Saturday, May 2, 2020

JazzTimes Critics List Clarinetists in their Underrated Class

In a JazzTimes article originating in 1997, but updated only a few weeks ago, thirteen critics were invited to sound off on which among the jazz greats were overrated and which were more underappreciated. Of note were the absence of clarinetists in the overrated category, but several clarinet greats mentioned as deserving wider acclaim.  

Writing of the great Pete Fountain, who was still active as of the original 1997 publication, Doug Ramsey said: 

"He underrates himself. His ear for harmony and mastery of time are among the best-kept secrets in jazz because all these years he has chosen to stick with the repertoire and sidemen that make him comfortable. I’d like to kidnap Fountain and lock him in a recording studio with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Victor Lewis. He would surprise himself."

 Then came Neil Tesser, writing of Buddy DeFranco:

"Probably because he came along just as the clarinet was fading as a jazz staple, DeFranco gets overlooked when the discussion turns to either (a) his instrument or (b) his metier, bebop—an idiom not known for producing great clarinet players. But he just might be the finest improvising clarinetist in jazz history, blessed with great harmonic knowledge, technical wizardry, and a meaty and expressive tone."
 Jack Sohmer added praise of Albert Nicholas...

"A paragon of the Creole style of clarinet playing, Nicholas worked and recorded with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Luis Russell from the mid-1920s through the ’30s. His crystalline tone, impeccable technique, and command of the blues finally came to widespread attention during the New Orleans revival movement of the mid-’40s. Had he not spent his last 20 years in Europe, where he was almost as famous as Sidney Bechet, he would undoubtedly have been better known in America."

...and Pee Wee Russell:

"A genius to those who value originality, Russell had always been a controversial clarinetist. He was uniformly respected by Louis, Bix, Teagarden, Freeman and the Condon gang, but he was also derided by others who failed to understand his obstinate nonconformity. His highly personal sound, replete with growling rasps and wistful mutterings, coupled with his advanced harmonic sense and angular phrasing, combined to form a style unique in jazz history." 

It's great to see these great clarinetists get some attention. Let's hope the reevaluation of jazz history continues in this century, giving more weight to the practitioners of this great jazz instrument!


Saturday, April 4, 2020

Bill Smith * Concerto for Clarinet and Combo * Shelly Manne & His Men Vol 6 * Contemporary Records * 1957

The amount of great music for clarinet by the late Bill Smith seems pretty immense, if hidden all over the internet. I just stumbled across this Concerto for Clarinet & Combo this morning. It features some really exciting and beautiful music, well worth listening to and performing.


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Bill Smith * Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith * Fantasy Records * OJC-236 (F-3319) * March 20, 1961

Side A

1. The Unihorn
2. Bach An' All
3. Siren Song
4. Pan's Pipes
5. By Jupiter

Side B

1. Baggin' The Dragon
2. Apollo's Axe
3. The Sailor And The Mermaid
4. Nep-Tune
5. Pan Dance

Bill Smith - clarinet
Dave Brubeck - piano
Gene Wright - bass
Joe Morello - drums

I've been avoiding a review of this masterpiece for years. In the early days of this blog, a hastily written summary of mine appeared, taken down almost immediately, as the quick write up really didn't do the album justice. In light of the passing of Bill Smith this past February 29th, however, it's time I made some attempt to describe what is one of the great treasures of jazz clarinet history.  

On March 20, 1961, Bill Smith went into the studio to record his third album with Dave Brubeck. It was unprecedented in that all three discs featured set lists entirely composed by Smith--not a single Brubeck original or standard among them. Near-Myth can be seen as a culmination of his collaborations with Brubeck. Like The Riddle, Smith utilizes the technique of thematic transformation, reiterating the opening motif from 'The Unihorn' in different settings and guises throughout. Unlike the earlier album, however, this isn't one piece--the thematic usage therefore lends coherence to ten nearly perfect jazz clarinet tunes, united in a song cycle, with a quartet performance for the ages (with Brubeck's piano joined by Gene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums).

Near-Myth/Brubeck Smith LP
Eric Seddon Collection

Buddy DeFranco once said somewhere that he considered Artie Shaw's famous 'Stardust' solo to be the greatest jazz solo ever played. I'm not sure he fully believed that; perhaps he just wanted to emphasize the beauty and power of that chorus, and the effect it had on him. I've always been glad he said it though--it gives us all permission to gush a bit. In a similar way, I find it hard to be objective about Bill Smith's opening solo on 'The Unihorn.' To me it seems the greatest modern jazz solo ever taken on a clarinet. Within a couple of choruses, he's unraveled musical ideas filled with such beauty, intelligence, meaning, and so idiomatic to the clarinet that they wouldn't have the same power on any other instrument. His playing is modern with such a strong and original musical identity that it's not beholden to other modern jazz influences--and that is rare for clarinetists.

By the end of the solo, Smith has casually and lyrically carried the line to the 'top' of the natural range of the clarinet (the same double high C that Artie Shaw ended his Concerto on so dramatically). Smith smashes this ceiling, however, on the very last note of 'Pan's Pipes', where he uses a mute to achieve an E four notes above it. This is one of the most breathtaking moments on the album--he hits the note softly and clearly, and sings it like the harmonic on a violin.  

Smith generally takes a joking and whimsical tone with his half of the album's liner notes, but he also points out some important aspects of the music, mentioning the use of multiphonics in 'Siren Song', piano harmonics employed in 'Apollo's Axe', and timpani sticks used on the strings of the piano for 'Baggin' the Dragon' (the miniature masterpiece that opens the original  B side of the album). He continues:

"To add to the musical unity of the album, the opening 4-note figure is utilized in several of the numbers. There are further interrelationships, such as the use of the Siren Song at the conclusion of the Sailor and the Mermaid, the anticipation of the opening three notes of the Siren Song in the ending of Bach an' All, and the derivation of the three measure dum pattern on Bach an' All from the closing piano, clarinet, and bass of Unihorn." 

Each tune tells a story, each is filled with meaningful playing from the members of the quartet. I personally think this album features some of Brubeck's most inspired playing. Bill Smith was more of a musical alpha-dog than Paul Desmond, so the dynamic was different in the quartet. Where Desmond might be called the perfectly cool compliment to Brubeck's fire, Smith tends to actively lead, drive, and push the music, which creates exciting results. Dave's solo's on 'The Unihorn' and 'Baggin' the Dragon' stand out as some of his finest on record, and Joe Morello responds intensely at times to Smith's lead. 

Dave Brubeck's liner notes emphasize the pure acoustic aspect of the recording. "Nothing in the album was electronically "gimmicked" for special effect. What was performed in the studio was produced by extending the natural capacities of the instruments." 

He concludes with a quote from Smith...
"Jazz forms are usually stereotyped, like a housing project with houses all alike. We want to change the number of rooms and the size and placement of the windows and doors."
...and an assessment:

I think on this album Bill Smith opens some new swinging doors.  

I wish there were ten more albums like this, but must be satisfied that Near-Myth exists at all. I've always thought the cartoon cover art by Arnold Roth was a weakness, as there is nothing cartoonish or goofy about the music...but after all these years, I've made peace with the concept. Smith's own titles and descriptions are offhand, tongue-in-cheek, evasive at times. The album cover simply allows it to fly under the radar, perhaps so it won't be recognized as consciously great art. But great art it is, and deserving of much wider recognition and study in jazz history.

For me, Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith one of a handful of the finest records ever made by a jazz clarinetist. There are few that even come close.

Near-Myth back cover
Eric Seddon collection

[ Footnote: Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith was recorded only four days after Pete Fountain's brilliant Santa Monica concert. What a week in jazz clarinet history that was! ]

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bill Smith, William O. Smith, Br. Roy Parker, and Me (R.I.P William O. 'Bill' Smith)

I learned just yesterday, via the NY Times obituary, that one of the greatest of all clarinetists, William O. Smith (better know to jazz audiences as Bill Smith) passed away last February 29th. He was 93 years old, and lived a life wherein he contributed not only some of the finest jazz of the past century, but expanded our understanding of the clarinet, continuously, for decades. The obituaries will detail his remarkable and unique career - the talented composer who won the Prix de Paris, the Prix de Rome, and who studied with Darius Milhaud and Roger Sessions - the modern jazz master who recorded three albums of his own music with Dave Brubeck at the height of his popularity, but who preferred an academic career to a life of touring and recording. I'm sure there is much more to tell of those facets of his life and work, but his music effected me so deeply, I can't help but share one little story, of how I first heard Smith's music.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, immersed in clarinet playing and specifically jazz, when I happened to meet a monk from Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. My brother and I used to spend time volunteering there--we'd clean the guesthouse before retreats. One of the monks was named Br Roy Parker, and though a soft spoken man, known for the masterful calligraphy he drew, he was in fact a huge fan of jazz, and while working in his shop would often listen to Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and the like. He soon learned of my love of Goodman, Shaw, and others, and we'd talk jazz regularly. One Sunday afternoon when I was there to clean, Br. Roy announced that he was switching over his whole collection of cassette tapes to the newly introduced CD format -- and he gave me first pick of anything in his shop that I wanted. I don't remember all the tapes I took home that day -- but I remember the most important: Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith. 

I had never heard of Bill Smith before, but that album opened new vistas for me as a clarinetist. In contrast to other modern jazz clarinetists, he seemed to come at modern jazz from a the point of view of a clarinetist, rather than through the saxophone. To put it another way, while it was clear he had listened to Charlie Parker, and gained language through that listening, it never seemed he was translating Bird to clarinet. To listen to Smith was to hear a musical personality of such depth, any influences were subservient to his own musical thought. For me personally, his art remains the most fascinating and satisfying of modern jazz clarinet.

His solo from 'The Unihorn' on Near-Myth was the first I ever sat down and transcribed by hand. Years later, I purchased the LP version simply to read the liner notes - it now hangs on my studio wall.

Near-Myth on my Studio Wall

A few years later, as an undergraduate clarinet major at the Hartt School of Music, I was given an assignment by the late Dr. David Macbride: to find a recording of a clarinetist using 'extended techniques' and play it for his 20th century music theory class. While rifling through the stacks of the Hartt Music Library, I stumbled across my first exposure to William O. Smith: Bill's classical side. Here I found him performing his own Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra, and a cavalcade of extended techniques in his brilliant Variants for clarinet solo. I've published a review of this album here.

I've made several attempts to get in contact with Bill Smith over the years, but unfortunately failed each time. I'd hoped to get copies of his lead sheets and other works that might not be readily available in print and tried in vain to get a hold of his published jazz clarinet method. If any of you readers know how to procure these things, please don't hesitate to contact me -- I'd appreciate it.

Though very little of his work is reviewed on this blog (his recording of The Riddle with Dave Brubeck might be my only other) it's more because of my admiration, and hopes to do his music justice, that I have refrained. I'll try to rectify that in the coming weeks and months.     

But those review's are for another, there's just one more thing...

The day Bill Smith died, I'd actually been messaging a friend about his music, how much it continued to inspire me. And when I learned just yesterday of Smith's death, I tried to find contact information for my old friend, Br. Roy Parker, who I hadn't spoken to in over thirty years. I wanted to let him know about Smith's passing if he hadn't already heard, and to thank him for introducing this music to me. But it turns out Br. Roy passed away just nine days before Bill Smith. Br. Roy was a great artist in his own right, and appreciated all the technical nuances jazz musicians navigated - he would ask me all about those things with great interest. He was a great listener, and learned from what he heard. I hope and pray that he and William O are swapping notes in heaven right now. 

Br. Roy Parker, OHC
The greatest music is so powerful that it impresses itself right onto one's life story. Br. Roy's kindness and Bill Smith's celebratory brilliance will forever be connected in my mind.  May they both rest in eternal peace.

Wall of Inspiration in my Studio

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

100 Jazz Tunes Everyone Should Hear (#34) - Miles Davis - Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)

#34 - Miles Davis - Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)

I'm a huge fan of  Gershwin's opera Porgy & Bess -- such a huge fan that I generally don't even like tunes being excerpted by jazz musicians (there are exceptions, like Sidney Bechet's or Pete Fountain's renditions of "Summertime", but I'm really picky). The biggest exception for me is the album that Miles Davis recorded in 1958, featuring his ground breaking trumpet interpretations over Gil Evans's arrangements. The record is like a modern jazz opera in itself, equally satisfying as the original (at least to me). As a wind player, considering what Miles does on his horn, it's also endlessly inspiring.

This musical prayer to the Physician of Souls is a high point for me, though the whole album is worth countless listenings. Stay safe everyone, and God Bless you.

This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it representative of the "most important" or "best." Instead, following Duke Ellington's adage that the greatest music and musicians are "beyond category", I'm starting 2020 by sharing 100 jazz tunes I feel everyone should have the chance to hear--really just tunes and performances that I love. ]

100 Jazz Tunes Everyone Should Hear (#33) - Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers - Dr. Jazz

#33 - Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers - Hello Central, Give Me Dr. Jazz

To everyone out there who reads The Jazz Clarinet -- I'm praying for all of you, every day during this COVID-19 pandemic. We're all in this together: stay safe, love each other, and listen to some great music when you can. Heres's some Jelly Roll Morton for medicinal purposes.

This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it representative of the "most important" or "best." Instead, following Duke Ellington's adage that the greatest music and musicians are "beyond category", I'm starting 2020 by sharing 100 jazz tunes I feel everyone should have the chance to hear--really just tunes and performances that I love. ]

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Clarinet Gear Review: Reginald Kell's 1956 Boosey & Hawkes Series 2000 Bb Clarinet

Today I had the unique opportunity to play through many clarinets in the Arthur Benade Collection. Benade was a physicist whose work focused on the acoustics of wind instruments, and who taught at Cleveland's Case Western university from 1952 until his death in 1987. Not only did he study the acoustics of the clarinet in depth, he redesigned them himself, with some truly remarkable results. This morning, his son Martin was kind enough to allow jazz historian and clarinetist John Richmond and me access to the private collection, which is likely to be sold or archived in the near future. Contained in the collection are many rare clarinets--some which seemed to my eye dating from the 18th Century, along with an original Albert clarinet, many large bore Selmers, and Benade's own modified models, among others.

I'll dedicate a future post to a remarkable set of Benade clarinets, modified in 1968 and 1970 according to his acoustic theories, but today's post will feature something I never even dreamt of playing: one of Reginald Kell's clarinets. 

The instrument in question is a 1956 Boosey & Hawkes Series 2000 Bb clarinet. 

Detail of the Boosey & Hawkes Case from the Benade Collection

The logos of the horn were well-worn, indicating the instrument had been played frequently. I guess we can hope this wear was from Kell himself. Given the date of the instrument's manufacture, it's at least possible this was the clarinet played on Kell's Decca recordings of 1957, which include the Six Studies in English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others. We'll probably never know anything that detailed, but let's just say it's within the realm of historical possibility. 

Reginald Kell's Boosey & Hawkes Series 2000 Bb Clarinet:
The Benade Collection

Though it has been in a case, unplayed, for over thirty years, the pads and springs are in remarkable condition. It will need an overhaul if anyone wants to play it seriously, but even so, it's in good enough playing condition to play effectively even now. 

Reginald Kell's Boosey & Hawkes Series 2000 Bb Clarinet:
The Benade Collection

The review for and assessment of this clarinet is very simple: it's gorgeous. This Boosey & Hawkes Series 2000 possesses a big, rich, yet nimble tone, particularly in the clarion register. Perhaps the greatest surprise is the plaintive depth it yields in the upper clarion -- it's the type of sound one can't easily get on a Parisian or German horn, but which we hear throughout Kell's recordings. The chalumeau is reedy and substantial, and the altissimo full and easy. The player is capable of getting a rare combination of richness and diversity of color and power. I can't tell you how special it was to play this instrument. 

Detail of the Bell from Reginald Kell's Boosey & Hawkes
Series 2000 Bb Clarinet: The Benade Collection

I'm not sure what Martin Benade will ultimately decide to do with this instrument -- whether he will sell it or donate it to a museum or archive. I'm grateful to have had the chance to play it, though, and hope that it will ultimately go to a player who has both the skill as a clarinetist to get great music from it, and an appreciation of its history.