Review: The Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra at An Die Musik Live

Even An Die Musik Live, which boasts a really big stage for a jazz club, was crowded Friday night when all 11 members of the Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra came aboard to play Marcus’ “Blues for Tahrir Suite.” But Marcus’ arrangement of his composition justified the numbers, for every person wove a differently colored thread through the woof of the rhythm and the warp of the harmony.

The evening was supposed to be the album-release party for Marcus’ new recording, “Blues for Tahrir,” but a change in plans turned it into an “album-preview party.” The terrific album was actually on sale at An Die Musik’s tiny second-floor bar, but it won’t be distributed to stores, media or radio until next spring.

So the bandleader's hometown following got an early glimpse at the rich, Mingus-like, Middle Eastern-flavored music Marcus has been writing recently. Audiences in New Jersey, New York and Rockville will also be offered a glimpse as the Jazz Orchestra takes a four-city tour over the Halloween weekend.

Sitting at the center of a semicircle of six horn players—with the four-man rhythm section behind him and vocalist Irene Jalenti ready to make her entrance—Marcus began ‘Ahdan’ with the microtonal warbling of the Islamic call to prayer on his bass clarinet. Marcus is a Christian community organizer in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, but his father was born in Cairo, and his multi-cultural curiosity has led to an inspired blend of American jazz and Egyptian folk music.

That mid-tempo number, featuring solos from alto saxophonist Russell Kirk and pianist Harry Appelman, was followed by the slow hymn, ‘Tears on the Square,’ which opened with a Tom Baldwin bass solo and featured Jalenti singing wordlessly in her rich, low alto, as if she were a seventh horn. ‘Reflections’ began at the same patient tempo, anchored by an arresting, low-pitched motif, before a muscular tenor-sax solo from Greg Tardy pushed both the pacing and the intensity.

Climaxing the suite was ‘Protest,’ a boisterous piece that captured the entangled anger and excitement of the Arab Spring protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Marcus, sporting a tan suit and a red goatee, stood for the first solo, a percolating fountain of notes. Alto saxophonist Brent Birkhead, dressed all in black with long dreads, stood for the second solo, raising the piece's frenzied excitement even higher, thanks to the explosive prodding of drummer Eric Kennedy.

The next jazz concert at An Die Musik Live will be a Nov. 8 solo recital from Mark Soskin, who was Sonny Rollins’ pianist from 1978 through 1991.

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