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Todd Marcus Tames The Raucous Bass Clarinet On 'Trio+'


This is FRESH AIR. The bass clarinet has a long history in modern jazz, starting with Eric Dolphy. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has been listening to the new album by Baltimore's Todd Marcus, who Kevin says goes his own way on the instrument. Here's Kevin's review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bass clarinetist Todd Marcus on the standard "My Foolish Heart." The bass clarinet is an unruly instrument. It wants to rasp and squeal when you're trying to play it straight. Luckily, it sounds good misbehaving like that, with a large mammal roar. Many bass clarinetists lean into that tendency, embracing the barbaric yawp. Not Todd Marcus - he aims for an even, sturdy, controlled tone all over the horn's range, taming the beast.


WHITEHEAD: On his new album "Trio+," Todd Marcus gets a clean, unfettered sound from his band as well as his bass clarinet. The lean core trio boasts the reliably explosive drummer and heavy swinger Ralph Peterson along with Ameen Saleem or Jeff Reed on bass. Sometimes, the trio is joined by Sean Jones on trumpet, and they all light a fire under the leader.


WHITEHEAD: Todd Marcus' tune "Plummeting." The album "Trio+" mixes Marcus' compositions with a few standards and one by fellow bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin. Marcus writes melodies that'll stick in your ear and some catchy bass parts that move things along. "Amy Pookie," written for his wife, has two good melodies - a slow, stately one and a jaunty theme that sounds lifted from Ornette Coleman's book of happy tunes. That melody launches a tart Sean Jones trumpet solo.


WHITEHEAD: Sean Jones plays choice solos on all four of his appearances on Todd Marcus' album, spurred on by Ralph Peterson's drums. I do wish the two horns had played behind each other a bit on the blowing. The hot and cool sounds of brass and wood blend nicely on the melodies.


WHITEHEAD: Anyone talking about Todd Marcus eventually gets around was other life as a West Baltimore community activist. That job calls for focus and long-term stick-to-itiveness (ph), which are also good qualities if you're mastering a difficult horn. Working with diverse allies for two decades gave him the skills to get six local and out-of-town musicians heard in six combinations to make music that hangs together as an album. "Trio+" is crisp and tight and varied and has more good melodies than we can dip into, plus a lot of very good bass clarinet playing.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed the new album by Todd Marcus. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Adam Driver. He's nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in "Marriage Story" about a divorcing couple. He's starred in films directed by Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and in the HBO series "Girls." In the new "Star Wars" film opening this month, he returns as Kylo Ren, who killed Han Solo in a previous episode. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TODD MARCUS' "SOMETHING SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.