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Bay Area tenor saxophonist Mitch Marcus' quintet evokes jazz's legacy without wallowing in easy retroisms

Despite its ubiquitous use of all kinds of improv strategies, which carry the hope of fire and surprise, jazz is a dogmatic genre with its own brand of partisan restrictions. Mainstream players are expected to stick conservatively with the conventions in order to appease average listeners with a sense of familiarity, while avant-gardists are charged with pushing the music forward at all costs, even if this means alienating audiences or at times sacrificing listenability for high concept. In progressive circles innovation is the order of the day, which is essential for taking the music to new heights, but this mandate also tends to limit creative exploration within the tried-and-true forms -- the bedrock of the jazz art.

Though Bay Area tenor saxophonist Mitch Marcus has established himself as a boundary-busting freak in the wildly experimental group Japonize Elephants, he's not afraid to see if he can play something meaningful within traditional jazz structures. On his quintet's second CD, Entropious, he leads his younger-generation band through a high-energy set of originals and a jumpin' take on Dizzy Gillespie's appropriately titled "Bebop Rollercoaster." The album's fresh arrangements of hard bop, breezy swing, and bop-spawned contemporary tunes place the dual saxophonists (Marcus and Sylvain Carton, also of Japonize Elephants) front and center, where they blow intricate, often lightning-paced melodies over a buoyant piano-bass-drums rhythm section. While tapping the wellsprings of both bop god Charlie Parker and his avant-garde descendant Eric Dolphy, the horn soloists evoke the genre's legacy without wallowing in easy retroisms. Smart, tasteful, hard-hitting, and eminently listenable, Marcus proves that the path to great jazz still stems from its stalwart past.

 
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