Thursday, March 9, 2017

Masterclass at the Cleveland Institute of Music

Some photos of my masterclass with Franklin Cohen's studio at CIM last week:

The Porkpie Goes to The Conservatory

Hanging out with a talented bunch of young players (Photo: Franklin Cohen)

(Obligatory group selfie: we had to get Frank into the picture too!)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Happy Mardi Gras!

To all the readers of The Jazz Clarinet, Happy Mardi Gras! My band will be performing at BLU Jazz + in Akron, Ohio. This year will be an extra special celebration of the music of Pete Fountain. Wishing everyone a happy and healthy celebration!

Monday, February 27, 2017

'St James Infirmary' at ChamberFest Cleveland * February 27, 2017

Here's a clip of my solo from "St James Infirmary" last Saturday night at ChamberFest Cleveland's annual gala. The fine musicians with me are Phil Anderson on keyboard, Kip Reed on bass, Anthony Taddeo on drums, and Dan Wilson on guitar.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Two Sides of Bill Smith * CRI * 1974

Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra
William O. Smith, clarinet
Orchestra U.S.A.; Gunther Schuller, conductor

William O. Smith, clarinet
Robert Suderburg, piano 

Variants for solo clarinet
William O. Smith, clarinet

I first heard this recording on LP, nearly twenty five years ago, while an undergraduate clarinet performance major at the Hartt School of Music. Our 20th century form and analysis professor, Dr. David Macbride, had given us the assignment of presenting the class with recorded examples of extended techniques on our major instrument. I presented two clarinetists: Artie Shaw and this album by William O. Smith. Shaw's Concerto for Clarinet served as a primer for how jazz timbral language had broadened our understanding of the expressive sonorities possible on the clarinet, outside of the classical canon. William O. Smith took matters even further, showing how a clarinetist equally comfortable in jazz and classical realms could expand both genres exponentially.

I'm not going to do a full analysis of this album, which would look and read more like a graduate thesis than a blog post. Suffice it to say there is actually enough material here for a graduate thesis, and a good one at that. There have been many attempts at concerti for jazz soloists and orchestra, and many clarinet concerti have been written with jazz clarinetists in mind. But this has to be one of the finest. Applying his extensive knowledge of jazz, modern classical methods (such as serialism) and an inside knowledge of extended clarinet techniques (many of which he discovered and charted), the concerto on Side 1 is a unique tour de force. I know of no other wind player who has done anything quite like it for their instrument--expanding our knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument while mastering multiple genres, seamlessly fused together in a thrilling and meaningful musical expression.

It helps tremendously that the orchestra was sympathetic, could swing and articulate like a jazz band, and was lead by a champion of  this music. Indeed, the conductor, Gunther Schuller, coined the term "Third Stream" to describe a potential fusion between European concert music and jazz, so successfully accomplished here. Beyond that, the music itself is fully effective: the liner notes to the album point out the following:

A twelve-tone row is the basis for both the orchestral material and the improvised clarinet part. Although the listener is not expected to follow the various permutations of the row, it is hoped that he will feel a psychological cohesion. The row itself utilizes only two basic intervals, the major 2nd and the minor 3rd, and is simply the transposition of a four note figure which happens to be the first four notes of I Got Rhythm. The simplicity of the the row lends itself to spontaneous improvisation. The four movements correspond roughly to traditional concerto form. In style, the jazz idiom is consistently employed. 

Here serialism isn't presented as dry or melodically meaningless. Upon listening, the reasons for using twelve tone method seems to be manifold, but include a chance to focus more on timbral issues, and tone color. There is an expansive, lyrical quality to it rather than restrictive (the technique can be used either way), and the connection to jazz history really works.

Side 2 features a more intimate chamber setting, and for those interested in Smith's jaw dropping, abstracted use of extended techniques (including multiphonics, extreme altissimo, and even mutes, if my memory of the score to Variants is accurate after 25 years) this will keep you interested. When I was in music school, it was common for clarinetists to program William O. Smith's Five Pieces for Clarinet Solo on recitals. Those are great pieces, and a worthy addition to the unaccompanied clarinet repertoire, but I always thought the more challenging and intriguing pieces of his for solo clarinet were the Variants. They are certainly more demanding on both the clarinetist and the audience, and are also the fruits of Smith's extensive research in the area of extended techniques. Combined with this recording of the composer himself, the Variants represent a real watershed moment in the history of the clarinet.

This album is off the charts, should be in every clarinetist's library, and ought to be more widely available. Buy one of the vinyl copies still to be found before they're all gone.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

Chris Barber & Hugh Laurie * Abbey Road Studios * 2013

Here's a fascinating YouTube video by Rick Walker featuring famous actor and not-so-closeted bluesman Hugh Laurie with one of his heroes, trad jazz trombone icon Chris Barber. Though short, this brief presentation and interview can help fill in the gaps of our understanding of 20th century music, and the significant role trad jazz and New Orleans style played in the various waves of British rock and pop music.

I'm greatly heartened that Laurie would take the time to honor Barber and the music. I've argued for years that soulfulness and melody will never go out of style: he and Chris Barber have offered further proof!  

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1958 Selmer Centered Tone Clarinet in A

Several years ago, while playing gypsy jazz in many keys particularly well suited to guitarists, but more rarely used in the jazz clarinet repertoire--keys like D major and A major at concert pitch--I began experimenting with the use of a clarinet in the key of A for certain numbers. At first, my matched pair of 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform-Boehms yielded good results. Eventually, though, I found myself wanting to use my regular gigging horn, a 1955 Selmer Centered Tone, and switching between the Selmer Bb and the Wurlitzer A was proving too awkward. The breathing, mouthpiece, reeds, and voicings demanded of Wurlitzers are very different from those of a Selmer, making for an uncomfortable evening if attempting them both. Beyond that, to really get the most out of either a Selmer or a Wurlitzer, I've always found it best to be committed, daily, to one or the other. To command all of the colors or power of either, it usually takes me a couple of weeks serious practice, at least, after having been away from a certain model. So in a sense, for me at least, it's all or nothing when playing these instruments.

With that in mind, I picked up this 1958 Centered Tone, Model 806 (seven rings, with articulated G# and left hand Ab/Eb key, serial number R-1***). It's a beautiful horn, with a huge, rich sound; possibly the most purely beautiful tone of any clarinet I've played.    

1958 Selmer Centered Tone Model 806 in A

The chalumeau is so big it has what I call the "crackle" or "crunch" sound you can get on a bass clarinet, opening up interesting timbral possiblities. Like all Centered Tones, you can really lay into the chalumeau without going terribly flat--in stark contrast to more contemporary model clarinets of nearly all manufacturers, with the popular small, reverse-conical or polycylindrical bores. This is one of the major reasons the CT is regarded as a great jazz clarinet--models designed for the classical market seem to miss the importance of being able to really crank in the chalumeau, with a variety of timbres.

The clarion register on this Centered Tone is mellow and rich, and the altissimo is the famed Selmer altissimo, as usual--simply the best ever made, in my opinion. 

When this R-series A first arrived in my hands, its silver keywork was in disrepair, needing quite a bit of work. While the basic tone quality was remarkable; obviously a fine instrument under all the problems, I couldn't quite get all of the subtlety needed from it. My decision then was to put it away and play all of the gypsy rep on the Bb in keys like E, B, etc. In retrospect, this was the right decision. With a couple of studio sessions coming up, though, it seemed the right time to get this gem of a horn refurbished and ready to capture on record. This CT came back from my tech on Friday...he did an outstanding job, and it's as ready to go as it could have been in 1958. Stay tuned! I'm looking forward to performing and recording this classic Selmer Centered Tone.     

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Musical Proverb of the Day

All jazz is local.

Whether some world famous jazz musician is visiting your city, playing to a packed theater with three balconies of adoring fans, or you're in some tavern with a band squeezed into a corner and competing with the television set over the bar, all jazz happens in real time with real people in the audience. It's the art of interaction; of the musicians giving something to you and you reciprocating in that place, at that time. It's the art of being present and joyous. It's the art the art that breaks down emotional barriers and allows for everything to come out. It's freedom in honesty, but it can't happen in a room by yourself. It can't happen over the internet via live streaming. It's the real breath of a person through a mouthpiece, the real strike of a hand on a drum skin, the real pull on a bass, the real bodies swaying to that beat, the real eruptions of enthusiasm or, equally important, the hush of reflection that settles over a crowd. There is no substitute for reality, and being who and where you really are. Jazz emphasizes that, and affirms the goodness of reality and existence, even in the midst of great troubles. So if you have some famous cat rolling into town tonight, go hear them: they are jazz for you tonight. But if not, don't be afraid to be a part of what jazz is: the real time sharing of something, of influencing the direction and sound of a band by your very presence. 

All jazz is local.