The greatest moments of the celebrated Detroit jazz tradition took place at times when jazz was a popular art and when music was widely taught in the schools. In recent years other kinds of music have achieved a broader appeal, especially among younger people, and many schools no longer provide arts instruction. Though not as admired as it once was, jazz still has an important place in the cultural landscape of Detroit and continues to attract talented youngsters. One of the premier new players on the scene is tenor/soprano saxophonist and composer Marcus Elliot.
Still in his twenties, Elliot became involved with music at an early age and was already performing by the time he was fifteen. Inspired by his jazz-loving father, he quickly developed a love for the tradition and a rigorous approach to his instruments. As a youngster he learned by listening to local masters such as Marcus Belgrave; now he is a regular member of the trumpeter’s quintet. A fellowship from Michigan State University allowed him to study in the extraordinary jazz program led by Rodney Whitaker and to learn saxophone technique and artistry under the tutelage of Diego Rivera and other teachers. After graduation he settled back in Detroit and jumped into a busy career of performance and teaching.
For the last few years Elliot has had a regular Tuesday night quartet gig at Motown’s main jazz venue, Cliff Bell’s, with some of the best young players in the city: pianist Michael Malis, bassist Ben Rolston and drummer Steven Boegehold. Though Elliot has a full calendar of teaching and performance as a leader and sideman with other groups, the quartet is his primary artistic vehicle. While celebrated as an instrumentalist, he is equally focused on composition. Each week the quartet explores new works by Elliot and the other members of the group. Few jazz musicians today have the luxury of developing group interaction and repertoire at a long-lasting regular engagement, and he has made full use of this opportunity.
Elliot’s well-practiced quartet, with the addition of fellow MSU graduate Kris Johnson on trumpet, can be heard on the brand-new CD When the City Meets the Sky. The music, all from the saxophonist’s pen, is a suite of ever-shifting moods and tempos that bears witness to Elliot’s artistic maturity as a leader, composer, and instrumentalist. His saxophone playing is full of controlled passion, with a burnished sound that can go from a soft subtone to an anguished cry. He is a modernist who clearly has an interest in the more adventuresome currents of our time, but he is rooted in tradition with a sophisticated sense of melody and harmony, modeled on masters such as Wayne Shorter and Mark Turner.
Elliot’s June 6 CD release concert kicks off the new “KCH Does Detroit” series at the Kerrytown Concert House.