Improvisers who concentrate on the clarinet are a select bunch, perhaps something to do with the difficulty of navigating its tricky three registersa far cry from the early days of jazz when the clarinet's cry was integral to Dixieland and swing ensembles. Multi-instrumentalist Michael Marcus has only lately joined that coterie lost in the licorice stick's possibilities, saying in a 2007 interview , "I find it easier now to fulfill some of my thoughts with the clarinet, through musical articulations during improvisation, than I ever did with the members of the saxophone family." Best known for his long-standing association with altoist Sonny Simmons in the co-led Cosmosamatics, Marcus has also enjoyed important partnerships with the late great Frank Lowe and maverick pianist Jaki Byard, both men who shared Marcus' predilection for taking a broad view across the history of the music.
For his sophomore recording under his own name on the forward-looking Polish NotTwo label, he has assembled two overlapping groups of fellow spirits, including regular drummer Jay Rosen, along with the less well known Taru Alexander also on drums and bassists Radu ben Judah and Rashaan Carter. Together they smoothly steer a stimulating course through the eight melodic cuts which make up the 47-minute disc, rotating the lineup to keep interest high.
Marcus deploys a rich full tone through all the registers of his horn, expressing a lyrical personality steeped in a soulful blues feel, a legacy perhaps of his formative years on the road with blues giants Albert King and Bobby "Blue" Bland. A case in point is the terrific opener "As Always, Our Blessings" where the leader parades some lovely licks atop the rich harmonic footing supplied by John Austria's piano and in subtle interaction with the pliant loping rhythm section.
"Seal RockBird Rock" appears twice, first delineated by some fine trio interplay, shifting in and out of time, with Marcus' swagger punctuated by off kilter falsetto cries, and then later as a more abstract duet, anchored by Rosen's pulsing bass drum. For the exuberant "Peace People Theme," the front line is supplemented by the searching tenor saxophone of Antoine Roney, with both horns inspired by the sophisticated shifting rhythms of Carter and Alexander. Elsewhere Marcus' "Sumatra" is a funkily bustling locale where the muscular but limber support incites an extended serpentine outpouring from the leader full of bluesy stutters and peeping leaps into the upper registers, before culminating in hoarse choked cries.
In a neat touch, speaking to attention to detail, the opening piece is briefly reprised as a cool refreshing duet for Marcus and Austria to close out the well-rounded program, tempting an immediate rerun for this captivating outing.
As Always, Our Blessings; Seal Rock
Michael Marcus: Bb clarinet; Antoine Roney: tenor saxophone (3); John Austria: piano (1, 8); Radu ben Judah: bass (1, 2, 5, 7); Rashaan Carter: bass (3, 4); Taru Alexander: drums (1, 3, 5); Jay Rosen: drums (2, 4, 6, 7).
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