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.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Drum Genius: Cool App For Practicing

As a full time music teacher and father of 2, I have time finding the time to practice. I used to play and tour constantly, and I'm doing less of that these days. Before I was lucky enough to get called for gigs, I played a lot with the Jamey Aebersold Play A-Long recordings; I still recommend this great series to my students. The recordings feature world class rhythm sections and are a great way to practice keeping time as well as form. It's definitely more fun to play along with an Aebersold recording than a metronome.

Recently, someone recommended a phone app called Drum Genius. It's an app which has an entire menu of jazz drum loops which I believe are either samples or reproductions of loops from players like Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Stewart, and many others. There are many different styles and tempos. When I have a few spare moments, I put on Medium Swing or Fast Swing or Very Fast Swing, and it helps keep my chops up. Obviously, it's not as satisfying as playing with a real band, but it makes practicing way more enjoyable.

I made a little video to demonstrate. I highly recommend this app; I have barely explored it and it's already been inspirational. Check it out!

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Chamber Music America is a wonderful organization which facilitates a boatload of grant money for independent jazz artists. The organization was founded in 1977 and was mostly focused on classical music for small ensembles. Jazz has been a big part of their work since 2000. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation gives money to composers for new works and also money to presenters.
I actually won a Doris Duke grant in 2003, which allowed me to do a number of performances with a quartet featuring Gary Thomas, Drew Gress, and Ralph Peterson. ( We recorded a live record and I wish I could figure out a good way to put it out. There's some incredible stuff on there.)

Most jazz artists are independent these days; some are more independent than others. I'm extremely independent! So I've continued to apply for funding since 2003, and I haven't had any luck. I've applied with many different projects, and music that I thought was original. It's extremely competitive given how many jazz musicians need money out there. I've known extremely talented and able musicians who have applied every year and never gotten a grant. I think they only give 10 a year, so it's very selective. It also depends on who is judging, and that changes every year; some of the judges are more " avant garde" and some are more straight ahead in their tastes, judging from some of the recent winners.

Although I haven't won since 2003, I'm still very much in favor of grant opportunities for jazz musicians. However, I have to comment on the judging process. CMA has made it possible to hear what the judges said about your music and your proposal. Last year, I wanted to get feedback, and  I talked on the phone to a woman who works for CMA, and she read from the judges comments. ( She seemed a little nervous; I wondered how many musicians she had given feedback and if any of them had cursed at her....) I welcome constructive criticism because I want to continue learning and growing as a musicians, and also, maybe I'll learn something and then get a grant in the future. In last year's case, I didn't get much out of the comments; I mostly got the impression that the judges just didn't understand the work I submitted( I sent my "Persian Jazz Suite" which uses Persian scales that have non- western tuning; one judges comment was " The poor intonation really bothers me.").

For some reason, after receiving another rejection letter this year, I decided to ask for written summary feedback. I submitted my Theoretical Planets group( we released a CD on Origin last year.)
I'm very proud of this group, although it is a somewhat young group in terms of experience. Some of the feedback was leaning in that direction- saying that the group was "tight" but not as outstanding as some of the other submissions. It's hard to know what to do with that sort of feedback ( You're good, kid, but just not good enough...).

There was one comment that stood out to me. Panelist number 2 said:

 " Good playing. Derivative. Where is your originality?"

This is borderline insulting to me, as somebody who paid my membership fee to CMA, to get comments like this. Derivative? Because I play a conventional drum set? Because I play a swing beat? Because I've been influenced by earlier jazz music? Whose music is completely original, as in having no discernible influence? If you are going to throw out the word derivative, you really need to be more specific. Also, just because one's music doesn't reinvent the wheel doesn't mean it isn't original. Is Hank Jones original? Is he derivative? Is Kenny Kirkland derivative because he clearly checked out McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock? (If he is, I don't care because he's great!)These are extremely loaded words and it just sounds like Panelist number 2 was in a crappy mood and tired of listening to music all day. ( I feel that, after our third round of juries and auditions this year at PSU, which takes three days of listening to students-- CALGON TAKE ME AWAY!)

So in conclusion, I have a Brooklyn- style message for Panelist Number 2. YO! PANELIST NUMBER 2! WHERE IS MY ORIGINALITY? I'VE GOT YOUR ORIGINALITY RIGHT OVER HERE, RUBBERNECK!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cool Gigs with Sinne Eeg

Sinne Eeg
I've had a busy May in terms of playing. I did a Northwest "tour" with my band Theoretical Planets; we did a cool night at Tula's in Seattle, Washington and then rounded back for an evening at Girasole, a venue in North Portland. Then I headed to Europe for a short tour with guitarist extraordinaire Tom Guarna; we did two nights in Rome at Gregory's, one great concert in Muri, Switzerland, and then a nice gig at A-Trane in Berlin. With little time to rest, I went into the studio with my former student and young saxophone phenom Nicole Glover to record her debut CD as a leader; we had a fun two day session at Kung Fu Bakery. In addition to some trio gigs at Jo Bar, I did a house concert and a night at Wine Up on Williams with another saxophone phenom, Rob Scheps. We had a nice trio with Paul Gabrielson on bass; Scheps had me playing piano, drums, pocket trumpet, and on one tune, drums AND pocket trumpet at the same time. (I didn't shy away from the challenge of playing one handed trumpet, riding with my left hand, and transposing a concert chart on Homecoming by Dave Holland, but if you didn't hear it, I'm cool with that. ) On the house concert, we had a special guest named John Moak, an outstanding trombonist who really knocked me out! I also got to play some drums with a nice trio consisting of piano phenom Dan Gaynor, who is one of Portland's most unsung musicians, and Jon Lakey, a great bassist and musician. We had a nice hit down in Eugene at Roaring Rapids Pizza, one of the best places to play in Oregon. Finally, I got to play on a Master's recital at Michelle's Pianos; Melissa Carroll did a great job with her repertoire selection and her performance of some challenging Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz tunes. It didn't feel like a recital- it felt like a gig! ( Which is what it;s supposed to feel like!)

But perhaps the stand out of the month so far has been two concerts with Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg. I met Eeg in 2008 in a week-long jazz camp in Denmark. We jammed a bit and hit it off musically. We did a tour of Denmark in 2009, and one other hit at the Rochester Jazz Festival in 2011. But I hadn't seen her in a while. She has been staying in Los Angeles recently, so I thought it would be cool to have her come up to Oregon to do some duo playing. We had a really nice concert here at PSU; I think our jazz vocal students were quite impressed.

Sinne Eeg is in some ways a traditional jazz singer; her roots are in Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McCrae. However, she has been writing a lot of her own music, which not only reflects a more forward looking harmonic sense but is also reflective of her own life, which is what artistry is supposed to be, in my opinion. Furthermore, Eeg has been developing her sense of the blues, which was evident in her " I'm An Evil Girl" performance. There's a maturity in her approach that I'm more impressed with now that we are collaborating again after a few years of hiatus. We also got in our two favorite Bonnie Raitt tunes, " I Can't Make You Love Me, " and " I Ain't Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again."

The day after the PSU concert, Sinne Eeg and I drove to sunny Eugene where we performed at the Broadway House Concert series. Paul and Peggy Bodin open their home to the public for jazz concerts which mostly feature musicians from Eugene but occasionally have some out-of-towners like me and Eeg. These days, the lack of venues and lack of support force people to take matters into their own hands, and I'm always interested in supporting grass roots efforts to keep the music alive and keep musicians working. We sold out the "house" and judging from the attentiveness of the audience, I think we were a hit. Hopefully it won't be another 4 years before I hit with Sinne Eeg again!
from the Broadway House Concert

Friday, May 15, 2015

My New Bass Trumpet

Bass Trumpet
Upon arriving back at home in Portland, after a week in Europe, I found a huge box that my wife had put in my office; it turned out to be a bass trumpet which I had ordered from EBAY a few weeks ago. Some of you may remember that I blogged about another ebay purchase, a marching baritone, from a few years ago. The marching baritone was fun, and I did use it a bunch for some home recording; however, it's a heavy instrument, and I didn't end up bringing it out too much for this reason. My bass trumpet is way lighter and just seems more manageable. I'm not really a low brass guy, but I think I could have some fun with this instrument. Bass trumpet is kind of rare, and there are bass trumpets which list for between $2500 to $4000. This Ebay purchase was used for 200 bucks. Some of these bass trumpets are from China. I'm not really sure of the quality; this one seems fine for my purposes. For me it's really about getting used to the embouchure, air, and what we call the "slotting."

Bass trumpets have been used in Wagner's music, but I would say you are way more likely to see a valve trombone than a bass trumpet in jazz. (Still, maybe I can get in the Downbeat poll for miscellaneous instrument.) I decided to post a short clip. Keep in mind, this is really my first attempt. The first valve is a bit slow, and I'm not sure about the intonation, but in general it seems like an ok horn. Maybe I'll become known as " Portland's Best Bass Trumpet Player." Or maybe " The Paul Robeson Of The Trumpet." Maybe I'll do a recording with all bass instruments: bass trumpet, bass clarinet, bass saxophone, bass flute, and .....bass. Oh, and bass drum. Maybe add bass trombone, which is otherwise known as Bass Slide Trumpet......