Thinking Big

Tenor saxophonist Mitch Marcus starts with the concept of the big band, then goes further

Big-band jazz at its best slaps you upside the head: a driving beat, rockslide-inducing horn sections, mesmerizing harmonies, soloists who rise above the fray to deliver searing statements of purpose. When the band is cooking and the arrangements are tight, all good. If that band is led by artists driven toward experimentation and innovation within this familiar genre, even better.

That brings us to the Mitch Marcus Quintet + 13, a large ensemble that not only burns, but also pulses with originality and creates invigorating challenges for both musician and listener. Intriguing compositions, brimming with multirhythmic eruptions and unexpected harmonies, drive the engine, but this is not some soulless intellectual exercise. The ensemble, bolstered by the participation of some of the Bay Area's most accomplished players, provides power to spare.

The wizard behind the curtain is tenor saxophonist Mitch Marcus, in collaboration with his friend and longtime musical partner, alto sax man Sylvain Carton. The two first hooked up over a decade ago while studying at the University of Indiana jazz program. They came to San Francisco seven years ago and were soon fronting the Mitch Marcus Quintet, creating a distinctive sound built on hard, outside playing, brisk, muscular compositions, and hearty ensemble chemistry.

Tall, trim, and just pushing 30, Marcus is one of those guys who's always got a million balls in the air. Aside from his quintet and orchestra work, Marcus leads the Japonize Elephants, a 10-piece acoustic group with influences ranging from bluegrass to klezmer to Zappa. He's working to get a new band off the ground, to be called Stanley, that will feature a sound Marcus describes as "electric groove-jazz." He composes orchestral and chamber music for his wife, choreographer and dancer Sarah Clagett-Marcus, co-director and founder of Ballet Counterpointe Repertory Company. And he tours occasionally as a keyboardist and sax player for Donovan. Yes, that Donovan.

Marcus recently cruised over the Bay Bridge from his Oakland home to relax in a Cole Valley café and talk about the big-band project. He explained that many of the musical ideas for the orchestra grew out of the writing he and Carton were doing for the quintet. But there was also a desire to try something new with the form. For starters, there's the two-bass attack, handled by David Ewell and George Ban-Weiss. Then there are the unusual arrangements, with instruments paired melodically or harmonically across far points of the ensemble, instead of within their own band sections, a technique that creates fascinating orchestral colorations.

"When you say 'big band,'" Marcus remarks over his coffee, "it has a certain connotation --not a bad connotation, but with 70 or 80 years of tradition thrown in. We wanted to see what we could do outside of that. When you listen to the Count Basie Band, you can count on hearing the trumpet playing a certain section with the trombones, and the saxophones coming in behind that, or vice versa. All these things are great, proven and tested methods that work. But we wanted to try something different. So say I'm playing one of the melodies on tenor, and the bass trombone player is playing that with me, or maybe a harmony of that, and maybe the vibraphone is playing it also, and then maybe a counter line to that is being played by two of the trumpets and the guitar. That changes up the timbre, creates different textures, different feels."

With those ideas in place, Marcus and Carton were encouraged to get the Quintet + 13 off the ground in part from a small grant Marcus was awarded from the American Composers Forum.

"It was around $1,500," Marcus notes, "which isn't even $100 per person, let alone enough to get the music produced. We were just thrilled that someone wanted to give us money to help us realize the project."

The first performance took place at the Victoria Theater last November. Since then there have been two more shows, one at Bruno's and one at Café Du Nord, with new pieces and re-renderings of old ones worked into each show.

With music this tricky, you need good musicians, and Marcus has been able to recruit an impressive lineup of players (many of whom are bandleaders in their own right) to learn his knuckle-bending tunes. The bottom is anchored by drummer Ches Smith, a stalwart member of the Mitch Marcus Quintet and a fluid, polyrhythmic wonder who also contributes compositions. While the membership shifts somewhat from performance to performance, due to busy schedules and the realities of the music business, many of the musicians who work in the funk/jazz Realistic Orchestra are regulars in the + 13 lineup. For an upcoming set at Yoshi's, trumpeter Darrin Johnston, who fronts the United Brassworkers Collective, will be on hand, as will local guitar hero John Schott, who's been walking the cutting edge since his days in T.J. Kirk.

This is a big band that's looking to cover new ground, with players who aren't afraid of terra incognita.

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