Michael Marcus Takes the Iron Horse to the Blue Note

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A career that spans 12 recordings as leader, seven recordings with the Cosmosamatics, well received world tours and a proven mastery of the woodwind family began in the San Francisco Bay Area on harmonica
Widely traveled multi-reedist Michael Marcus speaks with the same exhuberance and enthusiasm he demonstrates blowing next to Bay Area master Sonny Simmons in the Cosmosamatics and fronting the powerhouse Michael Marcus Trio, which he leads into the Blue Note this month. "After the Cosmosamatics tour, I took the train to Milan to mix the new Michael Marcus Trio CD with Tarus Mateen [bass] and Nasheet Waits [drums] for Black Saint/Soul Note," he said. "It's called The Iron Horse , which represents the trains for musicians that are on tour in Europe. When we tour Europe, we've been playing a lot of the Eastern Bloc: we toured Poland, we toured the Czech Republic, we call them the "Iron Horse". A lot of those trains still have the iron seats and are kind of cold. It represents traveling on the trains." Oblivious to the irony, Marcus seems unaware that given his prolific touring and recording the past several years, the term "Iron Horse" applies to him as well.

The highly anticipated matchup with the telepathic and powerful Mateen and Waits has Marcus jazzed. "We're doing the gig at the Blue Note with a special guest: Ted Daniel on trumpet. Wonderful trumpet player and I'm very happy to have him at the Blue Note with me. He was on my first two recordings as a leader, Under The Wire (1990) and Here At (1993). That was right around the time the MM3 [Michael Marcus Trio] did Ithem (recently released on Ayler). I go back with Ted; I used to play in his big band Energy. A very good friend, and a trumpet player who has a gorgeous tone also." Besides his 15 year association with Marcus, Daniel counts Archie Shepp, Billy Bang and Henry Threadgill among past co-conspirators.

A career that spans 12 recordings as leader, seven recordings with the Cosmosamatics, well received world tours and a proven mastery of the woodwind family began in the San Francisco Bay Area on harmonica, inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson. Playing ensemble blues sax, he began a journey characterized by fearless exploration and communing with the elders. "I'm always attracted to the people who I think are important voices and as long as they'll accept me and like what I'm doing, I'm very thrilled by the whole idea. In the case of Simmons, of course, we're good friends and have developed a rapport. How that came about, I was invited to record on a blues record. My first professional jobs were with Albert King and Bobby Blue Bland. I was touring with those two groups for five years almost, '77-'81. In the interim I was asked to do a recording date: Bishop Norman Wiliams, Eddie Henderson and Sonny Simmons." The allstar horn section backed Oakland guitarist, Hi Tide Harris (who did the soundtrack for the film Leadbelly) and as Marcus and Simmons got to know each other, Simmons hired Marcus to arrange his now classic Backwoods Suite in 1982. The album boasted Billy Higgins on drums and Marcus playing baritone on his first jazz recording.

From there he found work with Makanda Ken McIntyre, the Grachan Moncur Big Band, Saxemble with Frank Lowe, Ted Daniel's Energy, Jemeel Moondoc's JUS GREW Orchestra, Joseph Bowie's Defunkt and Oakland legend Vince Wallace. He recorded and toured with pianist Jaki Byard and also recorded two organ trios with Rahn Burton and Nasheet Waits (one which features guest Patato Valdes) on Justin Time. Marcus' performances display a devastating technique coupled with lightning intellect, as well as attention to tone that betrays love of the instrument. "All the members of the woodwind family are beautiful and I think if you've got time, you could love them and try to work on them and contribute something original on them."

Besides the Blue Note show, Marcus teams up with legendary Philadelphia drummer Edgar Bateman as part of the AllAboutJazz-New York "1s & 2s" duo series next month (Feb. 3rd). Drummer with John Handy, Eric Dolphy, Makanda Ken McIntyre and Walt Dickerson, Bateman performs with Marcus for the first time. "I'm very honored that I get to play with Edgar Bateman. I've never had a chance to perform with him, but he's a living legend. I hope they record it. That's the kind of thing you never know when you'll have the opportunity to play with someone like that."

Happily for listeners, his schedule shows no sign of letting up. "One of the projects I'm pursuing is to tour later in the year with Tarus and Nasheet and to bring that trio to Europe. I'm also involved with doing a string project. I write string quartets, trying to add string quartets to some of my trios. Also woodwind quartets, where I conduct them and improvise over them, so I'm hoping to do some of those projects also. I have them totally scored to my originals and they can be adapted to piano, bass and drums. Or I've written string quartets where I conduct them and improvise on top with a drummer playing free in the background. I'm sure I'll be involved with the Cosmosamatics in 2005, which definitely is now a big section of my touring."

In addition to releasing The Iron Horse in September of this year, Marcus helps the Cosmosamatics with their most recent release, Reeds & Birds (with Clifford Barbaro and Jay Rosen alternating on drums), a Charlie Parker tribute. "It's wonderful," Marcus enthuses. "Sonny sings 'Autumn in New York', like Earl Coleman. We do a ballad medley and I do 'In a Sentimental Mood' solo on clarinet. 'Birdfeathers', 'Cheryl', 'Drifting on a Reed', really obscure Charlie Parker tunes, just with drums, clarinet and English horn. Very beautiful and the production's wonderful."

"If the message is important, the audience will probably be there. I think the thing to do is just stay positive, no matter where you are. I think that's the message: positivity, spirituality and, of course, peace, because we're from the Summer of Love in San Francisco. No matter if it's New York or Poland or Paris or Prague, just stay positive and hope people will want to hear this message and it will inspire them."

Recommended Listening:

– Sonny Simmons/Billy Higgins - Backwoods Suite (West Wind, 1982)

– Michael Marcus - Under the Wire (Enja, 1990)

– Michael Marcus - Ithem (Ayler, 1993)

– Michael Marcus - Live in N.Y. (Soul Note, 1999)

– Michael Marcus - Speakin' Out (Drimala, 2002)

– Cosmosamatics - Reeds & Birds (Not Two, 2004)

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Interview with Michael Marcus

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