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Baltimore has become the unlikely epicenter of bass clarinet innovation

Photo: Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Josh Sisk

A highlight of Todd Marcus’s new album Inheritance is “Herod,” a three-part suite about the middle eastern king that includes a distinct Islamic warble.


The bass clarinet is an odd-looking instrument, all the more so because it’s rarely encountered. More than three feet long, its long central core is an extended version of the standard clarinet—a black tube with silver keys—but with a silver swan’s-neck mouthpiece at the top and an upturned silver cup at the bottom. Because its bore is a wooden cylinder rather than a metallic cone, it produces a warmer, more resonant sound than the baritone saxophone, which covers much of the same range. The bass clarinet is more likely to purr or growl than it is to bark.

Maryland has become an unlikely center for the expanding use of the bass clarinet, not as a novelty but as a primary musical voice. Baltimore pianist Lafayette Gilchrist plays in the Black Saint Quartet, led by David Murray, perhaps the most accomplished bass clarinetist in jazz history. John Dierker, soprano clarinetist for Lafayette Gilchirst and the New Volcanoes, also plays bass clarinet on Gilchrist’s superb 2008 album, Soul Progressin’. And more recently, Dierker took over Denis Malloy’s bass clarinet chair in Maryland’s avant-cabaret combo, Boister.

But, as a bandleader and composer, Baltimore resident Todd Marcus is in a position to break new ground with the instrument. Marcus is one of the few jazz musicians to devote himself full-time to the instrument, and his dedication has paid off in a new nationally distributed album. Additionally, Silver Spring’s ‘sCuneiform Records has just released a Jason Robinson album that features Marty Ehrlich prominently on bass clarinet.

Marcus recorded his new album for Hipnotic Records, Inheritance, with a mostly Maryland cast: bassist Eric Wheeler, pianist George Colligan, and either Warren Wolf or Eric Kennedy on drums, but New York pianist Xavier Davis replaces Colligan on five cuts and New York clarinetist Don Byron is added on two-thirds of the three-part suite “Herod.” This ambitious composition about the Middle Eastern king who figures so prominently in the New Testament combines Marcus’ Egyptian-American heritage with his work as a Christian community organizer in Sandtown. The melodies boast a discernible Islamic warble—which the two clarinets handle better than saxes ever could—and a seductive sensuality that curdles into corruption, echoing the Biblical story of Herod tempting John the Baptist.

The suite also opens a revealing window on the differences between the bass clarinet and the far more common soprano clarinet. Byron’s agile high notes, so bright and tightly focused, seem to represent the allure of Herod’s decadent court, while Marcus’ anchoring low notes, so dark and suffusive, seem to represent the lurking dangers of such hedonism. It’s as if the fat snake wrapped around a branch were merely waiting for the tiny bird to alight on its nest before striking. On “Solstice,” another Marcus composition, the bass clarinet introduces the gorgeous ballad with a disarming nocturnal murmur that Byron’s clarinet answers as if a woman responding affirmatively to a male overture. On the rare occasions when the bass clarinet is used in jazz, classical, or pop music, it is most often used as atmospheric coloring for ballads such as this one.

The instrument has also been used for freewheeling, wailing improvisation in free jazz (c.f. Eric Dolphy) and fusion (c.f. Bennie Maupin). But it has rarely been used for playing well-defined melodies at brisk tempos, and that’s where Marcus has broken new ground. He opens the album with his own hard-bop composition, “The Adventures of Kang and Kodos” (a title nod to The Simpsons), a galloping tune that allows Marcus to prove how well he has grabbed the reins of his unruly instrument, adding definition to its often blurry edges and nailing it to the challenging, high-speed melody. He does the same on the catchy title track, the Middle-Eastern-flavored “Wahsouli,” and Thelonious Monk’s angular “Epistrophy.”

The instrument is put to equally fine effect on Jason Robinson’s new Cuneiform album, Tiresian Symmetry. Not only is Marty Ehrlich’s bass clarinet featured, but so is JD Parran’s contrabass clarinet, an even larger, even deeper member of the family. When you add Marcus Rojas’ tuba, Bill Lowe’s bass trombone, and Towson University graduate Drew Gress’ upright bass, you get a bottom-heavy record that plunges the listener into subterranean depths. That makes sense, for the title was inspired by the mythological Tiresias, a blind Greek prophet who continued to offer advice even after death, meeting both Odysseus and Dante in Hades. Tiresias also provides a link to Marcus’ album, for Robinson’s efforts to evoke ancient Greece employ some of the same Eastern Mediterranean devices.

Robinson himself is a tenor saxophonist with the bluesy, edgy sound of Dewey Redman, Joshua’s dad and Ornette Coleman’s foil. As a composer, Robinson likes to set off his vocal-like horn lines against a turbulent backdrop of odd meters and low-register rumblings. This is especially effective on the 11-minute title track, which begins with a slow processional of bass clarinet, tuba, and bass trombone, soon joined by a Middle Eastern melody. Gress takes over the middle section with bass lines that are as melodic as they are muscular. By the end of the number, the pacing and energy have built to a grand climax that has Robinson blowing high while the rest of the nonet play independent parts that somehow fit together. Two other pieces, “Radiate” and “Cosmolographie,” also top the 10-minute mark, taking similar advantage of the extended time to build narratives that rise, fall, and rise again. Robinson beckons us down Dante’s path into the underworld, but we never would have followed but for the insistent call of the two bass clarinets.

Boister will perform Anne Watts’ score for the Buster Keaton silent film Steamboat Bill, Jr. at the Artisphere in Arlington, Va., Nov. 30. Jason Robinson’s band is at the Windup Space Dec. 2. Todd Marcus plays D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns Dec. 16 and An die Musik Dec. 22.

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