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Michael Marcus - Speakin' Out

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Artist: Michael Marcus

Album: Speakin' Out

Label: Drimala

Review date: Oct. 10, 2002

Solo Free Jazz Albums Needn't Be "Difficult"

In his liner notes to Michael Marcus’ new Speakin’ Out, Jon Morgan points out that solo free improv albums are often called “difficult.” And despite Morgan’s arguments to the contrary, that’s what a lot of them are – difficult to make and difficult to listen to. The decision to record solo puts an enormous amount of pressure on the musician, who has to constantly generate new ideas. And solo albums just can’t feature the multidirectional craziness that many free jazz fans treasure, unless they’re made by pianists or guitarists, or maybe drummers.

Multidirectional polyrhythms are no bad thing, of course, but Speakin’ Out is that rare free jazz solo LP that simply doesn’t need them. It’s extremely rare to hear a solo album this well conceived and full-sounding – as Morgan rightly points out, Speakin’ Out isn’t even close to sounding “difficult.” Marcus, mostly playing slowly and carefully, never seems to run out of ideas, and I never seem to get tired of hearing them.

Marcus is often compared to Eric Dolphy, and not just because he occasionally picks up a bass clarinet (Marcus also plays Bb clarinet, saxello and alto and tenor saxophones here). Like Dolphy’s, Marcus’ lines often sound like bop phrases gone slightly askew. Bop is mostly improvised within a fairly rigid (and complex) framework of rhythms and chord changes; it sounds as if Marcus is impressed by bop’s easily discernable (though not easily learnable) logic, but unwilling to let that logic completely define his boundaries. More contemporary (if only because of Dolphy’s early death) reference points include Fred Anderson and Sam Rivers, who aren’t really known for stretching the boundaries of their instruments, but for playing free improv with bop-like phrasing.

And phrasing is indeed one of Marcus’ greatest strengths – each line possesses the information he wants to possess, and then it sounds as if it ends exactly when it’s supposed to. Then he pauses for exactly the right amount of time. Nothing on Speakin’ Out is the least bit rushed; the pacing is perfect, and Marcus’ rich tone, particularly on alto, suits his unhurried style perfectly. The recording is also terrific – it’s got just enough reverb to give Marcus’ music life while still capturing the details of his playing. This album makes Marcus’ excellent work on Boxholder’s recent Cosmosamatics record seem like just a teaser: Speakin’ Out ranks among the smartest, loveliest solo albums I’ve heard in some time. Difficult? Hardly.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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