Sometimes I'm Happy
When My Baby Smiles at Me
March of the Bobcats
Begin the Beguine
Me and My Shadow
Pete Fountain * Clarinet
Charles 'Bud' Dant * Big Band arrangements & Conductor
The second of Pete Fountain's Big Band collaboration albums with Charles 'Bud' Dant (the first being 1959's The Blues), Pete Fountain Salutes the Great Clarinetists highlights Pete's gratitude towards several clarinetists who either helped shape his style, or laid the trajectory for the branch of jazz he was to contribute to in his career. Those highlighted are Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Ted Lewis, Irving Fazola, and Jimmy Dorsey. Two in particular were foundational influences on his playing: Fazola and Goodman.
The liner notes of this album, written by Leonard Feather, are more interesting than most, as they touch upon jazz history. In them, Pete draws some telling lines, helping define his artistic goals, both in the album, and as a clarinetist.
"This is my tribute to some of the great people who have been associated with the clarinet. It's not in any way an attempt to duplicate their own individual styles," said Pete regarding the album itself. This caveat functions in at least a couple of different ways. First, it seem to me the only real way any meaningful jazz tribute can happen. To copy someone else's style wholesale, parroting back performances, is really antithetical and destructive to actual jazz, which has to be a representation of the actual person playing. That's not to say that influences are bad; they're not. We all can, and in a sense should be openly expressive of those who came before us--jazz musicians are part of a living tradition of this music, after all. But the very nature of this art form demands more than reproduction or interpretation: it demands the whole of a person's expression, which by definition will end up being unique.
In a secondary sense--and this can get a bit touchy--whether we're talking about Jimmy Dorsey or Monty Sunshine (whose version of Bechet's 'Petite Fleur' probably served as the immediate inspiration for its inclusion on this album), Pete was actually far more technically brilliant a performer, and couldn't duplicate the styles of such players without the result seeming like a parody. Comparison with Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert is instructive: during the historical survey, Benny's imitation of Ted Lewis sounds like a satire, though it was clearly an homage. Pete's strategy on this album prevents such a problem.
"I have to keep in mind," Pete went on with typical frankness,"that I was lucky to have an open field on my instrument. After all, when Benny Goodman came along, most of the time he had Shaw and Herman and Dorsey and others on his back; but the fellows who came up in between that period and the present--Buddy de Franco, Tony Scott and the others -- are in a different field and represent a different approach to the instrument."
To this, Leonard Feather interjects: "I would debate this last item; despite his New Orleans associations and Dixieland background, Pete essentially is a modern musician, one who has listened to jazz with ears that are as harmonically sensitive and fingers consistently agile as those of De Franco and the other contemporary stylists."
It's an interesting opinion. Buddy DeFranco was an acknowledged bebop virtuoso who had consciously left the Big Band and swing scene in the late '40s to pursue modern jazz single-mindedly. Though he'd occasionally return to that world for the sake of making ends meet, his jazz vocabulary and technique remained decidedly influenced by Charlie Parker. As a clarinetist, DeFranco was clear in interviews that he wasn't influenced or interested in the New Orleans tradition. He had been trained classically, and attracted to jazz clarinet specifically through the playing of Johnny Mince and Artie Shaw. He wasn't as openly dismissive of New Orleans style as Shaw later was (Artie claimed to have invented jazz clarinet along with Benny Goodman, suggesting everyone before them was more or less irrelevant), but DeFranco's attitude seems to have been similar.
Also at the time, and continuing to a certain extent to this day, there was already an ambiance cultural hauteur cultivated around bop and modern jazz: a pretense that it was somehow more intellectually and technically advanced than earlier jazz styles. Perhaps Feather was sensing that Pete's playing approach was just as virtuosically demanding as DeFranco's, or perhaps he felt Pete's ability to play over more contemporary rhythm sections suggested equality with modern jazz musicians. If so, he was certainly correct, and in any event, I think his point was meant to defend Fountain against condescension.
My own opinions about modern jazz and bop language are fairly well known to anyone who has read this blog for the past six years or so. I think it's a mistake to view jazz as an art in which one style supplants earlier expressions--and I think it's destructive to apply modern jazz language to all forms of jazz equally. I think we're getting to a point, perhaps because it is so conducive to conservatory pedagogy, that bop language has become a bit of an invasive species in other jazz ecosystems--we hear trad bands with bop language being used, which is kind of like thrusting Bartok into Mozart's music. I hear bop language in gypsy jazz, smooth jazz, fusion. In one sense, it's a testimony to bop's popularity among musicians, but in another, something lyrical and expressive is being crowded out and lost.
Pete's playing, and what I think he meant by his comment, was that he had no interest in playing with bop vocabulary--he had built his clarinet style and language upon New Orleans and swing foundation, and would follow that trajectory. Significantly, unlike the modernists after him, he resisted switching to small bore clarinets--maintaining the large, commanding tone in the tradition of clarinetists from an earlier era. I've pointed out many times that the public seems to have preferred that style of clarinet, and that sound, at least in jazz.
As for this album in particular--beyond the very intriguing liner notes!--there's a lot to enjoy, but it is mostly about the arrangements.
"The orchestra," says Bud Dant, "was supposed to be built around Pete to showcase him, rather than to be integrated with him. And in the arrangements we would use a phrase or a passage here and there that might be reminiscent of the original recording, but here again there was no exact carbon copying."
Pete's playing is solid, vintage Fountain, but perhaps not as dynamic as his playing on The Blues. He hits all of his spots and makes the tunes his own, but the stars of the show are Bud Dant, Don Bagley, Art Depew, Morty Corb, and Matty Matlock: the arrangers. Over the course of two sides and twelve tunes, they reinterpret swing era favorites for an audience in 1960. The charts all have the bright, streamlined quality of others of the era: the Elgart band come to mind, and the optimistic grace of Neal Hefti's work for Count Basie and Harry James. These are a bit broader than both, as their goal was primarily to frame Pete.
My favorites on this album are 'Sometimes I'm Happy', originally a Fletcher Henderson arrangement for the Benny Goodman band. Pete's version is arranged by Don Bagley, who masterfully weaves hints of the classic arrangement while giving it a completely different twist. Pete's statement of the melody demonstrates the importance of subtle tonal shadings for clarinetists--the meaning and nuance he brings to the simple melody carries the tune. That's apparent on all of Pete's recordings, and in many ways what sets him apart, but the simplicity of 'Sometimes I'm Happy' is also, in a way, it's difficulty. Pete shows how effective nuance can be.
'Frenesi' was such a big hit for Artie Shaw, I was skeptical anyone could reinvent it convincingly until I heard this version. Art Depew throws down a stylish cha-cha with his arrangement. It's a rare version of a creative cover that works just about as well as the original, making the listener want even more.
Another standout is Bud Dant's game plan for 'Petite Fleur.' This is a tune, like so many Bechet numbers, that seems to call out for larger orchestration, so operatic is the theme.
At the end of the day, this is a rather light album in terms of jazz. Mostly, it's a nice, refreshing listen on a hot summer day. Upbeat and romantic, it's a pretty showcase for Pete's legendary sound.
Bud Dant's words to close out the liner notes are a good reminder, though, of how important they felt the album to be to restoring the place of the clarinet in the jazz world:
"Pete hasn't only helped to bring the clarinet back in front where it should be," said Bud, "he's also managed, with his musicianship and his colorful personality, to make many new friends for jazz in general." This is context that's been marginalized in the decades since, and worth reconsidering when we think of the broad and diverse sweep of jazz music as a whole.
|Pete Fountain Mardi Gras Bracelet 2015 (Eric Seddon Collection)|