In the Valley: Todd Marcus’ New Album
Todd Marcus is a widely acclaimed Egyptian-American musician, composer, and arranger, raised in New Jersey but long based in Baltimore, Maryland. As a composer and arranger, he says he is self-taught. But as a self-taught musician myself, I know that he has music in his blood—and this, along with his early musical training, is credential enough for his amazing composing and arranging skills.
Marcus leads numerous ensembles, from duet to trio, quartet, quintet, and orchestra. In recent years, he has incorporated his Egyptian/Middle Eastern heritage into his compositions, creating an exotic yet familiar musical language. His ultimate goal for his music is to heal and uplift the human spirit and bring people together. As if that weren’t enough, Marcus also heals and uplifts the community he lives in, with his nonprofit organization Intersection of Change, which addresses poverty-related issues in Baltimore.
I listened to this album “blind,” twice—to experience it for myself, and to respond to it as a music lover, without preconceptions or expectations. My first listen was in late August, at 8:30 pm, after a busy day. Seated at my tablet, I found myself jotting down quick notes about the moods and possible meanings of each track. My second listen was on the afternoon of September 14, as background while I did household chores. The feelings I got from my first listen were largely confirmed, but with a greater sense of hope and joy.
After these “blind” listens, I looked at the album cover and read the liner notes. I was thrilled that my instincts about the album are close to what Mr. Marcus intended. The album consists of six tracks: 1: “Horus Intro,” 2: “Horus,” 3: “The Hive,” 4: “Cairo Street Ride,” 5: “Final Days,” and 6: “In the Valley.” On all the tracks, Marcus thematically sets the scene, explores the scene with evocative improvisations, and resets the opening scene.
The orchestral sound of this album is established from the haunting opening notes of “Horus Intro,” a piano solo of an upward minor scale, forming the motif of the whole album: G—E-flat—B—C—G-flat—G—A-flat, before expanding it to the full minor scale in the explosive second track, “Horus.” I wondered, who, or what, is Horus?” Mr. Marcus provides a more contextual answer than my online search did: Horus comes from “the ancient Egyptian deity. . .who has the head of a falcon and body of a man. . ., [evoking] the sounds of classical Middle Eastern music by using sounds modeled after maqams (Middle Eastern scales). Though Horus is an ancient deity of the sky, he remains a part of modern Egyptian culture including as the logo of Egypt Airlines.”
In“The Hive,” I heard echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” but also, echoes of “Jonny Quest,” the 1960s sci-fi/adventure cartoon, whose theme was written by Hoyt Curtin. In that era, television theme songs were more sophisticated than the shows they introduced. Intrigue, Danger, Film Noir, Jungles, and Spies are the images I conjured up while listening. As Marcus notes, “[it is] meant to evoke the feel of modern-day Cairo and its frenetic intensity between the people, traffic (that has no lanes or traffic lights), buildings, and boats on the Nile. . . . Just like a beehive brimming with tons of activity, Cairo has an inner system that is beautiful and amazing.”
“Cairo Street Ride” is a bouncy, urban tune that adroitly captures “the streets and chaotic traffic in Cairo today.” As I listened, I could feel the stops and starts of the car to avoid obstacles, the engine revving up when traffic cleared, and the cacophony of blaring car horns.
“Final Days”has a mournful, tolling-bells vibe. I felt I was nearing the end of the physical trip “Into the Valley,” saying goodbye to a place of mystery and longing, with questions unanswered; the past and present colliding; a life-altering reckoning. Again, there is a partial minor scale in intervals of 4ths: E—A—D—G—C—F—B-flat, suggesting flickers of hope in the midst of confusion and loss. The true depth of emotion in this piece goes far beyond a physical trip. It is, in fact, a dirge for his father and his New Jersey home, written in the winter of 2016-2017.
The beginning of the final piece,“In the Valley,” carries over the mourning theme of “Final Days,” but quicklyreclaims the hope, beauty, and joy of the journey, much like the passage from Psalms (50:3), “Weeping may endure for a night, But joy cometh in the morning.”
“In the Valley” is not just musical travelogue of Egypt the country, or its Ancient and Modern history. It is a spirited and spiritual journey of life—filled with darkness and light; fear, hope, and love; and its playful moments. In addition, Mr. Marcus notes, “[it] also gives a nod to typical music soundtracks commonly used under documentaries about ancient Egypt that strive for a sense of grandeur reflecting the ancient sites.” While it is definitely a “jazz afficionado’s album” it is also an accessible music lover’s album.
Jackie Oldham is a Baltimore native who writes essays, poetry, memoirs, and short stories on many topics in her blog, https://www.baltimoreblackwoman.com. She has done readings at various Baltimore venues and on radio shows. Her essays have appeared as editorials and letters in the Baltimore Sun. She retired from a career as a copy editor, trainer, and team leader for the former Waverly Press and its successors. She is also a musician who loves all kinds of music, including jazz.