Friday, March 27, 2020

CD Review: Todd Marcus - Trio+

Todd Marcus
(Stricker Street)

When jazz melodies are compared to folk music, it usually means the music in question is built on a more simplistic set of notes. Rather than relying on complex chords and chromatic melodies, the building blocks are drawn on a scale similar to  I-IV-V changes without necessarily falling into a 12-bar blues pattern. Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman both wrote music that could be hummed easily and they were also some of the few who could take these simple patterns and build something unique off of it. The problem with some other performers who stick to patterns like this is the music can sound predictable and almost safe.

Todd Marcus draws on some basic harmonic patterns on Trio+ but there's nothing safe or staid on the album. Instead, the bass clarinetist shines a light on new possibilities that exist in time-honored styles, and he uses it to come up with something fresh. "Cantata," the one track where he swaps out his bass clarinet for its smaller B-flat cousin, builds on a rubato melody that has a somewhat folkloric structure. But his execution, and that of bassist Jeff Reed, never sounds maudlin. This is rapturous and adventurous music that takes its time unfolding, all of that time well spent.  "Amy Pookie" might have a cutesy title (it's dedicated to his wife) but its stop-start feeling evokes Ornette Coleman's "Congeniality," an inspiration that fuels the trio, who are joined on this track and few others by trumpeter Sean Jones.

Based in the Baltimore/DC area, Marcus has released several CDs already which show him as a devotee of the bass clarinet. They vary in instrumentation and concept, his most recent one being 2018's On These Streets (A Baltimore Story), which combined his music with spoken thoughts from people in the west Baltimore area. (By day, Marcus works as a community activist.) For Trio+ he scales it back to a trio, with Jones sitting in for a quarter of the set and both bassists from the set's two trios coming together in a reading of Bennie Maupin's "Neophilia."

Most of the album features drummer Ralph Peterson with bassist Ameen Saleem. This group kicks off the album in high gear with the four-part "Something Suite." The first movement finds Marcus flying over a driving rhythm that switches from half-time to a walking bass line beneath him. While the word "lyrical" is often overused to describe the way a player sounds during a ballad, it feels appropriate for the third movement because the melody sounds like it could have come from a set of lyrics. This section, especially, is where Marcus uses a folk-like structure and finds great power in it.

Any bass clarinet player worth their salt will think of Eric Dolphy when they play and Marcus pays homage in the liner notes. He takes his predecessor's cue in an intro to "How Deep Is the Ocean" by playing a duet with Reed that has the same impact as Dolphy's work with Richard Davis. They blend so well that they almost sound like one instrument at times during the track. If that weren't enough, the trio (here with Eric Kennedy on drums) plays the standard in a swinging 5/4.

The bass clarinet might still be on the fringes of jazz, known more as an instrument that a sax player doubles on instead of a primary ax. A player like Jason Stein devotes all his time to the low woody instrument but while he might be more associated with freer music, Todd Marcus sees himself more as a straight ahead player. (Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite inspired his "Something Suite.") If Trio+  is a more straightforward jazz album it still comes with an aggressive delivery not unlike a free group that has something to prove. For all of these reasons, it shouldn't be missed.

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