Michael Marcus

The Magic Door
NotTwo MW 777-2

Michael Marcus & Ted Daniel

Duology

Boxholder BXH 052

After years of concentrating on playing most members of the saxophone family from soprano to baritone, evidently New York-based Michael Marcus has chosen to concentrate on the B flat clarinet – at least that’s what these recent sessions suggest.

Framed in three different playing situations – Duology is, no surprise a duo with brass man Ted Daniel, while The Magic Door opens on three different trios and one quartet line-up – but the focus is still on Marcus. As notable as his plays is, both discs miss the front rank through omission. An absent rhythmic thrust detracts from the first CD’s resolution, whereas except for Daniel Levin’s slashing cello lines on three numbers, the second disc lacks a counterbalance to Marcus’s horn.

To get an idea of how far music has evolved since the advent of Ornette Coleman, many of the tunes on Duology seem manifestly Mainstream, even as they reflect the duets of Coleman associates clarinetist John Carter and trumpeter Bobby Bradford in the 1970s. That shouldn’t be too surprising, since Daniels, who plays trumpet, flugelhorn, Moroccan bugle and cornet here, is associated with such first-generation Free Jazzers as saxophonist Sam Rivers and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Marcus too works extensively with musicians of that and the previous generation, most notably saxophonist Sonny Simmons and pianist Jaki Byard.

Another New Thinger who played with both men, the late tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, is the subject of a mellow threnody on “Sweet ‘N’ Lowe”. Here Marcus provides pitch-sliding node vibrations that accelerate into upper-register bird cries, later to be joined by Daniel’s chromatic flugelhorn runs.

Many of the tunes evolve in double counterpoint or unison polyphony, with thematic variations often recapping the heads – a style that is also prominent in Marcus’ work with larger ensembles. However the most notable tracks on Duology are those on which the two move further out.

“Module”, for instance, follows whistling split tones from the clarinet with brassy insouciance from Daniel, who almost appears to be playing the “William Tell Overture”. “Lunar Shuffle” is a bravura performance characterized by hocketing lines and broken-octave shuffling, squeaking and expanding cadenzas from the two men, which both harmonize and highlight primitive call-and-response. “Sonic Corridors” extends this motif still further so that each player is somehow harmonizing in broken chords. As each man plays a variation on the melody, Daniels’s chromatic lines and Marcus’ fluttering chirps eventually recap the head in unison.

Then there’s “Spiral Landscapes”. This track features an atmospheric landscape of pitted tones interrupted by mid-range clarinet trills and slurry cornet burrs, that soon turns to atonal corkscrew whispering involving reed bites and rubato brass grace notes. As Daniel maintains the simple melody, Marcus inaugurates his response with fluttering split tones. Brass growls and andante reed trills herald the contrapuntal unison finale with both men playing a half-step apart.

Similar strategies exist on The Magic Door, which wisely also limits extended soloing. Three trios are featured with Marcus. Bassist Eric Revis and drummer Newman Taylor Baker make up one; bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Jay Rosen another; and Rosen with bassist François Grillot the last.

Individually, the Carter/Rosen team contributes walking bass lines and press rolls to “Hey Pee Wee”, which is supposed to honor idiosyncratic clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. Oddly enough though, Marcus’ tone here is more clean that squeaky, so that he seems to be saluting the precise intonation of Benny Goodman not Russell’s. Likewise, on Revis/Baker’s sole appearance “Morning Daffodil”, the tune is placid and moderato with legato reed peeps that gradually insinuate themselves among shuffling drum runs and thickening bass thumps.

Marcus/Rosen/Grillot is a better fit. On “Dark Sun”, for instance, the trio assays a ballad tempo which moves from allegro to adagio without losing any of its low-key appeal. It’s also notable for the bassist’s guitar-like finger styling and the clarinetist’s mid-range, sibilant pitch-sliding. In contrast “Wiggle Room” is a finger snapper, characterized by rolling and rumbling Rosen, walking Grillot and Marcus’ double-tongued lightness.

However, the three most successfully exhibit their talents on the almost nine-minute “Abstractions in Lime Caverns”. Given its length, there is ample space for rolling and echoing drum beats, mid-range arco string-stopping and high-pitched reed trills, with the entire performance unrolling with relaxed cohesion. Side-slipping from altissimo squeals to basso cawing, Marcus is all sluicing aggression, Grillot’s strumming is almost supple enough to come from a 12-string guitar, while Rosen’s mallet patterning and rim shots are constantly inventive.

But for all the virtuosity shown, these tracks should change the vector with contrasting coloration. That neatly arrives in the form of Levin’s cello, which is only featured on three tunes. Most notably there’s “Sunset Falling in the Mirrors”, a sectional construction built on a resonating bass line with contrapuntal spiccato asides from the cellist and serpentine wiggles from the clarinetist. After the theme is established, the subsequent variation speed up via higher-pitched flutter-tongued clarinet trills, and smashing percussion dumps. Still quicker, the next variation centres on double counterpoint between clarinet and cello on top of a steady andante bass line and ringing cymbals. The cymbals set up the final variation which concludes with Levin cross plucking along with Grillot and slippery squeaks from Marcus.

As impressive is “Sonic Corridors”, sort of a freebop foot-tapper. Here the double counterpoint between the cellist and reedist involves rapid tremolo slices from Levin and flutter-tonguing from Marcus. Squeaking to raise the emotional ante, the clarinetist then vacates the field to Levin who brews an agitato response studded with sul tasto lines and thick pizzicato thumps – until the head is recapped.

Surprising conservative, unless your only reference point is the musical neo-cons, both discs can satisfy those particularly interested in any of he musicians, as well as modern clarinet playing.

Throughout, however, no one tune rises to the front rank. Perhaps though, if Daniel could be persuaded to join forces with Marcus, Levin, Rosen and Grillot something really exceptional could result. Any takers?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Magic: 1. The Magic Door* 2. Hey Pee Wee (for Pee Wee Russell)# 3. Blue Reality 4. Sonic Corridors* 5. Abstractions in Lime Caverns 6. One More Minute 7. Morning Daffodil^& 8. Circular Worlds, Sitting Lights 9. Sunset Falling in the Mirrors*

Personnel: Magic: Michael Marcus (Bb clarinet); Daniel Levin (cello*); François Grillot [all tracks but 2 and 7], Rashaan Carter# or Eric Revis^ (bass); Jay Rosen [all tracks but 7] or Newman Taylor Baker& (drums)

Track Listing: Duology: Track listing: 1. Knock Knock 2. Sonic Corridors 3. Dark Sun 4. O.C. 5. Spiral Landscapes 6. Module 7. Pagan Spain 8. Wiggle Room 9. Human Factor 10. Lunar Shuffle 11. Cotton Candy 12. Sweet ‘N’ Lowe (for Frank Lowe) 13. Rhythm In Green.

Personnel: Duology: Ted Daniel (trumpet, flugelhorn, Moroccan bugle and cornet) and Michael Marcus (Bb clarinet)