By Jeff Cebulski
Jazz as storytelling—typically in its blues form—certainly has deep roots, though to my knowledge the breadth of it generally applies to singular pieces (“Strange Fruit,” Louis’ “Blues in the South,” and, in modern symbolic form, “Freedom Suite,” for examples). As for whole albums or collections, a few come to mind. Dave Brubeck’s religious-themed A Light in the Wilderness, though not totally jazz, is one example.
There are story-like characteristics involved in Duke Ellington’s various suites, where tunes serve as cultural puzzle pieces to fit together.
Direct biographical works are few and far between, though. Pat Metheny’s Secret Story, full of drama, certainly applies. Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” is a reference to his post-imprisonment stay at a California state hospital. And several of Billie Holiday’s songs seem to based on her personal life. I’m sure there are plenty more.
It’s within this context that the Chicago trumpet player and composer Markus Rutz operates with his new album Storybook, a suite that is presented in a book motif, with a Prologue, three Chapters, and an Epilogue. But rather than operating in a dramatic mode (as with Metheny), Rutz means to share his tale of coming to a happy place as an artist, with appreciation galore for his mentors and his audience.
Rutz is a stickler for themes, and while this album has its artsy moments, especially in the first half, the essence of it remains Rutz’s dedication to the Blue Note post-bop he clearly embraced, not only here but in his previous recordings as well. He openly speaks of the influence of Kenny Dorham (especially when Dorham played with Joe Henderson) and is clearly grateful for the training he received from mentors Richard Davis and the late Ellis Marsalis, who receives a warm tribute on “Mr. E.”
Yet, Rutz has always desired to perform for the benefit of others. So, with Storybook he wishes to “create a soundscape of happiness, pleasure and peace in the lives of listeners,” while at the same time telling a story about himself.
The tale begins with the Prologue “Something’s Blowing In,” a reflective piece that sets a tone for the album. Pushed into the mix by windy sound effects, Rutz and guest saxophonist Sharel Cassity quietly assert the melody, supported by Rutz’s constant piano partner Adrian Ruiz. The pace picks up slightly, bolstered by the garrulous bass playing of Kurt Schweitz (who provides several such moments during the album). The trumpet-sax tandem clearly evokes references to the work of Durham, especially on Henderson’s albums when the two played together.
After a short interlude, Chapter One—The Straight Away begins with “The Everyday Escapades of M&M” [in this case, co-arrangers Markus and Marie], a breezy tune complemented by a second bassist, Samuel Peters, who plays on five of the 12 selections. The theme of this ‘chapter’ involves Rutz’s life here in the Chicago area. “Third Coasting” thus is a salubrious melodic venture that rides Schweitz’s prancing bass to communicate a higher-registered moment symbolizing the Rutzs’ joyful presence in the Midwest. Cassity’s expression typifies the smooth yet jaunty delivery of Henderson, while Ruiz’s pianistic backdrop and solo amplify the pleasant expression.
Chapter Two—Learning is an Enviable Opportunity is a tribute to Rutz’s mentors and influences. This section exemplifies what Rutz’s fans enjoy—his representation of the great post-bop of the late 50’s and 60’s. “Buffalo” is a Durham composition from his seminal Whistle Stop; Rutz’s version is slightly bluesier than the original, which pleases this ear, anyway. This is the trumpeter’s strong suit, and the band, including the constantly stalwart effort of drummer Kyle Swan, responds accordingly. “Mr. E,” a heartfelt elegy dedicated to Mr. Marsalis, showcases Rutz’s lyrical form. The final tribute to the tradition is a welcomed rendition of Durham’s “Short Story” (from Henderson’s In ‘n Out). Again the band shines in its musical safe place, the rhythm provided by Peters’ walking bass and Swan’s agitated swing.
Chapter Three—The Sentiments lives up to its title. Lil Hardin’s “Just for a Thrill” receives a softly swinging treatment, featuring the guitar comping and solo of Kyle Asche, with Schweitz filling in the gaps and delivering a muted but amiable solo of his own. Rutz seems ingratiated with this song, connecting with his inner New Orleans soul. Asche then returns for the closer, supporting Rutz’s lovely rendition of the classic “Soul Eyes.”
The Epilogue begins with an audio clip, from home presumably, that leads to a swinging original, “Right at Home,” which could have been an alternative title for this album. Once again riding Schweitz’s bass, Rutz and Cassity employ a tag team approach to the melody meant to drive home the point, if one hadn’t figured it out by now: life is good.
Rutz’s first album for Marques Carroll's fledgling JMarq Records is a breath of fresh air in these often-tense rhetorical times, cementing our observation that this Chicago musician is riding a moment of post-pandemic personal and artistic satisfaction. That he intends to build upon it was clear, recently, when he ended his album release concert with a new composition that he foisted that night upon his band, who knocked it out of the park nonetheless. We’re looking forward to more refreshment from Markus Rutz and his friends.
Markus Rutz, Storybook. (JMarq Records, 2023)
Purchase the Recording
Markus Rutz, trumpet
Sharel Cassity, saxophone
Adrian Ruiz, piano
Kurt Schweitz, bass (1, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12)
Samuel Peters, bass (2, 3, 5, 6, 8)
Kyle Swan, drums
Kyle Asche, guitar (2, 10, 11)
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org