Monday, August 31, 2015

Coltrane Time

I recently performed at Jimmy Mak's in Portland with trombonist Steve Turre. In addition to having drummer Charlie Doggett on the bandstand, our bassist was the great Chuck Israels. During the soundcheck, Turre and Israels were trading great stories. One story came up regarding the fact that Israels had recorded with Cecil Taylor. I said, "Really?" Israels elaborated on a record date from 1958, when Israels was 18 years old. The recording, now known as "Coltrane Time," was actually originally released under Cecil Taylor's name  in 1959 as "Hard Driving Jazz." The line up is Israels on bass, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, and Louis Hayes on drums.

What? That is an INSANE line up. I had never heard this recording. I can only imagine what it would be like for an 18 year old bassist, to get to record with these legends. I looked up the recording on wikipedia, and there is mention of a "tension filled" recording session. " Everyone says that there was tension, but it's not true," said Israels. " Everyone was very nice and it was a surprisingly smooth date." Israels
Chuck Israels
mentioned that it took a minute to adjust to Cecil Taylor's comping, which, if you take a listen, is definitely providing some rhythmic tension, but the contrast in personal styles is fascinating. When I went home and checked out the recording, I was surprised at how " inside" Cecil Taylor sounds; he's making the form and the changes, but in a very abstract way. " They even recorded my tune, 'Double Clutching,' which was a contrapuntal exercise."

If you get a minute, give this one a listen. Musicians often joke about putting together strange rhythm sections and collections of players( for example, " Hey, what about a band with Kenny G on sax, Al Hirt on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Henry Grimes on bass, and Alex Van Halen on drums? Totally RAD, dude!"). However, all kidding aside, sometimes weird line ups of musicians that might seem like an odd fit can produce intriguing results.

Monday, August 10, 2015

"Blues For Tahir," Todd Marcus' Journey to Egypt Through Baltimore

Baltimore based Bass Clarinetist, composer, and bandleader Todd Marcus has mastered his own destiny with his latest release, Blues For Tahir( Hipnotic). On this new release, Marcus and his Jazz Orchestra hit all the crucial marks for ensemble playing, expressive improvisations, and bringing the compositions to life. Marcus' work here has a strong Middle Eastern influence which is evident in many of the main melodies; indeed, the theme of the album is an exploration of Marcus' Egyptian heritage, as well as a programmatic expression of the recent political and social upheaval in Egypt. However, this above all is a modern jazz record which leans towards composers like Jamie Baum, Michelle Rosewoman, and Kenny Wheeler, if not John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Furthermore, the improvisations from Marcus and alto saxophonist Russell Kirk ( and to a lesser extent tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy) show a strong influence of Baltimore's own tenor saxophonist, Peabody jazz program director and musical original Gary Thomas. Add in Baltimoreons like bassist Jeff Reed, drummer Eric Kennedy and percussionist Jon Seligman, as well as my former Peabody classmate and now Peabody professor , trumpeter Alex Norris, and this music is as much about the state of jazz in Baltimore as it is about the state of Egypt.

Although this is described as a Jazz Orchestra, it's really more of a large chamber group, and the balance of ensemble playing and solo space throughout "Blues For Tahir" is superb. Marcus knows how to combine bass clarinet, flute, trumpet, alto, and trombone in a way that is impressive without trying too hard. The bass clarinet in ensembles like this often functions as doubling the bass line ( with the piano also on "Many Moons") or merely to add exotic color ( I'm sure you could ask  bass clarinetist Benny Maupin about that!) but Marcus insists that the bass clarinet can also be upfront. Marcus often solos in the mid to high register of the instrument, weaving complex lines which surely show the influence of Gary Thomas' linear concept. Marcus features himself sufficiently without denying his excellent bandmates some chances to blow. I wasn't familiar with alto saxophonist and flautist Brent Birckhead but he takes a marvelous turn on "Protest," in an aggressive post-Coltrane, post-Kenny Garrett type of blowing against a modern version of "stop-time."

"Alien" features solos from virtuoso trombonist Alan Ferber and pianist Xavier Davis, who throughout the album shows his considerable prowess as a accompanist. The rhythm section of Davis, bassist Jeff Reed ( who has a beautiful feature on "Tears On The Square"), drummer Eric Kennedy( who burns it up on "Washouli") and the addition of percussionist Jon Seligman( who is also an incredible drummer) is the foundation of this group and helps to solidify the music. ( One thing I noticed while listening to " Reflections" is that whatever type of drum is being played by Seligman has an overtone which "clashes" with the G7 suspended sonority prevalent throughout the section. It's not a bad thing; it adds to the exoticism. I'm not sure if it was intentional but it sounds cool.)I was a bit concerned at first about where "Summertime," George Gershwin's classic, was going to fit on this recording, but Marcus puts his own stamp on it, and most importantly, gives his lead trumpeter Alex Norris a chance to burn out.

Todd Marcus has really come into his own with "Blues For Tahir." It's a showcase for Marcus' playing, writing, and thoughtful artistry.