In the Valley
Recently we’ve seen projects blending the music of Africa and the Middle East. Bandleader and bass clarinetist Todd Marcus takes a slightly different tact in blending Arab (specifically Egyptian music with American jazz on this stimulating project featuring a nonet. Marcus’ dad is an Egyptian and the musician has been traveling to the country since he was a child. This is not his first foray tapping into the music of that country as his compositional themes in 2015’s Blues for Tahir portrayed the Arab Spring movement that took place in Egypt in 2011. Here, he is able to reflect through the music more of his family’s visit to the country in 2015, having visited the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. As he says, “One of the highlights is the city of Luxor which includes two major temples on one side of the Nile and then the Valley of the Kings on the other side of the river.” Thus, the album title. Marcus indicates that most of the compositions use Middle Eastern harmonic content and that all of them reflect some aspect of Egypt, our culture, and his family. Whereas his previous effort was political, this is more personal.
The Baltimore-based Marcus Jazz Orchestra includes some of the brightest names on the scene, some from the Baltimore area and others from New York – Greg Tardy (tenor sax), Brent Birckhead (flute and alto sax), Russell Kirk (alto sax), Alex Norris (trumpet), Alan Ferber (trombone), Xavier Davis (piano), Jeff Reed (bass) and Eric Kennedy (drums). Rather uniquely the leader, Todd Marcus, exclusively plays bass clarinet. Together they create entrancing, cinematic music, as if a score for a journey along the Nile River.
They kick off with the spirited brass section carrying “Horus,” named after the ancient Egyptian deity who has the head of a falcon and the body of a man, and still serves today as the logo for Egypt Airlines. You’ll hear some Arabic scales, a energetic drum break by Kennedy, and exchanges in call and response fashion from the various horns. “The Hive” is meant to connote the bustling activity in the city of Cairo, order within the madness so to speak as the city has no lanes or traffic lights. It builds in intensity with solos from Ferber, Kirk, Tardy, Birckhead, and Norris before reaching a dynamic climax. This motif of the Cairo streets takes on even more color in “Cairo Street Ride” as sections capture the pitch of a car’s tire on the road as it speeds up and slows down, the shifting of gears, horns beeping at each other, and music replicated form an actual cab driver’s radio during Marcus’ 2015 visit. The rhythm section of Davis, Reed, and Kennedy are highly engaged in this one, first as a unit, and then laying down tricky rhythm patterns over which the horns solo, blow in unison, or contrapuntally. This piece may be the most cinematic of all, at times evoking the kinds of score one associates with James Bond films.
“Final Days” steps away from Egypt and is the most personal of the compositions. It was written in the winter of 2016-17 upon the leader’s last visit to the home where he grew up in New Jersey, just months after has father had passed. He later added sections to capture the winter wind blowing over snow on the yard and shadows of trees falling on his family’s home of 40 years. It begins in a somber timbre and continues to evoke the kind of bleak winter imagery the writer intended. Principal soloists are on the lower end, Marcus and Ferber but the piece has the strongest ensemble passages on the disc. The triumphant title track closes as we return to Egypt in an effort to capture the grandeur of ancient Egyptian sites in the Valley of the Kings. Marcus admits that he nods directly to typical music soundtracks used in documentaries about ancient Egypt to produce this feeling of grandeur. Within the ten minutes each musician has a chance to step forward, with Davis’ piano solo especially impressive.
Marcus and his musicians do an exceptional job of evoking visual and cultural imagery, not an easy endeavor given the challenging material which they deftly navigate.
- Jim Hynes