A Fireside Chat with Michael Marcus

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I've always felt that some of the classic tunes have been great vehicles for improvisation. I feel that if you can go and explore it and tell your own unique story in it that it's still a way of contributing to the music...
I like originals. The way Dolphy mimicked bird sounds, the way Coltrane turned chaos into serenity, Tapscott reaching into the folds of a grand piano and plucking strings like a harp, and sheer instrumental vocabulary of Golia, make listening to this music in this age easier. I like Michael Marcus. He's an original. Jaki Byard liked him and like the philosophy, "how can a billion Chinese people be wrong (reference to rice)," I won't argue with the late pianist's opinion. Marcus' output for the Canadian based Justin Time label has been just as impressive as the label's other notables, David Murray, the World Saxophone Quartet, and Billy Bang. Involution and This Happening, both featuring Byard, were undeniable, but his last two aggregates, In the Center of It All and recently, Sunwheels, are nothing short of hypnotic. And if I hear another dimwitted critic make a Rahsaan reference in a Marcus conversation, I will just have to throw this laptop out the window and with my luck it will hit a passerby and shit hits the proverbial fan. In the end, when most musicians are nothing more than a fucking T-shirt, Marcus is doing the things. As always his words are brought to you without commercial, unedited and in his own words.

Michael Marcus: You have my deepest condolences, Fred. I heard Billy Higgins died.

All About Jazz: He passed away yesterday.

MM: That's very sad, Fred. The first jazz record I ever did, I had the pleasure of being on with, he was on it, 1982, a Sonny Simmons record called Backwoods Suite (West Wind). Billy Higgins was the drummer with Joe Bonner and Herbie Lewis. That was my first jazz record.

AAJ: I have profound regret that he was unheralded in life. Perhaps we will learn to cherish him in death.

MM: Oh, he was the greatest master drummer of the Twentieth Century, well, Twenty-First. I read your really nice review on William Parker.

AAJ: Thank you. Let's start from the beginning.

MM: First, I was exposed to rhythm and blues through the Chess Records, listening to Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, and somebody had exposed me to Lester Young and Charlie Parker. So that's how I got exposed to the music was through the records because unfortunately, I wasn't around where they had that much live music. I grew up in Daly City, which is a suburb of San Francisco, so it was through the records. It was the swing that attracted me so much and the beauty of the tone of those horns, Bird's tone on alto and Lester's tone on tenor, also, Gene Ammons. Yeah, that was real important. Gene Ammons was the third one. I really dug his tone. All three were really great blues players, so after loving the blues so much, we used to hear Albert King and Howlin' Wolf at the Winterland Ballroom. When I heard the tone and the phrasing, it was very attractive to me and it just drew me in. Then once I got a little bit of the essence of the spirituality that was occurring there, I was gone. My first instrument was actually harmonica, which was related to Sonny Boy Williamson. He was my idol from the Chess Records. But then when I heard Jug's tone and Bird's tone and that phrasing, I got an alto saxophone. My first instrument was harmonica.

AAJ: Did you try to mirror Bird's tone?

MM: I never tried to emulate another artist. I've always been a firm believer of being, of trying to express the music in your own image. So I never tried to, Fred. As a matter of fact, Bird's my study. I'm still studying his phraseology and his superior harmonic concept, but I've never tried to copy him. I've always just tried to incorporate their feeling.

AAJ: A likely principle when you bear in mind that you played alongside Sonny Simmons, a superb alto player that is nearly a forgotten soul in today's hype.

MM: Well, the first time that I had the privilege of meeting Sonny was at a blues recording with an Oakland blues guitarist and the Bishop Norman Williams and Eddie Henderson was the other horn on that. I was playing baritone sax at that time because by then, I was playing for a lot of the local blues bands in Oakland like Sonny Rhodes and Charles Brown. I was really into a lot of more avant-garde jazz and I had Sonny's records like The Cry! (Contemporary) and Staying on the Watch (ESP). I was really into Ornette Coleman and I was into Ken McIntyre and Bill Dixon. So I had that stuff and this guy had told me that there was an alto player coming there that really sounded like Bird. I thought it was the Bishop, but he said, "No, man, Sonny Simmons." I said, "Are you serious? Because Sonny Simmons played on The Cry!" If you recall, on that album, he's playing the white Grafton saxophone. It's a plastic horn. It is the same one Bird played at live at Massey Hall and the same one that Ornette played in those Atlantic Records. But I really could hear in Sonny's phrasing that he was really into Bird and Ornette. I said, "Man, this is the cat," so when I met him, we developed a friendship. I started to study with him and I learned a real lot about advanced technique and harmonic passages in saxophone playing. He realized that I had some arranging abilities because I was playing baritone sax primarily at that time. It was decided that he was going to do this record called Backwoods Suite. That was the one Billy Higgins was on and so he hired me to be the arranger for the date. It was my first jazz recording and I arranged all his original compositions for him. Since then, we've become good friends. We've collaborated on, for the last twenty years, I'm on two of his records on the CIMP label in 1996 with Charles Moffett ( Transcendence and Judgment Day ) and recently, we just did a recording under the group name Cosmosamatics with myself, Sonny Simmons, William Parker, and drummer Jay Rosen and special guest James Carter on bass sax and he is killing. That's coming out on Boxholder. It's really special. So Sonny and I have been collaborating for twenty years and he's, like you said, Fred, one of the greatest and very underrated. He's a wonderful person.

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