Jeff Marx has released his second album as a leader, but with his approximately thirty years in the jazz scenes of various cities in the United States, you wonder what took him long. Marx, it turns out, plays with authority and imagination, leaning into the notes with controlled aggressiveness, attaining varied timbres and sustaining a bright attack, whether he’s playing free improvisation or melodically over structured changes. Perhaps Marx’s changes of residency throughout his career have directed attention from his potential for claiming attention through his urgent tone and technical facility. Presently, he lives the life of a jazz musician in Chicago.
The strength of Marx’s connection with pianist John Esposito made him the obvious choice to join Marx again on his quartet CD, Treading Air, Breathing Fire.
Even from the first track, "Times Change," their instantaneous reading of each others’ minds is apparent. At first Marx states the theme with swirls and swing, immediately letting it be known that Marx is a saxophonist who can change direction or loosen metrical boundaries even as he stays within the confines of a tune’s framework. But when Esposito comes in to solo, he interprets "Times Change" through sparkling clusters or improvisational scampering overlaying extended modes. As a result, we get to hear "Times Change" from two perspectives, the same composition producing entirely different results, as it becomes the occasion for personality-based individualism.
The strength of the playing remains intact throughout Treading Air, Breathing Fire,
but it would be a mistake to assume that all of the playing would be free. The next track, "Through A Glass Lightly," more straight-ahead than "Times Change," nonetheless impressionistically intends to recall the whimsy of Lewis Carroll with a three-four lilt giving rise to Marx’s intervallic romp. "Treading Air" evolves into a jazz waltz as well once Esposito has set it up with an extended flourish of an introduction.
More variations ensure. However, the performances of particular note include (1) "Scare ‘Em Stupid," "Song Of The Trees" and "Zenobia."
(1) Esposito’s "Scare ‘Em Stupid" consists of a live performance at Milagros in Tivoli, New York, and Marx’s quartet was on fire that night. "Scare ‘Em Stupid" commences as a free improvisation, fascinating and certainly not scary at all. Marx explores the tune’s sonic possibilities accompanied at first only by bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Peter O’Brien. Then it’s Esposito’s turn to dazzle in a segmented solo as discrete groupings of notes are connected rhythmically and, through implication, harmonically. Once Coleman solos, it becomes clear that "Scare ‘Em Stupid" is a presentation of the entire quartet’s talent through intersections of their free playing and by allowing each member to be highlighted.
(2) "Song Of The Trees" is the only track of Treading Air, Breathing Fire
not written by a member of Marx’s group. And its putting-to-song of Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem (which assuredly isn’t as lovely as a tree), undergoes transformation, of course, and the resulting performance then is
as lovely as a tree, among other objects of beauty. Rather than playing the song straight, which frankly would have been boring with its succession of two repeating quarter notes, Marx’s quartet treats the song impressionistically. Esposito’s shimmering background work, his Tyner-like flourishes and his strong bass-clef pounces energize the piece on which Marx expands the long tones with occasional overtones. Only the guideposts of the original song remain, once-in-a-while references to the melody, as Marx does his magic.
(3) And then there’s "Zenobia," Esposito’s complicated composition whose every-few-measures time changes would confound the casual listener if Marx’s group didn’t make the head-swimming metrical alterations sound natural. Further, the fact that Marx’s group navigates the challenge with cohesion attests to the mutual understanding among all four musicians.
Marx’s apparent coming-out-of-nowhere even though he has come out of many somewheres: namely, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago makes Treading Air, Breathing Fire
one of the year’s most pleasant jazz surprises.