Todd Marcus Releases a Vivid, Bittersweet, Fearlessly Relevant Celebration of Freddie Gray-Era Baltimore

by delarue

Todd Marcus’ hard-hitting new suite On These Streets: A Baltimore Story – streaming at Bandcamp, more or less – was released this past April 27 to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Freddie Gray. Gray was thrown in a Baltimore police van just a few blocks from Marcus’ dayjob at the nonprofit Intersection of Change, where he works as a community organizer. Over the past two years, the world’s only bass clarinetist big band leader found himself at ground zero, immersed in the furor over the killing. This quintet recording is a sometimes grim, bittersweet reflection on the events that brought Baltimore to its knees in April of 2015, and afterward.

And it’s as relevant as any protest jazz from the Civil Rights era, right up there with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Although Marcus’ music is profoundly lyrical, spoken-word passages by community members provide additional context in between a handful of the album’s individual tracks. It’s not only one of the year’s best jazz records –  it’s one of the most potently catchy albums of 2018 in any style of music.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, so it’s no surprise that his music often draws as much on the Middle East as it does on African-American traditions. Marcus’ long, darkly magisterial solo in the album’s opening cut, On the Corner, finally brightens as a latin noir groove picks up, George Colligan’s piano spiraling through Marcus’ chromatics.

A local pastor introduces Marcus’ hometown shout-out An Intersection of Change, underscoring community efforts to combat crushing poverty and a persistent scourge of heavy drugs by reclaiming real estate, creating arts programs and providing rehab for addicts  – in other words, everything a reasonable government should be doing with taxpayer money. The song itself begins as a brightly propulsive, bustling shuffle, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone and Colligan’s piano rippling over drummer Eric Kennedy’s restless rustle until an ominous march foreshadows what’s to come.

Ground Zero (At Penn and North) is a real Shostakovian showstopper, drenched in sarcasm: a big splash for an intro, more of that march theme, a wickedly hard-charging Marcus solo contrasting with Paul Bollenback’s guitar, endless unison head-bobbing and then frantic scampering from Colligan up to a hard charge out. A Baltimore city councilman comments bitterly that “This is bigger than Freddie Gray, this is about social economics…lack of opportunities…this isn’t about West Baltimore, this could occur anywhere.”

Marcus’ brooding, spare low-register solos and Davis’ incisive drive propel Fear of the Known, centered by Kris Funn’s emphatic bass. Bollenback flares acidcally, then hands off to the bandleader’s biting Arabic chromatics.

PTSD in the Hood brings back the brooding clave of the album’s opening cut but more insistently – bad memories come back to haunt you with a vengeance. This time Marcus is both more somber and more frantic, and the march is more of a sotto-voce strut.

Fueled by Wolf’s carillon-like cascades and the rhythm section’s frenetic swing, Pennsylvania Avenue Hustle is Marcus’ salute to Baltimore’s former jazz mecca Pennsylvania Avenue, at one time a counterpart to New York’s 52nd St. and New Orleans’ Bourbon District.

The carefree wee-hour tableau It Still Gets Still is Marcus’ Harlem Nocturne, if a lot more expansive, lit up by Wolf’s twinkling solo: troubled as inner cities may be, all hope is not lost there. Marcus bookends Colligan and Wolf’s comfortable late-night cascades in Covered in Snow with a somberly anthemic theme 

The album closes with NJ ’88 (Ode to the 80s), a steady, catchy, workmanlike salute to Marcus’ New Jersey upbringing, with a dancing bass solo at the center: obviously he had cooler parents than most. Talk to somebody who spent time there as a kid. Most of them couldn’t wait to escape to the East Village…which they’d be priced out  of less than a decade later. 

Lucky Baltimoreans can catch Marcus leading a quartet at a rare, free daytime show on May 20 at 3:30 PM at Second Presbyterian Church at 4200 St. Paul St.

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