Sax player Mark Allen draws out the beauty of the baritone
Mark Allen | photo by Howard Pitkow

The baritone is often treated as the red-headed stepchild of the saxophone family. It’s often viewed as a bulky, unwieldy instrument, good only for anchoring the sax section in a big band where its honking bleats can be kept under control. A few great bari players have emerged over the course of the history of jazz, but even the best known – Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Cecil Payne, Hamiet Bluiett – have failed to approach the iconic status of their smaller horn counterparts like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

At Chris’ Jazz Café earlier this month, Mark Allen made his own argument for the baritone’s viability while paying tribute to Mulligan alongside John Swana and his trio. Soloing on the familiar standard “Love Me Or Leave Me,” Allen explored the full range of the bari’s sound, making the horn moan or flutter, scream or whisper. He began with short, tangled bursts of melody, slowly building into long, molten lines that leaped and dove with grace and agility, firmly in control despite the instrument’s tendency to wrestle with even skilled players.

“I’ve always seen the beauty in the beast,” Allen maintained over the horn a few days later. “It gets a bad rap sometimes. If you’re not a musician you know the baritone as the saxophone that Lisa Simpson plays, a chubby, not very agile instrument. But I’m really trying to approach the baritone as a tenor player or an alto player would approach their instrument. I try to use its incredible dynamic and physical range in my playing. I may be a little biased, but in my opinion it’s definitely one of the most underrated instruments in the jazz idiom.”

Since earning his Masters at the University of the Arts in 2011, Allen has gradually begun attracting attention even within the context of the big band. His solos have been spotlight-seizing standouts on gigs with ensembles as diverse as Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, and the Fresh Cut Orchestra. It was through his work with the latter ensemble that he caught the attention of Painted Bride music curator Lenny Seidman, who asked Allen to assemble a project to play on the Bride’s stage this fall.

“During my experience with the Fresh Cut Orchestra, Mark’s playing particularly stood out for me,” Seidman said. “I loved his tone, I loved his improvisation, I loved his phrasing and his overall musicality and musicianship. I thought he might be the next young cat that we could create an opportunity for to bring his own thing together. As much as possible, it’s good for us as a musical community to acknowledge who to be listening for and who can make some strong statements, and I know there’s not enough opportunities to foster that kind of development.”

The result will mark Allen’s official debut as a bandleader on Saturday, October 18, when he’ll share a bill with the Philly-based Afro-Latin rhythm collective Timbalona. For the occasion, Allen has assembled an eight-piece band pairing a jazz quartet (featuring the Fresh Cut rhythm section of pianist Brian Marsella, bassist Jason Fraticelli, and drummer Anwar Marshall) with a string quartet, reflecting his roots in both the classical and jazz worlds.

“I’ve always been inspired by large ensembles in both jazz and classical music,” Allen said. “So I wanted to capture the essence of a large ensemble while still allowing a lot of space for everyone to solo and open up. I was trying to capture the more intimate side of the classical string quartet world with intricate arrangements, with sections in each song where we can explore and solo and feed off each other.”

Allen is an experienced classical player who is a regular member of the Philly Pops and works occasionally with the Chamber Orchestra, Pennsylvania Ballet, and in theater orchestras around the city. In addition, he teaches classes in transcription and analysis and in theory at UArts, maintain a hectic schedule that has kept the 26-year-old from focusing on his own music. He hopes that will change following this performance, where he’ll make his bow on a relatively large stage. “I’m so happy that Lenny lit the fire under me to do this,” he said. “I’m always thinking about my own music and definitely have aspirations to be a leader way more often than I have been so far.”

Allen grew up in the Poconos, in a small town called Mountain Top just outside of Wilkes Barre. His parents both worked in education, but were avid jazz and classical listeners whose musical interests rubbed off on their children – Allen’s sister is an opera singer based in Washington, D.C. He began playing saxophone in elementary school at the age of 9, a common story that deviated from the norm a few years later when he opted to pick up the baritone. At the time, the instrument was almost too large for the 12-year-old to handle.

“The baritone is the instrument that the band director always gives to the kid who’s not really into it,” Allen admitted, “but I’ve been playing the ‘fat kid horn’ since I was a pretty little kid. I was always infatuated by the sound of the baritone, even when I could barely put air through it.”

A major influence on that decision was the music of Gerry Mulligan, which Allen heard through his parents’ record collection while growing up. Mulligan was one of the leading exemplars of the west coast “cool jazz” sound, a more mellow alternative to the east coast’s hothouse bebop sound. “The jazz that was happening in the late ‘40s and ‘50s on the east coast was way more raucous, with a lot of notes, a lot of sound, a lot of energy, and the west coast music always had this relaxed, chill sensibility to it that I always identified with.”

Growing up in the relatively isolated but picturesque environment of the Poconos may have explained the west coast scene’s resonance for Allen. “My hometown wasn’t exactly a cultural hotbed, but I came from an absolutely inspirational place with mountains and trees and valleys,” he recalled. “I grew up three hours from any major city, so I never really got to see the hustle and bustle of urban life until I got to college. So being outdoors and having not many people around at all times certainly influenced who I am, not only as a musician but as a person.”

Those elements emerge more in Allen’s approach to composition than in his playing, which can be assertive and combustible, reflecting the diversity of his influences. These days he can be found in the hot-blooded post-bop environs of pianist Orrin Evans’ big band as well as the more alien terrain of altoist Bobby Zankel’s avant-leaning Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, his virtuosity equally evident in both contexts.

In both of his musical worlds, Allen doubles on a variety of other instruments – not only the other members of the saxophone family but flute and clarinet as well. At a rehearsal for the first Fresh Cut Orchestra performance in 2012, drummer and co-bandleader Anwar Marshall enthused (with a bit of exaggeration) that “Mark can play 90 different woodwind instruments, just about any woodwind instrument anybody could ever want on a piece.” But those other axes are means to an end, Allen insists.

If I had my choice I would put everything else away and play jazz baritone saxophone for the rest of my life,” he concluded. “That’s definitely where my passion is.”

The Mark Allen Quartet with strings plays the Painted Bride Art Center on Saturday October 18th at 7 p.m. Tickets and information can be found here.

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