by Stamish Malcuss
Mark Gross is an alto saxophonist that grew-up on gospel music at Baltimore’s Mt. Zion C.O.G.I.C., where Mark’s father was the Pastor. The combination of emotion and rhythm naturally transferred to the jazz idiom and the freedom of expression and exploration that the music offered. Gross studied four years at Berklee College of Music and got his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Performance. His approach to the horn is based in the jazz heritage, but full of modern attitude, tone, and vocabulary. His album, + Strings, finds the Baltimore native exploring originals and arrangements (3 originals, and 7 standards), both with a sense of purpose and adventure and with, strings! The arrangements are by: Gross, Tommy James, Anthony Branker, Bobby LaVell, and Joris Teepe.
Opening the set of ten tracks is a nice arrangement of “Beatrice” by Tommy James. Gross starts out by playing the melody unaccompanied for the first statement of the melody until the cadential figure, and then the band enters. The band is swinging, and Gross’ solo is instantly full of energy and passion as the string quartet can be heard quietly in the background playing supportive figures. Dezron Douglas on bass and Corey Rawls on drums, provide the swinging propulsion. Pianist, Benito Gonzalez unfolds a solo that is full of motivic development and refined harmonic colors. The string quartet takes a nice four bar ensemble passage before trumpeter Freddie Hendrix plays a beautiful solo. The string quartet comprised of: Chiara Fasi – 1st violin, Jennifer Choi – 2nd violin, Celia Hatton – viola and Jennifer Vincent – cello, take a nicely written and orchestrated chorus followed by the melody and a very creative ending.
“Brenda Mae” is an original composition by Gross with the arrangement by Dr. Anthony Branker. Gross dedicated the track to his departed sister, Brenda Mae McMillan. The tune is set to a festive Latin groove that has the string quartet feature for the intro. The melody unfolds its beautiful story with an interesting form and orchestration of colors. Gross’ solo is melodic and builds nicely over time and has a joyful, soulful feel in his energy. His use of the entire horn is a real treat to hear. Hendrix’s tone is excellent as he plays over the strings and rhythm section with authority and melodic mastery. The tune is well orchestrated and makes good use of the string quartet and two horns.
“Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Jimmy Van Heusen, is arranged by Bobby LaVell. Gross stunningly plays the well-known ballad’s melody. The arrangement provides support from the strings, while allowing Gross room to expand and contract his lines for good effect. Douglas takes a subtle bass solo with a string voicing floating above his lines.
Gross is a player that is certainly based in the lineage and tradition of jazz. The tunes on + Strings have a nice flow, there are excellent solos and the band has solid chemistry. The use of various arrangers gives a fresh perspective to the string quartet sound and the result is pleasing indeed.