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

Gregg August and Sextet Smolder at Smoke

On one level, it could be said that bassist Gregg August and his band put on a clinic in straight-ahead latin-flavored postbop last night at Smoke. But the show was also just plain good fun: the sextet’s judicious exuberance was contagious. Much as August’s compositions can be rigorously cerebral and often very intense, they’re just as catchy  The solo of the night – at least from the generously expansive first set – was from Yosvany Terry on alto sax, who began with a goodnatured nonchalance and worked his way methodically and increasingly apprehensively to a shivery, menacing coda on For Max, a wickedly hook-driven, vintage Miles Davis-inflected number from August’s latest album Four by Six. Trumpeter John Bailey channeled his inner bluesman, tenor saxophonist John Ellis worked the corners dynamically over the sometimes incisively dancing, sometimes radiantly resonant piano of Xavier Davis, drummer Rudy Royston pushing the clave by riding the rims, throwing elbows at August with playful polyrhythms. And for all of August’s wry wit – most noticeably during a solo late in the set, where he seemed to draw a blank and then decided to make a good joke out of it – his music is serious. Darkness and transcendence were in full effect.

They only did the traditional solos-around-the-horn thing once, on the opening number, Deceptions, Royston more than hinting that he was in the mood for more than a steady swing groove,  finally taking it outside as August held the rhythm in place, switching to terse, even minimal, from out of a tirelessly racewalking pace. The night’s second tune built on a ridiculously catchy ensemble hook from the horns over clave syncopation – that groove was nearly ubiquitous even when it was implied, which was much of the time. A little later, they mixed up the beats with an epically intense take of Sweet Melody, a dark salsa jazz piece, Davis building noir ambience with lingering, glimmering chromatics over Royston’s hypnotically simple pulse, Terry switcing to chekere and energizing the crowd with his agility on the big rattle. They gracefully faded down all but one of the songs, which made sense considering that everybody in the band is busy with other projects (August is first chair bassist in the Brooklyn Phiharmonic and also joins forces with Royston in JD Allen’s trio), and may not have had much rehearsal time at their disposal. But any chance to see August lead a band and play his own music is a treat, and made the trip uptown to this cozy, sonically rich spot well worth the effort.

February 7, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Auspicious Studio Debut of the Christian McBride Big Band

If you think that kids only have an interest in stuff that’s on the web, talk to students in a jazz program, or just young people who’ve just found their jazz muse. The excitement is visceral – they’ve been waiting patiently for Christian McBride’s first album with his big band, titled The Good Feeling, just out on Mack Avenue. That excitement may be quaint, but it’s inspiring all the same. From the perspective of seeing McBride do some of these tunes live earlier this year, the cool kids are right (they always are) – the album was worth the wait.

Auspiciously, in a lot of places, this evokes nothing less than Mingus. Which makes sense – McBride is to the teens what Mingus was for a couple of decades, simply the most respected jazz bassist around. His approach characteristically balances excitement with gravitas, and occasionally a sly sense of humor. From the gleefully chugging baritone sax-and-bass intro to the opening swing number, Shake N Blake to the closing cut, In a Hurry, it’s a tuneful, meticulously arranged ride. The opening track sets the stage: a long expansive tenor solo cut off by big brass blasts, trumpeter Nicholas Payton being his good-natured self, trombonist Steve Davis taking it into apprehensively fluttering territory, and a cleverly tiptoeing solo by the bandleader himself that eventually starts stomping and brings the band back joyously.

The second track, Broadway, begins with Ron Blake’s understated soprano sax driving against the lush arrangement, with a long, deviously bluesy, literally unstoppable McBride solo. This version of the clave classic Brother Mister (which McBride also covered on his Kind of Brown album) gets a pillowy, staccato brass chart, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson sailing over the impatient rhythm section, with a bracing blast of brass setting off the second chorus as the whole band spins in a vortex. Live in concert in Manhattan earlier this summer, the song was every bit the casual showstopper it is here. The album’s centerpiece is a genuine classic, a titanic, practically twelve-minute version of Science Fiction (from McBride’s 2000 album Sci-Fi). It’s a noir suite straight out of Mingus: conspiratorial chatter over a clave beat; a blistering, fast swing shuffle with a bracing Todd Bashore alto sax solo; a chilling low-register bridge that goes straight to the murder scene, Xavier Davis’ piano fueling a riff that evokes Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver Theme.

The Shade of the Cedar Tree makes its way through to a clever false ending with Payton’s cool, bluesy vibe, Blake’s tenor interpolated judiciously against the towering ambience. Nat Cole’s I Should Care shifts from practically ethereal to surprisingly brooding, but Payton picks it up wryly and Blake keeps it going in that direction. They do A Taste of Honey as a jazz waltz – that one will resonate more with those who prefer the Herb Alpert version over the Beatles’. With its blazing crescendos and gingerly pointillistic bass/piano tradeoffs, Blues in Alphabet City vividly evokes the days when the Lower East Side New York neighborhood was interesting, before it turned into a wasteland of suburban conspicuous consumption. The album closes with the rapidfire swing of In a Hurry, Payton taking his time before he goes absolutely ballistic, McBride balancing intensity with a dark wit as he bows his solo, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. bringing in a thinly disguised, jaunty second line rhythm

The rest of the orchestra deserves a shout-out as well: Todd Williams on tenor and flute; Loren Schoenberg (maestro of the Jazz Museum in Harlem) on tenor on two tunes; Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix and Nabate Isles on trumpets; Michael Dease and James Burton on trombones; Douglas Purviance on bass trombone; and Melissa Walker on vocals. When uploading to your phone or your pod, you may want to omit the vocal tunes: it’s not that Walker doesn’t sing them well, it’s just that trying to squeeze substance out of material like When I Fall in Love is like getting getting blood from a stone.

September 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment