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Todd Marcus explores his Egyptian roots with musical impressions of his ancestral homeland.
Todd Marcus’ work is often bound thematically. The bass clarinetist’s 2018 album On These Streets (A Baltimore Story) was a reflection of West Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. His 2015 release Blues for Tahrir captured the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring movement in the early part of the previous decade. But Marcus’ latest work, In the Valley (Stricker Street) — an homage to his Egyptian heritage named for the culturally vital Nile River valley and its trove of Pharoanic treasures, the Valley of Kings — is his most personal statement yet.
Marcus’ father was born in Egypt, and the musician’s childhood visits to the country made a powerful impression. That’s why even before the new record, Marcus often integrated Middle Eastern influences into his compositions. It’s not an easy task given that maqams — the scales that form the foundation of Middle Eastern music — are usually played against a continuous drone, while mainstream jazz typically moves through a series of complex harmonies. Speaking on a video call from his home in Baltimore, Marcus says he’s grown more comfortable working with seemingly incompatible musical languages.
"I’m getting better at figuring out how I want to incorporate it and make it work,” he says. “If you play some of those scales over just one drone note, your ears immediately hear it, and it conjures up that Middle Eastern sound. When you start folding in jazz harmony, it’s almost like you’re swimming upstream because the harmony pushes your ears in a different direction.”
Tricky business for the composer and his musicians — including tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy, trumpeter Alex Norris, trombonist Alan Ferber and pianist Xavier Davis — to pull off, but in Marcus’ hands, the results are seamless. Marcus’ more recent trips to Egypt inspired the compositions on the new album. Working with his nine-piece jazz orchestra, Marcus wanted to conjure Egyptian culture and the experience of everyday life in modern-day Cairo. The fluttering woodwinds on “The Hive,” for instance, suggest a buzzing metropolis. “Cairo Street Ride” features onomatopoeic musical elements — at various points, the horns imitate engines shifting gears or car horns honking. But make no mistake, the music always swings.
One particular piece takes on a more emotional resonance: “Final Days,” a pensive rumination on Marcus’ last visit to his childhood home. “The initial motifs came to me while I was laying down to go to sleep in New Jersey,” Marcus says. “It was the winter after my dad had died. I found myself realizing it was going to be the last time I was going to be in that house. So, that was kind of a different approach, but still tying into the Middle Eastern in the sense that it was a reflection on my father — the one responsible for me having this desire to dig into that part of my heritage and culture.”
Marcus sees In the Valley as both a continuation and culmination of his work with Middle Eastern influences. During the pandemic, he worked on incorporating those elements into his solo improvisations, but he’s also been exploring new avenues, including arranging his compositions for jazz quartet with a string quartet. Perhaps most importantly, Marcus’ journey has resulted in a personal victory. His deep connection to the music and culture has brought him a sense of validation, one that he realized when a cousin asked if he considered himself Egyptian.
“It was really significant to me, because I have at times felt insecure in my identity in being Egyptian but feeling ‘less than’ in some ways,” he says. “Other than my dad, I didn't have other Egyptian family here. I didn’t have an Egyptian community around. Because there was no one for my dad to speak Arabic with, I didn’t get to speak the language. So, for me, really digging into the music aspect has been a way for me to reconnect with that part of my heritage and my culture. So, when my cousin asked me that I said, ‘Yeah, I am Egyptian!’” - John Frederick Moore
Featured photo by Efrain Rebeiro.