Todd Marcus' life and music share an unconventional flair.
On bass clarinet, he fronts the Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra, a nine-piece group with a CD release party tomorrow at Creative Alliance at the Patterson.
Marcus is one of a handful of bass clarinetists to lead a group with the instrument. It's usually heard in the background of larger orchestras or making crazy honks and squeals in free jazz. Marcus' solos swing and push hard.
"I've sort of really been trying some new territory - giving the instrument a legitimate modern voice equal to the way a saxophone would be heard in jazz today," Marcus said.
Marcus' vocation echoes this passion for the atypical. A community activist, he helps run Martha's Place, a six-month recovery facility for women overcoming drug addictions.
"I feel very strongly about the need for continued work on racial reconciliation," Marcus said. "That's why I wanted to be in my neighborhood in large part."
About 12 years ago, Marcus moved to the city from northern New Jersey. He studied political science briefly at Loyola College before volunteering and eventually working at Habitat for Humanity in Sandtown. Several years later, he began working at Martha's. All the while, music was assuming a larger role in his life. He had picked up the soprano clarinet at an early age but became fascinated with jazz music and decided to switch to bass clarinet.
"The different tones and textures of the [bass clarinet] really struck me as having a lot more range and a lot more to offer than what at the time was a very narrow range that I could do on the clarinet," Marcus said.
Marcus already knew how to read sheet music, but taught himself theory and harmony. He remembers quizzing himself on bus rides back to visit family in New Jersey:
"OK, E minor - what's the sixth of E minor?"
"F sharp is the second of what?"
Sometimes, Marcus would sit down at the piano and pluck out chords to help learn the progressions. He had a passion for modern harmonic jazz such as that played by John Coltrane's quartet and McCoy Tyner. Larger ensembles with their rich, full sound also captivated him, and he wanted to combine the two.
In 1999, Marcus felt comfortable enough with his own playing to sit in with some more experienced musicians. His first session was at the New Haven Lounge on Havenwood Road.
Around this time, he also began composing his own music. He assembled the Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra: six horns, piano, bass and drums. By 2003, he had enough material to play live performances and started with a four-week stand at the Carlyle Club on Sunday nights.
"It was exciting," Marcus said. "It didn't pay anything to speak of - $100 plus tips - but the cats were interested to come out and play and get familiar with the music."
Marcus and the band worked on booking other shows, landing spots at venues such as Blues Alley in Washington and the New Haven Lounge. From the start, communicating with the eight other members was tricky, Marcus said. Since he usually keeps both hands on the clarinet, it's hard to direct.
"There have been times when I really wish that I had the ability to conduct the band," Marcus said. "It just allows you to be more direct in getting what you need."
Last year, they traveled to New Jersey and spent two days in the studio recording the debut album, In Pursuit of the 9th Man. It's pretty much live in the studio, except for one overdub by tenor saxophonist Raul Soot on the tune "A Gentler Sort of Thing."
Marcus plans to run through most of In Pursuit of the 9th Man tomorrow, and possibly debut some new, unrecorded material as well. Though he plays with other quintets and quartets, Marcus said he loves the full-on sound of the nine-piece orchestra.
"Having this large ensemble gives me the opportunity to tell a more expanded story - to paint a bigger picture," Marcus said.
The Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra performs two shows at Creative Alliance at the Patterson: 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $12 and $10 for members and students. The venue is at 3134 Eastern Ave. Call 410-276-1651 or visit creativealliance.org.