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.

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

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.

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

Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band Is Everything You’d Expect

In some ways, what Pink Floyd, Nektar, Supertramp and all the rest of the orchestrated rock bands were to the “classic rock” era, new big band jazz is to the decade of the teens. It’s where you get your epic grandeur fix. Towering, intense angst; full-blown exhilaration. There’s a lot more of the latter than the former on pianist Orrin Evans’ brand-new Captain Black Big Band album, but there’s still gravitas and intensity as you would expect from him. Like the Mingus repertory bands, Evans employs a rotating cast for this group, in this case an A-list mostly from New York and Philadelphia, in a live concert recording. Also like Mingus, the compositions blend an impatient urban bustle with an irrepressible joie de vivre. The compositions are pretty oldschool, closer to Mingus or Ellington than, say, than Jim McNeely.

The album gets started on a trad note with Art of War, a brisk bluesy swing tune by drummer Ralph Peterson. Rob Landham’s alto solo goes squalling quickly and spirals out neatly with a blaze as the brass rises – it’s sort of a warmup for what’s to come.Here’s the Captain, by bassist Gianluca Renzi opens with Evans’ murky distant piano grandeur – it’s a Cuban son montuno groove led by the trombone, an incisively simmering Victor North tenor solo followed by Evans who stays on course with a couple of cloudbursts thrown in for good measure. Inheritance, by bass clarinetist and big band leader Todd Marcus is swinging and exuberant with New Orleans tinges and a modified Diddleybeat. The first of Evans’ compositions, Big Jimmy is a soaring swing number with some deftly concealed rhythmic trickiness, trumpeter Walter White faking a start and then moving it up to some blissed-out glissandos, followed by tenor player Ralph Bowen who jumps in spinning out wild spirals – it’s adrenalizing to the extreme.

Buoyantly memorable in a late 50s Miles kind of way, Captain Black maxes out a long, fiery ensemble passage into solos by pianist Jim Holton (Evans has moved to the podium to conduct), Bowen shifting from shuffle to sustain followed by trombonist Stafford Hunter shadowboxing with the band. They save the best for last with the final two tunes. Easy Now is absolutely gorgeous, a study in dark/light contrasts with an ominous, dramatic low brass-driven intro lit up by drummer Anwar Marshall’s blazing cymbals. Trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt and then baritone saxophonist Mark Allen go from pensive to assured and playful over Evans’ wary, wounded gospel-tinged lines; it winds up on a roaring, powerful note. The album concludes with the rich sepia tones of Jena 6, a track that also appears on Evans’ superb Tarbaby album from last year, referencing the Arkansas students persecuted in the wake of a 2007 attack by white racists. A lyrical Neil Podgurski piano intro begins the harrowing narrative with an ominous series of slow, portentous gospel-tinged crescendos. As Jaleel Shaw’s alto moves from genial swing to unhinged cadenzas and anguished overtones while the orchestra cooks behind him and then leaves him out to wail all alone, the effect is viscerally stunning. Count this among the most richly satisfying albums of 2010 so far. Evans will be interviewed on NPR’s A Blog Supreme this Friday the 25th; the album is just out on Posi-Tone.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments