On These Streets: A Baltimore Story - music from Todd Marcus

Music is about a time and place, even when it is timeless, as in the case of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or the Beatles’ Let It Be. It arose from some specific moment and in some particular location, and for many pieces that setting can be both inspiration and subject.

On These Streets: A Baltimore Story is one such example. It is the fifth album from Todd Marcus, a leader of ensembles large and small who focuses on the bass clarinet, an often underutilized instrument in modern straight-ahead jazz. Marcus, based out of Baltimore, balances his musical aspirations with those for social change, as demonstrated by his work as executive director of Intersection of Change, a nonprofit addressing poverty related issues in the city once known as Mobtown. With On These Streets, Marcus looks to combine these two worlds he straddles into a single musical expression.

Beginning with the first jam, vaguely reminiscent of Bobby Womak’s Across 110th Street, this album sets a scene. Whether or not this is biased by the foreknowledge of its being rooted in West Baltimore is hard to say, but the music, for me, immediately conjured up images of the Bronx in the 1970s and early childhood memories of Sesame Street. I don’t know if this was done deliberately or is a function of the artist’s emotional relationship with the material, but one thing is certain. This is music that transports you.

Interspersed with short interludes that more overtly paint the picture that Marcus is trying to convey, the album is an interesting mix of activism and traditional jazz composition, with the random gospel thrown in to complete the tableau. Amid what often comes across as a soundtrack, several of the arrangements work as standalones, in particular songs further down the list such as It Still Gets Still and Covered In Snow, but even these remain true to the overall theme. All of it is outstanding, anchored by Marcus’ own unique playing style and superb compositional skill.

On These Streets: A Baltimore Story is an album that wears its agenda on its sleeve, one that deserves to be listened to from start to finish with thoughtful introspection. It offers a reminder that not everything is right with the world, that we have some work yet to do, but it does so through a vision of hope rather than violent desperation. As presented, I wouldn’t consider it the ideal drinking companion, but after consuming it in context and some liberal playlist editing, I would consider it a worthy backdrop to some craft spirit fueled reflection.

Cobey Williamson