute to Baltimore’s former jazz mecca Pennsylvania Avenue, at one time a counterpart to New York’s 52nd St. and New Orleans’ Bourbon District.

The carefree wee-hour tableau It Still Gets Still is Marcus’ Harlem Nocturne, if a lot more expansive, lit up by Wolf’s twinkling solo: troubled as inner cities may be, all hope is not lost there. Marcus bookends Colligan and Wolf’s comfortable late-night cascades in Covered in Snow with a somberly anthemic theme 

The album closes with NJ ’88 (Ode to the 80s), a steady, catchy, workmanlike salute to Marcus’ New Jersey upbringing, with a dancing bass solo at the center: obviously he had cooler parents than most. Talk to somebody who spent time there as a kid. Most of them couldn’t wait to escape to the East Village…which they’d be priced out  of less than a decade later. 

Lucky Baltimoreans can catch Marcus leading a quartet at a rare, free daytime show on May 20 at 3:30 PM at Second Presbyterian Church at 4200 St. Paul St.

Advertisements

May 14, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paul Bollenback Airs Out His Animated Tropical Guitar Songbook at le Poisson Rouge

Longtime Joey DeFrancesco guitarist Paul Bollenback played the release show for his latest album as a leader, Brazilian-flavored new album, the Brazilian-tinged Portraits in Space and Time (just out from Mayimba Music)  at the Poisson Rouge Saturday night. The big drawing card was Jeff “Tain” Watts being his usual charismatic and occasionally explosive self behind the drums, but the whole lineup, including tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Joseph LePore and percussionist Rogerio Boccato all delivered plenty of riveting moments. There was a point early in the set where Strickland fired off a searing volley of minor-key blues and then handed off to Bollenback, who took it all the way up with a lightning flurry of his own. But that was the exception rather than the rule – and all the more intense considering that Bollenback took his time getitng there. He’s the rare guitarist who’d rather build a mood or spin a good story rather than indulging in fireworks.

The album is a very intimate one, just a trio session with LePore and Boccato, so this was an opportunity to give those conversational compositions more room to expand. Bollenback and Strickland immediately introduced a bop vernacular to open the show: from the first beats, Boccato and Watts became a four-handed beast, their commitment to the clave was so singleminded. It was especially interesting to watch Boccato – who plays drumset as well as percussion on the album – sitting on his cajon behind his congas, rattling his chekere and assortment of playful devices, and playing it all like a regular kit. Meanwhile, Watts would grinningly shift from the latin groove to swinging funk and a couple of triumphant New Orleans street-beat interludes, with the expected firepower coming front and center when he finally cut loose with a solo about two-thirds of the way through the show. With this much rhythm going on, LePore was all smiles and kinetic energy, supplying the occasional muscular, dancing solo.

Bollenback peppered his animatedly reflective trajectories with frequent references to Muscle Shoals soul and the blues, much in the same vein as his work with DeFrancesco, along with an enlightened survey of much of postbop jazz guitar from Gene Bertoncini on forward. It wasn’t long before he put down his electric for an acoustic-electric model which he played through a volume pedal, which somewhat paradoxically worked to raise the energy while expanding the dynamic range on the quiet, sustained side. Most of the material was drawn from the new album, one number segueing into the next via graceful guitar lead-ins. An early tune worked some unexpected and vastly enjoyable, bracingly nocturnal modes. Homecoming, its elegant chord sequences sandwiching some lively teamwork from Strickland and Bollenback, and a later ballad with starlit guitar intro and slinky tropical ambience courtesy of the rhythm section, were two of the highlights. Bollenback is so tasteful and gets so much work as a sideman that he doesn’t get as many chances to lead as he deserves, so this was a rare treat.

October 1, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paul Bollenback Brings Tropical-Tinged Tunefulness to le Poisson Rouge

Guitarist Paul Bollenback has gotten a lot of props for his long association with organist Joey DeFrancesco. But he’s a composer and bandleader in his own right, and with an intriguing, Brazilian-flavored new album, Portraits in Space and Time (streaming at Spotify) and an album release show coming up at 7:30 PM this Saturday, Sept 27 at le Poisson Rouge with a phenomenal lineup including Marcus Strickland, Joseph LePore, Rogerio Boccato and Jeff “Tain” Watts. A show by a group of this caliber for ten bucks in advance is not to be missed!

The album is an intimate trio session with Lepore on bass and Sao Paolo’s Boccato on drums and percussion. It seems to be more of an attempt to bottle the magic of a live set rather than simply to document a new set of compositions: segues are front and center here, and they’re good. The music moves fluidly with lively interaction and spontaneity: there’s a lot of good chemistry here.

Bollenback’s signature translucence and knack for melodic hooks also takes centerstage throughout the compositions, a mix of acoustic and electric numbers. The opening track, Calling the Spirits, works a steadily rising Indian-tinged theme that draws on Bollenback’s longtime fondness for exotic sounds and sets the stage, thematically, for the rest of the album: virtually everything here follows a matter-of-fact, often almost imperceptible upward trajectory. Homecoming artfully blends hints of Americana and bossa nova, beginning like a more carbonated take on Bill Frisell, Bollenback animatedly shifting chords in a Peter Bernstein-like vein before Lepore’s chugging but pointillistic solo. The trio follow that with Three Days, a slowly unwinding jazz waltz set to Boccato’s low-key but lithe brushwork and Lepore’s similarly graceful pulse.

One of a handful of miniatures interspersed between the longer numbers, Collective pairs Lepore’s dancing bass with Boccato’s animated rimshots and Bollenback’s spare, lingering, bossa-tinged lines. Another, Jungle, pairs brightly incisive harmonics from the guitar with Boccato’s wryly scurrying percussion. Bollenback works his way methodically up to a spiky, incisive solo on Sunset, the most album’s most straight-up bossa nova number. Little Island has Bollenback’s acoustic guitar building the tune with equal parts Jobim breeziness and a contrasting chromatic bite, Boccato alternating between emphatic cymbal work and a suspenseful prowl around the edges of the drumkit.

They follow that with Bird in the Sky, a vivid, methodically crescendoing acoustic ballad that nimbly alternates between tenderness and wariness. Bollenback’s airy washes anchor Lepore’s balletesque leaps as Open Hand gets going, then the guitar and drums take it in the direction of early 70s psychedelic funk before Bollenback airs out a series of wry quotes and tongue-in-cheek riffs.

Subtle metric shifts underpinned by a persistent, graceful groove liven the graceful Dance Delicious. Lepore contributes a starkly swirling, baroque-flavored, bowed solo before Boccato kicks in with an understated clave beat for Dance of Hands, lit up by Bollenback’s alternately judicious chordal phrasing and spiraling solos. Lights, another jazz waltz, juxtaposes Bollenback’s vigorous, incancescent wee-hours theme with a nonchalant swing and a spacious Lepore solo. The album winds up with Swinging at Capone’s, a shapeshifting mix of elements from wee-hours blues to noir funk to straight-ahead swing.

September 21, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment