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From Upton to Hingetown: Todd Marcus’s Two-Clarinet Quintet Comes to Bop Stop

Todd Marcus

Todd Marcus is the sort of guy who likes to walk an unconventional path. That path will bring him to BOP STOP on Wednesday with a unique quintet that features clarinetist Virginia MacDonald and Marcus’ bass clarinet on the frontline.

The dark-hued, snaky sound of the bass clarinet is not unknown in jazz. Harry Carney played it early in his career with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Eric Dolphy established it as an eloquent if peripheral voice in modern jazz. But neither of those players, nor any other jazz player of note,  made it their primary instrument as Marcus has done.

Todd Marcus
photocredit: Gary Young

Taking the road less traveled is nothing new for the New Jersey native. After graduating from Loyola University Maryland, Marcus chose to stay in Baltimore. There he became a community activist running Intersection of Change, a nonprofit that addresses poverty-related issues in the historic Upton neighborhood.

“Pennsylvania Avenue was the historic thoroughfare in Baltimore City where you had all the famous venues, and the Royal Theatre was Baltimore’s equivalent of the Apollo,” said by phone from Baltimore. “Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles and Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie: everybody was here. Gary Bartz is from my neighborhood.”

Marcus, 47, taught himself music theory and composition. He has been a frequent presence since 2013 as a Rising Star in Downbeat Magazine’s Annual Critics Poll and his independently released recordings have found wide critical acclaim, including a featured review on NPR’s “Fresh Air. Three of those recordings, Inheritance (Hipnotic Records, 2012) , Blues for Tahrir (Hipnotic Records, 2014) and In The Valley (Stricker Street Records, 2022) were inspired by the history and culture of Egypt, the homeland of Marcus’ father.

All three feature drummer Eric Kennedy who will join Marcus in this tour along with pianist Hannah Mayer, Steven Arnold on bass and MacDonald, a Torontonian who was one of the clarinet players profiled on a YouTube series that also included Marcus. Listening to her interview he liked what he heard and reached out to her. “There are so few of us that are clarinet players in modern jazz,” he said.  “[It’s a] very small community and I always keep an eye out to see who else is out there. I love her tone. It’s got a little bit of the Jimmy Giuffre tone to it. Her vocabulary, her content, is very modern, very intense. She’s throwing down. She’s a bad girl.”

Virginia MacDonaldThe front line of bass clarinet and the more familiar B-flat clarinet is unusual, to be sure, but it’s not unprecedented. Marcus himself played and recorded in this formation with Don Byron, arguably the most influential modern player on the smaller horn.

Those are big shoes to fill, but MacDonald is ready. “I think we both really feel that clarinet in jazz music has been super underrepresented even though there are a lot of great players out there,” she said from Sunday’s tour stop in Chicago. “So to bring it to the forefront by having two clarinets in the same band kind of catches a lot of people’s attention.”

Attention, though, is secondary. Ultimately, Marcus, the community activist and musician, sees music as a relationship. “For me the most precious experiences are when I’m playing music with other great musicians, and it really comes together and kind of has a spiritual quality when you have the audience on that journey with you. It’s just very special.”

Todd Marcus Quintet featuring Virginia MacDonald Wednesday, July 12, 7 p.m. at Bop Stop. 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. $20, available here.

Trading Fours

There’s never a bad time to get out and commune in the same room with creative musicians. Below are four musical events of interest in the coming week that you might want to check out.

Cleveland Jazz Orchestra Trio
Wednesday, July 12, 6 p.m.
Wade Oval, 10820 East Blvd., Cleveland (free)

What’s in a name? It’s a question that musical collectives have pondered for a long time, but with pianist Jackie Warren, hardworking bassist Aidan Plank and drummer Jim Rupp on board, this trio could fill the house on their names alone. In a just world, and if the weather cooperates, they might just fill Wade Oval. And the concert, part of the Wade Oval Wednesdays series, is affordable even for those who have recently purchased Taylor Swift tickets.

Tim Mirth’s Guitar Band
Thursday, July 13, 7 p.m.
Bop Stop. 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland (tickets)

Back in January Tim Mirth told me about his ambition to play in a band with another guitarist. Boom! Dreams do come true as Mirth will match licks with Brent Hamker while Bryan Thomas and Tony Kazel move the rhythm from a simmer to a boil and back. Two guitar bands—Scofield and Metheny, Jimmy Raney and Jim Hall and more, have a way of striking sparks that even non-guitar geeks can appreciate.

Joshua Smith Trio
Thursday, July 13, 7:30 p.m.
The Treelawn Social Club,15335 Waterloo Rd., Cleveland (tickets)

Since saxophonist Joshua Smith decamped for the West Coast, hometown gigs have been regrettably rare. So that makes this engagement at The Treelawn especially notable. Then there’s the intrigue of hearing Smith in a context similar to that of Birth, the band he co-formed with Jeremy Bleich and Joe Tomino, but with Plank and Carmen Castaldi bringing a different sort of vibe. Expect surprises.

All In with Vanessa Rubin
Saturday, July 15, 8 p.m.
Bop Stop. 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland (tickets)

“All In,” the name Vanessa Rubin has given to her Saturday show, could describe the uncanny way that the Cleveland native can fully inhabit a song, be it a songbook standard, R&B chestnut or her signature vocal transformations of Tadd Dameron compositions. On this night, the name just as easily extend to the band, which is a first-call crew of NEO heavyweights Theron Brown, Zaire Darden, Jordan McBride and Tommy Lehman.

Information for this section came from Jim Szabo’s essential, weekly Northeast Ohio jazz calendar , NEO’s most complete list of jazz and jazz-adjacent events.