Stritch, saxello, straight tenor? Who does that list remind you of? Yes, Michael Marcus has wheeled out a collection of reed rarities not seen since the late Roland Kirk barnstormed his way through modern jazz. Any saxophonist willing to explore the more far-flung branches of that instrument’s family is just bound to be identified with the Texan multi-instrumentalist, that larger-than-life figure who annoyed many purists but did the impossible in making the avant-garde fun. Marcus won’t mind the comparisons and indeed seems to positively seek them out in his choice of sidemen as well as tools of the trade. Having previously recorded with Jaki Byard, one of Kirk’s more famous accomplices, on Sunwheels he teams up with keys-man Rahn Burton, also a long-standing Rahsaanite. If you add to that a willingness to attack any genre going and a fondness for eccentric takes on familiar forms then Marcus runs the danger of being seen, at best, as an epigone or, at worst, a mere clone of the Maverick of Mavericks.
Fortunately Marcus is very much his own man. For a start his tone is nothing like Kirk’s, owing more to the thinner more mercurial sound of someone like Eric Dolphy. His preferred register does warrant further comment—and a slight health warning. Marcus has a fondness for what is usually described as the “Vinegary” end of the sax options. Think Ben Webster’s absolute opposite. While a guarantee against blandness, unless handled with great skill—Pharaoh Sanders or the younger Gato Barbieri—the results can grate after a while. For those at ease with post-Coltrane sounds there should be no problem. Others might struggle at first but are advised to persevere.
Further differences are largely down to Marcus’ biography. An early career in the horn section of Albert King and Bobby Bland’s outfits has left a fondness for the bluer notes—which gives even the more abstract pieces a visceral force. Added to that, a long residence in New York, hanging with the wealth of post-‘60s players active there, has produced an open-minded, self-reflexive take on his material. This, like so much recent contemporary jazz, is a very knowing work.
That is the crux of this session. On the one hand, there is a highly self-conscious journey through various jazz forms and, on the other, a gutsy, roadhouse (almost rhythm and blues) energy. It is not always an easy alliance but on the whole it works. Burton plays Hammond organ on all cuts which, apart from confirming that that instrument is well back in favour at present, adds to the earthiness and groove-based elements of the album. I approve of this though some will mourn a certain loss of subtlety on the way.
The opening number (all titles are originals) doesn’t really indicate the direction Sunwheels is going to take. “Eternal All” is one of those sub-Coltrane meditations that never quite comes to fruition and ends up one long—if expertly executed—preamble. Far more succinct and successful is the warped-bossa nova that follows. “The Zenith” is built round a very “swinging ‘60s” organ sound over which Marcus twists and turns to great effect. A feature of this track and of much of the album is the percussion. Nasheed Waits on drums and Patato Valdés on congas are a revelation. Waits, who I have often felt to be overly intrusive as a a sticks-man, is in good fettle and freewheels through even the most tricky time-sequences. The veteran conguero is, happily, no mere exotic ornament. They work well together although it is their interplay with Marcus that stands out.
The breakneck “Pinball” shows Waits at his best. His solo avoids the usual excesses and his engine-room power is amply fuelled. Valdés, oddly perhaps, is most telling on two slow tunes, “Golden Memory” and “Moonvoices”. I don’t know whether there is a sub-genre called sax-conga duets but if there is I know now who are the masters of it. For those who associate percussion purely with rocking rhythms, these pieces are particularly recommended.
As a composition (and as a whole group performance) the title track is probably the most complete piece. A positive, uplifting melody is performed with passion and intensity with the sax-man leading the charge. Invigorating stuff. From then on, there are rather too many run-of-the-mill modernisms for me ( self-destructing solos, disintegrating chord changes etc.). They are the raison d’être of much recent jazz but have become almost as formulaic as the rules they set out to break. However, it is from this approach that “Moonvoices” draws triumphant inspiration. The conga and organ-led funk of “Midtown Sojourn” breaks the pattern and could even get a dancefloor moving under the right circumstances.
For the Kirkiest as well as the quirkiest tune go to the stritch on “Psychic Circles” or the oddball “Celestial Origins”. Acquired tastes is the fairest comment but there is method in their joint madness. The closing “We Are Now” acts as a sort of summary of all the elements hitherto presented, with that bitter-sweet sax being agreeably counterposed to Burton’s lush, old-school Hammond.
I think Sunwheels’ abiding strengths lie in those exchanges and in the contrasts created between each instrument’s dominant characteristic. This occasionally engenders some abrasive clashes but mostly it makes for a series of engaging dialogues. Marcus, though far from a novice, is clearly an emerging talent. He is rapidly developing his own signature and, while certain aspects of his playing have the potential to alienate, that can only be for the good of jazz. No listener will fail to note the enthusiasm and the ebullience of this record or the expression of personality it affords its performers. If, as we are constantly being told, the latter is what jazz is all about then this is a worthy addition to Justin Time’s impressive catalogue.