Todd Marcus – “Inheritance”


I listen to a ton of albums in any given year.  The process can be a bit dizzying.  I keep lists by way of attempting to create an infrastructure that prevents good albums from slipping past me.  First listens are a capricious method for determining whether an album should receive a write-up, and sometimes the stars are woefully misaligned for me and a decent album to connect.  So, I’ve got these lists to remind me to revisit certain albums.  Thank god for that, too, because I might’ve overlooked one of best albums of 2012.

On Inheritance, Todd Marcus works with two different quartets, though, thankfully, it doesn’t end up sounding like two different recordings forced into one.  In fact, these are tight compositions across the board, regardless of the line-up on any particular track.  Most remarkably, perhaps, is that Marcus leads these quartets on bass clarinet, an instrument that is tough to wield, and tougher to add as an ingredient to a seamlessly clean operation.  Bass clarinet is messy.  It slurs its words and spills notes and if it does manage to swing, it’s a warbled affair.  And those aren’t criticisms of bass clarinet.  They are part of its charm.  That, and a resounding soulfulness deep as the ocean and clear as a forest stream.  Bass clarinet doesn’t appeal to everyone, but those who do worship at its altar do so with a religious fervor.  Count me amongst that crowd.

So, when I listen to Marcus blow on bass clarinet with a fluidity that reflects a meticulous refinement as much as its natural lyricism, well, that grabbed my ear big time.

Your album personnel: Quartet 1: Todd Marcus (bass clarinet, clarinet), George Colligan (piano), Warren Wolf (drums), Eric Wheeler (bass), and guest Jon Seligman (percussion, 1 track). Quartet 2: Todd Marcus (bass clarinet, clarinet), Xavier Davis (piano), Eric Wheeler (bass), Eric Kennedy (drums), and guest: Don Byron (clarinet, 3 tracks).

The album starts and ends with a throwback to the hard-bop days of the sixties.  Powerful flap of wings, drives through the wind while soaring, and always hits the nest with a thump.  Opener “The Adventures of Kang and Kodos” immediately showcases Marcus’s ability to sprint on bass clarinet.  Whereas on “Wahsouli,” a surging tempo pounds the shore relentlessly, and at times is reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’s expressions of melody on his classic 60s Blue Note recordings.  Album finale and title-track “Inheritance” has Marcus bringing the volume, putting on display the bass clarinet’s ability to coherently shout its notes up to the ceiling.  Pianist Colligan builds on his strong performance on previous track “Blues for Tahrir” with a section that matches Marcus leap for leap.  On bass, Wheeler sounds like he’s having a ball.  That kind of enthusiasm is infectious.

The most intriguing album tunes add some Middle-East flavor to the mix.  Marcus’s Egyptian heritage certainly must bring this to bear.  The duo-composition of “Herod (Part I)” and “Herod (Part II)” have that intoxicating harmonization that provides a sense of mystery and the sound of intrigue.  Furthermore, the concentration on harmonization atop melodies makes for all kinds of beautiful.  That this beauty manifests in the atypical bass clarinet setting, that’s just extra shine on an already lustrous diamond.

Following on the heels of the heavy “Herod” (Parts One and Two), Marcus somehow avoids any incongruity with the lighthearted “Bye Bye Blackbird.”  In fact, the crisp transition is all the more remarkable when viewed in the light that it’s also a transition between quartets.  But compositional elements other than “mood” often play a bigger role in the arrangement of the lay of the land, and so when Marcus kicks up a playful groove that gets the head bopping and fingers snapping, it’s accentuated with a somber down note or two… just enough to give the listener a small taste of the track now positioned in the album’s rear view mirror.  Little things like that make all the difference sometimes.

A short reprise on the two-part “Herod” occurs next, with “Herod (Reflections).”  The simmering tension of wailing clarinet, arco bass, Davis murmuring on piano, and Kennedy’s shuddering percussion leaves the impression of dirge-as-afterthought.  It’s splendid, both as interlude and as opposite bookend around “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

“Solstice” brings some wonderful interplay between Byron’s clarinet and Marcus’s bass clarinet.  Harmonies are an obvious winning characteristic, though I’m personally more smitten with the way Byron and Marcus hand off the baton to one another as they trade individual sections and also when they share the spotlight.  For the most part, it’s gently swaying tune, but solos raise the temperature at times.

This leads into a rendition of Monk’s “Epistrophy,” which gives the artists a chance to go to town.  After a fiery Marcus solo on bass clarinet, Davis takes the standard for a spin on piano.  On an album that serves up serious music, the addition of “Epistrophy” is refreshingly playful.  However, it serves the dual role of highlighting just how fluid Marcus is on bass clarinet, that he can bring a conventional tune the same tonal sharpness that he gives his less conventional originals.

There’s a lot of these kinds of watermark moments.  Just an all-around impressive performance.

Released on the Hipnotic Records label.

Jazz from the Baltimore, MD scene.

Available at Amazon: CD | MP3