Beyond the Small Chamber

Matt Small and Mitch Marcus bring their heavy-handed approach to the chamber music realm.

Roughly eight years have passed since Matt Small met Mitch Marcus at
Oakland’s Stork Club, but Small hasn’t gotten over that initial
bedazzlement. Marcus, a Long Island-raised saxophonist with an
unrepressed imagination, was performing with the art-rock band
Mega-Mousse that night. Small was there to hang out. He recalls being
fascinated by the young sax player. Small was even more impressed when
he saw Marcus’ eighteen-piece big band (Mitch Marcus Quintet +13) a
couple years later.

At that time Matt Small was already immersed in the Bay Area
art-rock scene. He had moved to San Francisco from his hometown of
Philadelphia in 1997, and turned himself into a gun-for-hire. He
anchored rhythm sections in several groups that varied in quality (his
favorite was a bizarre quintet called Eskimo). But outside the art-rock
world Small trafficked in canonical forms. He led an experimental
chamber group called Crushing Spiral Ensemble. He could easily switch
from jazz grooves to classical ostinatos. He was drawn to similarly
high-caliber musicians whose rock or pop gigs belied their talent and
sophistication. Marcus, he thought, was one of them.

It made sense for them to join forces, said Small. After all, the
two seemed like spiritual twins. Both had begun composing music in high
school, had a penchant for writing extremely difficult material, and
were voracious listeners who could poach from any genre. Both were
— and are — a little eccentric.

“I doubted you at first,” said Marcus, when the two sat side-by-side
during a recent interview at Marcus’ North Berkeley flat.

“There’s much to doubt,” Small confessed.

Small learned to play bass (both electric and upright) in middle
school and started writing music a few years later. As he got older the
music got more and more complex. So complex, in fact, that he couldn’t
play it on four strings any more — the chord voicings got too
muddy, he said. He now plays custom-made electric basses with two extra
high strings, so that thee top half has a guitar’s range while the
bottom half plays a normal bass range. Small writes music the way some
people write e-mail — prolific would be an understatement. And,
said Marcus, it’s always hard to play: “When I joined his band I think
somebody said ‘You had it coming to you.'”

Marcus is not exactly known for restraint either. He plays in no
less than half a dozen groups, including the Afrofunk group Aphrodesia
and folk-fusion outfit Japonize Elephants, in addition to Crushing
Spiral and Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble. Formerly a clarinet player,
he’s proficient at just about every instrument in the woodwind family.
He’s seemingly indefatigable, having run a weekly jam session at San
Francisco’s Amnesia nightclub for five years. He writes arrangements
for a variety of Bay Area musicians (most recently, a Weimar-era
cabaret tune for Andrea Fultz’s German Projekt). He plays piano for his
wife’s dance classes (she’s the artistic director at Berkeley Ballet
Theater) and for a new trio called the Invaders, which will open for
Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble on Friday, May 29, at the Hillside Club
in Berkeley. It will be Marcus’ last hurrah before he moves back to New
York.

What most distinguishes Marcus and Small from other workhorses is
that they’ve built their careers playing difficult material. To be a
professional musician is one thing; to make a living without
sacrificing your artistic integrity is another. It requires talent, for
sure, but also doggedness and intensity of purpose. It took a lot of
shilling for Small and Marcus to rise up in the food chain, but at this
point they play their own music on a pretty consistent basis. Marcus
mostly pens for his quintet or the Invaders, while Small divides his
time between three of his own bands: Crushing Spiral, the Matt Small
Chamber Ensemble, and a cabaret group called the Bedlam Royals. Both of
them write music in a through-composed style (meaning melodies with a
full narrative arc, rather than a simple head-and-bridge structure)
that many people would characterize as “classical.” They often watch
sports while practicing their instruments. They enjoy games that
require a lot of hand-eye coordination, and sometimes hit the tennis
courts together. (Marcus usually wins.)

Small promises to unveil several new pieces at the Hillside show,
some of which use jazz improvisation in a classical template (e.g., a
couple ensemble members will improvise while others play a fixed melody
line). He says the music will alternately sound sensitive and
“heavy-handed.” He doesn’t expect things to go entirely as planned.
Marcus, for instance, agreed to play soprano sax in the chamber group,
but will probably bring a whole arsenal of other woodwinds anyway. A
band mutiny is always possible, Small acknowledged. He finds the idea
titillating.

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