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Marcus Rojas: Dancing with a Tree

Michael Blake By

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Music for me is physical. I think of music as bodies in motion. How does one person get from here to here? Everything I relate to music is like dancing. Even when I play avant-garde music; how can this feel a certain way? Purely feeling, not intellectualizing it in anyway. Almost to a fault —Marcus Rojas
Sometimes musicians transcend what is considered normal technique. They discover new worlds of sound and establish concepts previously unknown; concepts that even defy the practical methods that the inventors of the instrument intended. One person I know that has done just that is Marcus Rojas. In third grade he decided to play the tuba and, even though his family asked why he wouldn't play a more common instrument like trumpet or trombone, he stuck with it. Today, Marcus is one of the most well respected tubists in the world. At the end of the Wikipedia entry on the tuba there's a short paragraph about its role in jazz and they refer his work with the great composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill. Rojas did play and record with Threadgill for quite some time but he has also worked with a long list of classical, jazz, pop and world music artists including The New York Philharmonic, The Metropolitan Opera, Paul Simon, Sting, Lester Bowie, Spanish Fly (co—led with brass man Steven Bernstein and slide guitarist David Tronzo) and I've been fortunate to have him in a few of my own bands.

When it comes to the tuba most people will imagine this sound: oom pah oom pah. And that is a pretty accurate expectation of what the tuba does in many musical situations. Jazz enthusiasts will recognize its role in traditional New Orleans music and in modern jazz, Billy Barber's work on Miles Davis' iconic 1949 recording Birth of the Cool certainly stands out. Its brother, the sousaphone, is predominant at parades, sporting events and in New Orleans brass bands. But as a solo instrument the tuba was not utilized much until Joe Daley, Ray Draper, Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart opened up the possibilities. And in the hands of an improviser like Marcus Rojas the tuba has become even more expressive.

Now entering his mid—fifties he still has a thick head of hair and at times his voice has the booming confidence of a street smart New Yorker. I heard him for the first time with Spanish Fly at the old Knitting Factory as they whispered, rattled and roared through a set that was unlike any music I'd ever heard. They played so well together —flirting with tones, relaying phrases, sharing cues by osmosis —that I was completely riveted. I could see there was a friendly competitiveness between them —call it edginess —that contributed to their unique chemistry on stage. From what I could fathom, the pitches they played held as much importance as the rhythms and character of the notes and the space around those notes mattered even more.

When I asked Marcus what he thinks this mysterious kind of music should be called, he answered, "trust music."

"It's a super extension of myself, like a vibrational extension. And I can notice it when people aren't doing that. When they're playing their instrument rather than being part of it. I don't see the tuba as a partner, just part of me, you know... outward, when it's at its best. That's the only way I know how to do it, I can't make it like a separate thing. I have to immediately go to learning by feel."

This spring we met up at his place in Kensington, Brooklyn, where Marcus was attempting to remove a huge tree stump from his backyard with a hatchet. Full well knowing that it was both a dangerous and impossible task, he was fully prepared to go at it the hard way. "Do you know how to use a chainsaw?" he asked. That's a good question for a Canadian from British Columbia but I replied in the negative. Seeing Marcus survey the stump was like watching him take in a musical score. He looked it over with a gaze, shrugged and invited me into his house where we and spoke about his life in music.


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