Last night Smalls was packed for the New York debut of the Todd Marcus Orchestra’s new Middle Eastern jazz suite In the Valley. Much as the band onstage was cooking, these people had come to listen. Bass clarinetist and bandleader Marcus gets a mighty sound, bigger than you would expect from a nine-piece outfit. Part of that stems from Marcus’ use of the whole sonic spectrum, Gil Evans-style. The other is how much gravitas he builds in the lows, best exemplified by the punchy contrapuntal interweave during the first set’s towering final number, Horus, Marcus teaming up with trombonist Alan Ferber against the highs: Troy Roberts’ tenor sax, Brent Birckhead’s alto and Alex Norris’ trumpet, pianist Xavier Davis hitting the midrange hard.
Marcus’ compositions draw a pretty obvious comparison to Amir ElSaffar’s work. But Marcus relies more on chromatics than distinctly microtonal melodies, and typically employs the traditional jazz model featuring individual soloists instead of pairings of musicians or seesawing between contrasting frequencies. And as formidable as Marcus’ orchestra is, it’s smaller than ElSaffar’s current huge ensemble: if ElSaffar is the Red Sea, Marcus is the Nile.
Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, and the suite draws heavily on his recent travels there. The group opened with the towering, cinematically suspenseful, chromatically pulsing title track, inspired by the Valley of Kings, featuring long, methodically crescendoing solos from Norris and Roberts. The night’s most colorful number was Cairo Street Ride, a depiction of a crazy cab negotiating what Marcus called “controlled chaos.” Rising from a bustling thicket of voices, the music straightened out with a jaunty bounce and eventually an irresistibly funny interlude where the cab’s engine revs up, then the driver shifting through the gearbox. People still drive stickshift in Egypt!
Ferber got to add some wry, Wycliffe-style humor of his own in the next tune, The Hive, the bandleader finally adding a rapidfire, spiraling solo of his own over the band’s lustre. The brooding ballad Final Days built artful variations on a somber stairstepping riff anchored by Jeff Reed’s bass. And the closing epic was a real showstopper. Drummer Eric Kennedy took a regally tumbling solo against Davis’ eerily circling piano loops as it gained momentum, Marcus launching into the most wildly gritty, intense solo of the night before the jousting at the end kicked in. Chamber Music America, who commissioned this piece, got plenty of bang for the buck. And that was just the first set.
You’ll see this on the best concerts of 2017 page here later this month.