Blue Notes: Todd Marcus, Ralph Peterson, and the Rufus Reid Quintet

City Paper
  • Todd Marcus’ new album, “Blues for Tahrir,” was inspired by the recent upheavals in Egypt: not only the elation of deposing first the right-wing dictator Hosni Mubarak, then the religious fundamentalist Mohamed Morsi, but also the despair of reinstated military rule. Marcus’ father was born in Cairo, so he has a familial connection to that city’s Tahrir Square where the largest demonstrations took place. But he is also a community organizer in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, so the title suite also reflects the elation of the 2008 U.S. election and the subsequent disappointments in Ferguson and the House of Representatives.
  • The album also reflects the early-’60s example of Charles Mingus, who worked with similar bands with nine to 12 members. Like acoustic bassist Mingus, bass clarinetist Marcus leads from the bottom of the sonic spectrum, pushing his bandmates to swing like a small combo even as they’re building rich harmonies like a big band. Marcus, trumpeter Alex Norris, trombonist Alan Ferber, saxophonists Greg Tardy, Russell Kirk, and Brent Birckhead, percussionist Jon Seligman, and the hornlike vocals of Irene Jalenti stretch the chords in the leader’s compositions, which keep developing themes when other jazz pieces would be content to merely repeat.
  • The four-movement, 24-minute title suite is a tour de force of jazz writing, weaving Mideastern motifs into a classic American jazz vocabulary and taking the listener on the emotional roller coaster of any political movement. The most arresting piece, though, may be ‘Many Moons,’ which begins with an intoxicating, horns-only reverie and then shifts into an anchoring riff that is at once tuneful and funky. Seven of the 11 musicians from the recording session, including Gibraltar-like drummer Eric Kennedy, will be on hand when the Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra hosts a CD release concert at An Die Musik Live on Oct. 31.
  • Ralph Peterson has long pursued parallel careers in jazz: as a sideman drummer for such luminaries as David Murray, Charles Lloyd, and Roy Hargrove and as a leader of his own distinctive bands. His most recent vehicle has been the Ralph Peterson Fo’tet, a different kind of jazz quartet. On the group’s latest album, “ALIVE at Firehouse 12, Vol. 2,” clarinetist Felix Peikli and vibist Joseph Doubleday create a surprisingly transparent and tuneful top over the heavy rumble churned up by bassist Alex Claffy and the leader. It works splendidly because Peterson knows when to push forward and when to pull back, allowing the elegant front line and the muscular back line to enjoy an egalitarian give-and-take.
  • The three Peterson originals boast sturdy-enough themes to hold their own with the standards from Chick Corea, Bud Powell, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, and Stevie Wonder. Especially impressive is Peterson’s ‘The Lady in Black,’ a valentine that avoids sentimentality by having the lusty snare and tom drums shove their way in amid the romantic dialogue between cymbals and vibes. The Ralph Peterson Fo’tet performs for the Jazz at Hopkins series on Oct. 25. 
  • The Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society kicks off its 2014-2015 season with the Rufus Reid Quintet on Nov. 2. Reid, the bassist in the Dexter Gordon Quintet when the saxophonist made his triumphant return to the U.S. in 1976, has recorded with everyone from Gordon and Art Farmer to Stan Getz and Andrew Hill.
  • In this century, Reid has emerged as a substantial composer of music for a variety of ensembles. His latest album, “Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project,” was inspired by the legendary sculptor and civil rights activist. A four-movement version of the big-band piece with voice won the Sackler Award in 2006 and was finally recorded as an expanded, five-movement piece at the end of 2012 and released as a terrific album in 2013. The brassy celebrations of triumph are counterpointed by a bass-anchored undertow of struggle.
  • Reid will bring pianist Steve Alee and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix from those sessions to the BCJS show, adding Duduka Da Fonseca on drums and one of Baltimore’s greatest jazz musicians, Gary Bartz, on alto sax.
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