Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mouthpiece Review: Charles Bay 1989 MO-L

1989 Charles Bay Mouthpiece
 

The battle tested Bay in this photo was my first handcrafted pro-model mouthpiece, purchased in 1989 (the grooves were caused by a Bonade inverted ligature, since banished to a cold corner of The Jazz Clarinet's "ligature museum"). Charles Bay's website states that his mouthpieces are intended to give clarinetists the "ability to project one’s unique sound whether Classical or Jazz." This flexibility of purpose strikes me as important, as many top mouthpiece makers seem less concerned with the jazz market. It's nice to deal with someone who takes jazz into consideration, and who values individuality of sound. 

Of all the mouthpieces I've owned, this Bay has probably seen the most diverse use. Between the ages of 17 and 25, I played it constantly and in all circumstances, including symphony orchestras, opera and show pits, jazz gigs in New Orleans' French Quarter, solo concerti, and Mozart with the Emerson String Quartet.

The mouthpiece is marked MO-L, which I believe means "Medium Open - Long" facing.

It's dominant attribute is a free-blowing, forward, booming sound. Articulation is surprisingly good, especially when slightly harder reeds are used--one excellent characteristic is that it can accept a wide variety of reeds for different styles of music.

In the chalumeau and clarion registers, this mouthpiece is ideal for gaining a fat New Orleans sound, with that 'forward in the mouth' feel. For jazz purposes, I would recommend it most strongly to players looking for a very specific type of retro-NOLA 'talking' quality, represented by players such as Albert Nicholas, George Lewis, and Dr. Michael White. This mouthpiece gets me into that sound world much quicker than others in my collection.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mouthpiece Review: Pomarico Crystal 1 and 1L (c. 1999)

When I played Buffet R13s, these mouthpieces were my bread and butter for pops concerts and jazz--in fact, they were the only mouthpieces I ever ran across that would smooth out the sound of an R13 to the point of giving a decent masquerade of the old Selmer sound.

Pomarico 1 and 1L crystal mouthpieces, c.1998

They also perform well on the classical repertoire. The darker, more used looking cork to the left is the Pomarico 1, on which I won my first professional audition. The 1L was bought as a backup, and despite the difference in facing length (I'm fairly sure "L" stood for "long" in the old Pomarico nomenclature, which has since been replaced by various gems and other symbols) it plays and responds similarly. The old Pomarico 1s were roughly equivalent tip opening to the current "Nigun" models. [ Readers of The Jazz Clarinet should note that I don't play stereotypically open "jazz" facings, but tend to medium/medium close facings.]

I'm not one who thinks crystal mouthpieces sound in any way "brighter" than hard rubber, acrylic, or wood mouthpieces. Depending on reed selection and embouchure, they can actually sound much denser, smoother, and less "bright" to my ear.

These mouthpieces yield a very consistent and uniform sound to all registers of the clarinet. This was particularly helpful when playing the R13, which was never an easy experience for me in terms of timbre. The dynamic range is very good, especially at the soft end of the spectrum, holding the sound shape firmly while producing the lightest pianissimo. At maximum volume, they resisted distortion, but also lack the type of 'jump' or 'shout' that can be gained with a Selmer C85.

Articulation is solid, but not quite as crisp as can be attained on other mouthpieces.

These mouthpieces are highly recommended for those playing instruments with timbre-control issues. For mellowness, the Pomarico concept is really quite extraordinary, and is what I most associate with them.  They really are a smooth ride and quite enjoyable to play.

Movie Review: The Dancing Co-Ed * Lana Turner * Artie Shaw * 1939

Once upon a time, jazz clarinetists were so big they starred in Hollywood movies. Or at least Artie Shaw took a prominent place in a couple of films: 1939's The Dancing Co-Ed, and Second Chorus, a 1941 film featuring the dancing team of Fred Astaire and Paulette Goddard.

The later film is better known to Shaw fans. Fred Astaire's enduring popularity kept it in public view for decades on television, and when the time came, it was released in VHS and DVD format promptly. Featuring a good amount of music, including clips of Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet", his original tune "Love of My Life" and several other numbers, well spaced throughout the movie, it's an ideal place to find footage of Shaw's physical approach to the clarinet.

By contrast, there isn't as much Shaw in The Dancing Co-Ed. Conceived as vehicle for MGM's newest girl star, Lana Turner (who a year later became Mrs. Artie Shaw), the plot is a gentle romantic comedy in the 1930s screw-ball tradition, interspersed with mild dance numbers.

For fans for Artie Shaw, the highlight will be another take of "Traffic Jam" performed by the famous "Stardust Band" of 1938-39. The rest of the movie will seem more like a tease, throwing out snippets of Nightmare, Non-Stop Flight, I'm Coming Virginia, Double Mellow, Jungle Drums, Back Bay Shuffle, and others. Like Benny Goodman's role in Hollywood Hotel, we jazz aficionados have to wait a long time before our hero takes the limelight, and when he does, it isn't for long. 

Besides "Traffic Jam", the musical highlight for me is an over-the-top-Hollywood moment where the Shaw Band joins a parade, with Artie playing an obbligato solo over "Stars and Stripes Forever." While others might find this a moment of eye-rolling endurance, for me the opportunity to hear Shaw take a casual chorus over Sousa is worth the price of the DVD by itself.

I've watched this movie a few times over the last several weeks. I bought it for Shaw's playing, expecting little more than fluff from the rest of the movie. But I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the rest of the film. Most of these sorts of films feel like extended music videos held together by rushed bits and pieces of plot. Some of the very best performances from swing era musicals (think Harry James's Private Buckaroo or the aforementioned Hollywood Hotel) can sometimes leave a lot to be desired beyond the band numbers.

But in this movie, Lana Turner is great, and so are the rest of the cast. She plays the role of Patty Marlow, a young professional hoofer without a name for herself, who has been planted at a large Mid-Western University for the purpose of winning a major studio's dance competition--all to ratchet up publicity for the coming movie. Trouble ensues when school-newspaper reporter Michael "Pug" Braddock, played by a bright-faced and earnest Richard Carlson, suspects the competition to be rigged. The two main characters fall inevitably in love, and the movie becomes a comedic parable of young love, lies, truth telling, and consequences.

Turner's charisma and charm carry the movie for 84 minutes, and while the clarinetists in the audience might be left wishing for more Shaw, the balance between comedy, plot, and music seems close to being right. For those of us weary of the increasingly cynical, dreary, and immoral nature of our current Hollywood romances, this movie is like a breath of fresh air. There is something charming hearing a dress which would be tame by current network TV standards referred to as a "homewrecker", for instance. There is nothing stodgy about this movie: its moral framework enables the young lovers to be effervescent instead of cynical, free instead of lost. Because of this, it's worth preserving for even non-musical reasons. Yet also because of this, for the jazz musician these films are more than an exercise in nostalgia--they are an aesthetic training ground, providing cultural context for the tunes we call "standards."

 In terms of practical music making, I consider it very important to watch these old films. In my opinion, seeing a great player can be as important as hearing them--watching Artie Shaw and Harry James has probably had as big an impact on my playing (especially my breathing) as the transcribing I've done.

I give this movie a rating of Four Good Reeds on the strength of the script and overall acting, which is charming and withstands repeated viewings quite well. A fifth good reed would have been added, if only Shaw and his band could have played more. Any way you cut it, though, this one is a keeper and a classic.



[ As a footnote, yesterday I was subjected to nearly three hours of orc-slaying inanity under the name of "The Hobbit". In the aftermath of that bizarre experience, I couldn't help reflecting on what the whole film would have been like had Lana Turner showed up at Bilbo's door, dressed as Patty Marlow. My bet is that Gandalf and thirteen dwarves would have blushed, stumbled for words, and left quietly, with Thorin Oakenshield perhaps mugging the camera on his way out to whisper "What's in your wallet?" sheepishly. Then Lana could sit in the parlour, turn on the "wireless" and introduce a deeply embarrassed Bilbo to the music of Artie Shaw. Is it too late to make this revision? Someone please call Peter Jackson.]

Monday, December 24, 2012

Silent Night * Kathleen Battle * Wynton Marsalis


One of my favorites:  'Silent Night' arranged by Wynton Marsalis and performed by Wynton, his band, and Kathleen Battle.

God Bless you all this Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Autobiographies: an Overview

Although most of them are out of print, jazz clarinetist are startlingly well represented by highly informative autobiographies--books that are more than marketing hype, and give a real look into the lives and thoughts of the musicians who wrote (or, more often, co-wrote) them.

In my opinion the most important of these books, and a literary work of art in its own right, is Sidney Bechet's Treat it Gentle.  Bechet's book was compiled from interview recordings and edited by a team of writers, among them Joan Reid, Desmond Flower, and the poet John Ciardi, who is still well known for his masterful translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The work was so well done that Bechet's voice comes through almost as clearly and profoundly as his playing did. This book, which Nat Hentoff called the "most valuable and moving of all jazz biographies" ought to be required reading somewhere--at the very least among all jazz musicians.

Another brilliant, if uniquely odd and idiosyncratic book, is Artie Shaw's The Trouble with Cinderella. This book is unfortunately out of print--and the Ebay prices are climbing.

Benny Goodman's The Kingdom of Swing, published at the height of his popularity in 1938, would seem by context a fluff piece meant to capitalize on music sales, but it isn't. Instead, Benny's self-portrait reveals a side of him not often mentioned by contemporary commentators. In the beginning, especially, it details his family's struggles through poverty, radiating the warmth of that large family, while always focusing on the music and what it meant to him. Like Benny's sound, it is both warm and hard edged, simultaneously. Benny's book has been out of print for a very long time, and can be quite difficult to find.

In 1972, Pete Fountain published his memoir, A Closer Walk,  which reads like his music sounds: a upbeat party, with some heartfelt blues, to be sure, but a whole lot of brightness. As of this writing, the only copy available on Amazon is selling for about $100.

Two other important autobiographies were published posthumously: Barney Bigard's With Louis and the Duke and Woody Herman's The Woodchopper's Ball. These books, while slim, give invaluable insights to the men and their era.

Finally, Bill Russell's volume, New Orleans Style, deserves mentions, as it includes brief autobiographical sketches of Omer Simeon, Edmond Hall, Raymond Burke, and Lawrence Duhe.

I'll be giving more detailed reviews of these books in the near future--interested readers will want to get copies while they are still available. This is an endangered part of our jazz heritage.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mouthpiece Review: Selmer C85

Of the fifty or so mouthpieces in my collection, only one--a Morgan purchased in 1989--might qualify as a specifically made "jazz" mouthpiece. All of the others, like each of my clarinets, were manufactured with a classical market in mind. While mouthpiece choice is ultimately very personal, with no two players getting the same results from the same equipment, jazz players often have to re-purpose materials from the classical market. This ongoing series of reviews is therefore written in the hopes that giving one player's opinions and experiences might be of some help to others.


SELMER C85


Selmer C85 105



First and foremost, this mouthpiece is loud. But loudness itself isn't really a positive quality unless it's accompanied by other aspects of sound. Depth, flexibility, color spectrum and dynamic range all play their parts and will determine whether it's worth listening in the first place.

What makes this loud "good" and others less successful is the depth, flexibility, and a certain plaintive quality this mouthpiece yields, deep in the tone. There is an inner motion to the sound possible--rather than giving one generic sound, it's multi-layered. It also has a strong edge to the sound, without sacrificing body.

All registers respond immediately to this mouthpiece--it very much feels like a hair-trigger megaphone, freeing the player up to focus on the music rather than any physical challenges. Player who like to exert while playing might find this mouthpiece shouts too much (or that it has too little resistence), but those who like to lay back while getting big results will probably like the feel and response of the C85.

I've read elsewhere on the web that the C85 series was designed specifically for the Selmer 10S/Recital series clarinets, and that they don't work particularly well for pre-10S Selmers. This hasn't been my experience--the C85 works very well on my 1955 Centered Tone and 10S alike.

I can tolerate a pretty wide variety of facings, from fairly close (105) to fairly open (120), and have used both the C85 105 and C85 120 on my horns. They yield similar results, though I prefer the 105 (pictured above is a new 105, purchased as a backup--the one I use more often is a "vintage" 'piece from the early '80s, with an inlaid stamp of the Selmer logo, letters and numbers).

In the grand argument about whether material matters, count me with those who believe it does. These mouthpieces are made from rod rubber, and the sound seems, from both a listening and playing perspective, a bit more defined and harder edged than the molded hard rubber mouthpieces in my collection. Whether it's ultimately material that accounts for this will be debated by those more expert than I am, but my "player's opinion" is that the rubber itself does seem to contribute to that difference.

For those who like Vandoren B40s or B45s, but are looking for a slightly edgier sound, this mouthpiece handles very similarly (with the 120 being the closest facing to those popular Vandorens), and being reasonably priced, it's worth looking into.



Monday, December 17, 2012

Memos from Paradise * Eddie Daniels


Twenty-Five years ago today, Eddie Daniels was in New York City at Clinton Studios recording what I consider to be one of the great jazz clarinet albums of all time, Memos from Paradise.  

My first copy of this album was on vinyl--I was in High School and didn't yet own a CD player! In retrospect, this was a great way to approach the musical material on the album. Side A contained six tunes that would be at home on most jazz albums, while Side B was dedicated to a unique musical landscape for clarinet, rhythm section, and string quartet--the title suite for the album.

Eddie had already made his presence as a jazz clarinetist forcefully known on Breakthrough  and To Bird with Love. The former opened new vistas for classical/jazz fusion, while the second took jazz clarinet deeper into bop realms. As a young player, I was pretty amazed at what was coming out of Eddie's horn, but perhaps even more impressed by his ensemble concept, which was very contemporary. Eddie's version of "Just Friends", for example, demonstrated that a clarinet could sound very "now", even in the late 1980s. By the time Memos came out, I was ready and waiting for what might come next.

That era was very eclectic. Chick Corea was in the middle of his Elektric Band heyday, Pat Metheny had released Still Life (Talking), Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland were touring with Sting (leading many of us to wonder if some more interesting renaissance of jazz/rock hybrid might be on the horizon...alas, it wasn't), Wynton Marsalis was blazing away with a brilliant quartet featuring Marcus Roberts and Tain Watts, and players like Miles Davis and David Sanborn were very much on the scene, influencing sound. This was the music I was listening to, and when Eddie's new album floated in, it was so different from every trend, I almost didn't know what to do...except listen, over and over again, especially to Side B. It was years before I could really place it into context.    

Context is deeply important for our understanding of a piece of music. It's not the only thing, and a great piece of music can even withstand being heard by those without knowledge of the musical landscape surrounding it, but to really appreciate a performance, it helps to know a bit more. And Memos, which has been overlooked for quite a while, has probably been held back from proper appreciation for lack of knowledge among even educated listeners. The string quartet seemed strange in a jazz setting, as did the suite form, and yet it was Side B that was in danger of being worn out on my turntable.
 
The concept of Chamber Jazz will be familiar to readers of The Jazz Clarinet. It was the term Artie Shaw gave to his desire for a type of jazz that engaged on many different, subtle levels, and was opposed to the merely loud, bombastic music that Shaw felt was threatening to take over the music of his day. Shaw's early career as a clarinet soloist shows his active engagement with this concept--his first real break came while playing his own composition, entitled Interlude in B-flat for clarinet, piano-less rhythm section, and string quartet.

This is very close the instrumentation for Roger Kellaway's Memos from Paradise which uses Artie's orchestration plus piano and added percussion. If we read Eddie Daniels' career at the time, we find that he started with full orchestra--expanding upon Benny Goodman's work as a classical soloist by integrating improvisation--to straight ahead jazz more in the tradition of Buddy DeFranco and Bill Smith, to reengaging Shaw's concept of Chamber jazz. In each category, he didn't merely copy the players before him, but expanded it. In fact, he and Kellaway produced a piece that merges (for me at least) Artie Shaw's Chamber Jazz concept with Ellington, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane's ideas about the artistic and spiritual importance of suite form in jazz.

Two important points ought to be highlighted about the music itself: The casual listener might not realize the opening movement is in 7/4 unless they are told, but it is a masterful example of what can be done, lyrically, with that time signature. The third movement is set in an ancient Jewish mode--harkening back to the double stream of jazz clarinet. There are too many other musical points to make well in a short blog post, but I encourage readers to listen to the album again, or for the first time.    

The album cover has always struck me as being both beautiful and significant; almost as though it's informing us there's an elephant in the room--and that it might be endangered.  




Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1955 Selmer Centered Tone



Many have called the Centered Tone (CT) the ultimate jazz horn, with its large bore and well-known Benny Goodman endorsement.  But the music biz is filled with stories of players selling one product in magazines while playing another on the stand.  Knowing that most of Benny's legendary recordings were made on earlier Selmers, and that by the time the CT came out, he was focused on classical repertoire and lessons with Reginald Kell, I wasn't so sure.

Then this horn practically fell into my lap. I saw it on Ebay this summer, with exactly what I was looking for: According to the Selmer Centered Tone Brochure (posted here by the good folks at Clarinet Perfection), it's a model 802: 17 keys, 7 rings. For me the seventh ring is nearly essential, and with the auction price of this horn so low, I just couldn't pass it up. Now buying horns on auction sites is always a gamble, and I've been burned before, but this one paid off: When I got it, the horn was still virtually unplayed and in excellent adjustment, with original pads and springs--some conscientious collector must have owned it and kept it carefully. To have a new 1955 CT come my way was something very special--I'll probably never experience it again.


1955 Selmer Centered Tone Model 802



Now for the specific playing qualities:
The chalumeau: Excellent depth and body. The CT, like my 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer, holds firm to pitch and timbre, regardless of volume down low. The subtone remains full, round, and 'jumps' like no other horn I've played. Articulation turns on a dime while maintaining bouyance and shape.

The clarion sings in matched timbre to the chalumeau. Of all the problems I've had with smaller bore instruments, the biggest is a tendency to timbral change between registers. This CT maneuvers and jumps like my 1981 10S, but without as much of  pitch downturn at the bottom of the chalumeau, and without as much pressure difference over the clarion/chalumeau break.

The altissimo is huge, full, and "fretless." Fantastic. Pinpoint precision, huge sound, great dynamic range, glissando flexibility to match the later 10S. This horn is one smooth instrument from top to bottom.

I once wrote that Fritz Wurlitzer's clarinets seem built to 'voice' the German repertoire perfectly: Brahms sings more easily through a Fritz Wurlitzer than any other horn I've played. The keywork of this CT has a similar disposition for jazz. Because of the unique placement of the throat Ab and A keys, I could actually swing easier over the break (Test tune: Artie Shaw's intro to "My Blue Heaven").

Now as to timbre, even if Benny didn't play this on his old legendary recordings it's immediately obvious that he could have: the CT is clearly the old Selmer sound. It yields the style and substance of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman quite easily on a number of mouthpieces (I've tested it with several Pomarico crystals, a Selmer C85 105, a Portnoy, a Charles Bay, a Viotto, and a Richard Hawkins). The one thing it doesn't yield quite as easily as a Fritz Wurlitzer is a sound I associate with some of the old NOLA players: the earthy chalumeau quality of Edmond Hall and others.

The old Selmer swing sound of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman is here though, and with a twist: this horn has the precision and punch to play bop as well. I've never played a horn that delivers quite as much for jazz as this Selmer Centered Tone. Since buying it last June, the CT has become my main horn.

I hope someone at Selmer is reading, and a Reference CT is in the works. If they need a horn to serve as a template, I'll gladly let them take the specs of mine.

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform Boehm

For me, this horn just might be the coolest looking clarinet ever made. In a day and age when clarinets are getting increasingly dense looking on the one hand (*), and flamboyantly whimsical on the other, Fritz Wurlitzer's clarinets look like streamlined masterpieces. I like the look of this horn so much that even after switching back to Selmers, I wouldn't change the photo in my profile picture.


Overhead shot of me playing the Fritz Wurlitzer R-B. This angle shows off the bell in particular.
 
The bell flare is large, gracefully paced in a "power swoop", the left hand pinkie levers are like a cluster of art deco flowers, understated and unobtrusive, the 'banana' keys fatter than any others I've played, perfect in comfort, and designed to facilitate fingerings that wouldn't be so smoothly possible on other models. 

For playing the German classical repertoire, these horns are my ideal. Schumann, Brahms, Mozart--this is their wheelhouse, and they allow a deeply personal sound. But can they swing?

The answer is certainly yes, though they're different than any others I've played in this capacity. In terms of basic sound, for me they yield something much closer to Irving Fazola's Albert system than any French Boehm clarinet. A pretty broad range of retro-NOLA sounds, specifically, are possible.

Fritz Wurlitzer's instruments are known for evenness of timbre and scale throughout the horn. They yield quite a strong sound, though mine are a bit softer than a Selmer CT or 10S at maximum output. Flexibility is unique but impressive--the glissandi on these horns is much more compact, though I found no problem glissing over the clarion/alitssimo break from G to shining G.

There are mouthpiece and embouchure differences one encounters when playing a German clarinet, especially if switching from a American-style classical Buffet set-up, but those adjustments should actually be less of a challenge for a jazz player--especially one who has any experience on saxophone (the embouchure adjustment is no more difficult than that). More challenging can be the sense of distance from the sound--a Selmer gives a bit more "back sound" to the player, and my experience was one of feeling vocally closer to a Selmer than with this F. Wurlitzer--for jazz.

This horn can be very bluesy, especially when playing subtones, once you learn to trust the instrument. My one real concern is the altissimo: it's well designed to play Spohr, with the altissimo notes locking in strongly. This is fantastic for German Romanticism, but difficult when you're looking to let loose on 'Nightmare' or 'St James Infirmary.' Still, not every jazz clarinet tradition prizes altissimo play to the same degree that swing does, and for a New Orleans aficionado, this horn can deliver quite a bit of home cooked gumbo.

Bottom line: Plays as good as it looks, and can do almost anything, but swing specialists are going to want to check out some Selmers for altissimo flexibility.





(*) my biggest aesthetic sorrow with contemporary clarinets is the trend for ringless bells. Today's instrument designers are among the best in history, so I'm sure their sonic reasons are strong, but bell rings just look so cool...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1990 Buffet R13

The only Bb soprano Buffet R13 I've owned was purchased in January of 1991 in New York City, selected from nearly twenty R13s then in stock at Weiner's. My intent was to use it for classical playing, and it served that purpose for a decade, accompanying my journey through undergrad, grad school, and my first professional orchestra jobs.

Over the course of those years, I did my best to become a true "Buffet player", holding the instrument in a more tucked position and adjusting my embouchure and breathing accordingly. Because it was so different from the Selmer 10S jazz playing of my youth, switching back and forth was increasingly difficult. So the R13 became my all-purpose horn, including jazz, which is why this review is included here.

The chalumeau was a complete shift for me. Vintage Selmers, by and large, tend to cradle the sound in a different manner, so the player can hold the horn out more and blow in a more relaxed manner, letting the horn "catch" it. By contrast, my R13 tended to spread and be poorly focused with that approach. The well known "high tongue" position, pointed chin, and slightly pulled lips of American classical playing became very important to me for achieving a focused classical sound. This, by the way, seems to me the main reason Buffet players consider Selmers to be inferior and vice versa: the playing styles are very different and tend to interfere with each other (or at least they did--as of this writing, the most recent Selmer I've played was a 1999 Recital). At the height of my Buffet playing, I couldn't switch back to Selmers and get good results; the same was true the other way around.

The clarion was a good, solid R13 clarion, ideally used for blending in American orchestral sections, and useful for most situations, whether it was Prokofiev or Pops concerts. The timbral shift between the chalumeau and clarion was pronounced, though, compared to my Selmer 10S.

The altissimo was the weakest register for me. There wasn't one timbre, but many, almost shifting with each note. Flexibility was there, to a degree, but with a tone quality quite thin and shrill. The ultimate problem, possibly, was that I'd developed my altissimo approach on a Selmer, and kept trying to get that same quality.

That Buffets can and do make great jazz instruments is evidenced by some legendary recordings made by Artie Shaw in the 1950s, and Eddie Daniels in the late '80s and early '90s. Artie Shaw's final Gramercy 5 recordings were made on a Buffet, and these are, for me and many others, among the greatest jazz clarinet recordings ever made.

As for Eddie Daniels, albums like To Bird, with Love and Memos from Paradise helped listeners reapproach jazz clarinet after the instrument had endured quite a bit of obscurity. Eddie's Buffet altissimo, especially on the title suite from Memos, is breathtakingly beautiful and consistent.
Equipment and results ultimately depend on who is playing.

Bottom line: My natural playing style was at odds with the R13, which is why I sold my set and returned to Selmers. I would recommend recordings like the Shaw's 1954 Gramcery 5 sessions and Eddie Daniels' Memos from Paradise for examples of how they can sound at their best.

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: Introduction & 1981 Selmer 10S


[ NOTE: 'GEAR REVIEWS' ON THE JAZZ CLARINET HAVE BEEN CONSISTENTLY THE MOST VIEWED POSTS, SO I'VE DECIDED TO GO OVER THEM ONCE AGAIN, CLARIFY SOME THINGS, AND RE-POST, BEGINNING WITH THE SELMER 10S.]  


Introduction

What is a jazz clarinet?

The short answer: a clarinet played by a jazz musician.

The longer, better answer:

A jazz clarinet needs to enable the player a range of textures, flexibility, and volume needed to perform jazz.

This sort of instrument is not so easy to find as you might think, especially as most manufacturers these days are making instruments to suit a very specifically defined classical scene. I'm personally a vintage, large-bore partisan--I think the decline of the large, straight bore has accompanied, not coincidentally, the decline of the clarinet playing a dominant role in contemporary jazz. Having said that, great jazz has been made over the years on a wide array of instrument makes. Some quick history:

Benny Goodman played Selmer K series horns in the 1930s, then the Selmer CT (or at least he endorsed them), then Buffet R13s once he'd gone into semi-retirement and was playing both classical and jazz gigs more evenly.

Artie Shaw played Selmers with his big band. He endorsed and possibly played Conns as well. His final Gramercy 5 sessions were recorded on a Buffet.

Pete Fountain played a Leblanc Dynamic H, then his own 'Pete Fountain' model developed by Leblanc, later renamed the "Big Easy" before discontinuation after a run of about three decades.

Edmond Hall played Albert models, then a German System Hammerschmidt.

Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon, Jimmy Noone, Barney Bigard, Raymond Burke, and Jimmy Hamilton (early in his career) played various Albert system horns (often Selmers). These are instruments with a large, straighter bore than most clarinets played today. You'll note that this list contains many of the great New Orleans players--the NOLA sound is dominantly Albert system.

Dr. Michael White, who continues the New Orleans jazz clarinet tradition, has performed and recorded on many makes of clarinet, most recently a Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm, which is a hybrid of German bore with French Boehm-style keywork.

Eddie Daniels has made masterful jazz on a variety of clarinets over the years, including Yamahas, Leblancs, Buffets, and Backun clarinet. 

I've played jazz on several makes over the last few decades and thought my impressions might be of some help or interest to other jazz clarinet fans out there, begining with my first:


1981 Selmer Series 10S

The Selmer 10S was the first pro clarinet I ever purchased, at age 14. Looking for a free blowing horn that could match the sort of Big Band era timbre of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, it was chosen from a batch of several horns, including a 1980's era Buffet, a pre-R13 Buffet, and a Yamaha.



1981 Selmer Series 10S


The chalumeau of this horn is very liquid, mellow, and bulbous. It has a nice 'boom' to the sound and 'jumps' well in the chalumeau and clarion (that Selmer 'shout' Artie Shaw used to mention). Intonation in the very low chalumeau is tough, like most clarinets. (For what it's worth, and probably due to my playing style, I tend to find modern polycyclindricals a little harder to play in tune than straight bores--the angle of the horn probably has a good deal to do with it--I've always felt most comfortable holding the horn out like early Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw).

The clarion is really nice on this horn--great mellow quality, like the chalumeau. Everything matches well, timbrally. It's very warm, yet perhaps the sound doesn't yield the same 'crackle' or quite the same depth that the CT does when pushed. This isn't a big problem, though--the character of this horn is warmth, and that's not a bad thing!

The altissimo is a pure, 'fretless' Selmer altissimo. No clarinets are better at delivering this violin-like quality, where glissandi are possible, with a tremendous amount of power.

Bottom line: For me, this horn is excellent in many ways. It has the shout, the punch, and mellowness associated with the Selmers of old (though even the 10S is getting more scarce on the used market). Highly recommended for jazz, with the caveat that those who want a wider color palette will probably prefer a CT.



Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1944 Selmer Balanced Tone

The Selmer BT is another on the list of clarinets considered by many to be the "ultimate jazz horn." (The others I've heard most often considered for that honor are the Selmer Centered Tone, the Radio Improved, and the Selmer Albert). I picked up an Enhanced Boehm Balanced Tone this past summer, had some work done on it, and have been playing it for about a week now. The enhancements include a seventh ring (which I consider nearly indispensable) and an articulated G# mechanism (which I haven't really used much).


1944 Selmer Balanced Tone


The basic sound quality of this BT is much different from most contemporary horns, though it bears a Selmer family resemblance to both my 1955 Centered Tone and 1981 Series 10S. The main difference is a thicker quality to the sound--very solid, even heavy if an effort isn't made to keep the sound moving.

The Chalumeau is a real vintage treat. Like my 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform Boehms, the BT has a metal sleeve between the joints, sheathing the inside of the lower joint. This adds weight and seems to add resonance as well. It is a very mellow horn down low, though less defined in sound quality than the later Centered Tone, and without as much "jump" to the sound as later Selmers.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this horn is the break between the chalumeau and clarion registers...if there even is a break! I've never played a horn where the pressure exerted for throat tones and low clarion register seemed identical, until now. It's so smooth that practice on this BT tends make my transitions even smoother on my other horns.

The Clarion therefore seems like an extension of the chalumeau, but the same difficulty in defining the sound exists--this is a fat instrument, and the sound is great, husky, mellow, all of those wonderful adjectives, but to get a ringing, light, moving sound is a challenge.

The Altissimo is a true Selmer altissimo; simply unbeatable for jazz. Easy jumps, plenty of volume; the characteristic "fretless" agility and flexibility are all there. It's very tough to tell any significant difference between this altissimo and those of my other Selmers.

All in all this is a great instrument. It yields a real vintage sound, good for swing era ballads and mellowness. In terms of all-around jazz use, I feel the definition of sound and extra "pop" of a Centered Tone can be addictive, and the agility one can gain on either a CT or a 10S edge them slightly higher in my book that the BT, but there is something wonderful about stepping back in time for a moment with this horn from the '40s. There's an honesty about the sound of this horn that is good for the soul.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck, R.I.P.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Dave Brubeck has passed away one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

Brubeck was a giant of modern jazz, whose music has given me countless hours of beauty and strength, and for which I am personally grateful. The Jazz Clarinet has featured work of his more than once, as he was one of the few major leaders in jazz to continue working with clarinet after the Swing Era. His work with Bill Smith--a collaboration worthy of study--will always be remembered here for its importance and depth.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Dave and to the Brubeck family during this time. God Bless you and keep you.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ed Rosa with the Harry James Orchestra * Oh Lady Be Good * 1945

In the liner notes to Eddie Daniels' 1994 album Real Time, Buddy DeFranco writes "[Eddie] has made his mark. I have heard as many Eddie clones as I have Benny, Artie, or [myself]."

That's always seemed to me a great compliment, except for one small thing: in all my years of listening to and collecting jazz clarinet recordings, I've never heard an Artie Shaw clone. Who else had command of the instrument in all registers the way Shaw did, with complete flexibility? Who could combine those qualities with lyricism and power? And so Buddy's compliment always rang a bit hollow to me--a drop of hyperbole seemed to spoil it.

Buddy came up during that era, though, and doubtless heard many players whose efforts remained unrecorded and un heralded. I've just stumbled across one such player in Hindsight Records 3-disc set of the Harry James Orchestra entitled Bandstand Memories 1938-1948. In the middle of the third disc, there is a cut of "Oh, Lady be Good" that jumps out. Harry James doesn't play, handing over solo duty to one of his utility wind players, Ed Rosa, instead.

When I first heard it, I thought Shaw must have been sitting in with the band. Rosa's altissimo is comparable--full, strong, mellow. His technique is fluid and his language sounds directly influenced by Shaw. Indeed, here is a "Shaw clone" if ever there was one.

By 1945, James's Orchestra was huge by Big Band Era standards. A full string section and auxiliary instruments such as valve trombone, flute, bass clarinet, and bass trombone were common. Rosa is listed in the liner notes as a flutist, but he obviously doubled on clarinet--though he was obviously no mere doubler. To master the clarinet well enough to fool anyone into thinking Artie Shaw was playing is a rare accomplishment. I can't think of anyone else who has, though Buddy DeFranco's quote suggests that there were at least a few. I hope there are other recordings of Rosa's clarinet prowess available--I'll certainly post my findings if any turn up.

Until then, here is a link to the Harry James Orchestra playing "Oh Lady Be Good" with the remarkable Ed Rosa, and unsung hero of jazz clarinet, playing the solo.

[The YouTube link lists this recording as being from 1944. The recording I have is dated August 24, 1945].

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Harry James vs. The Rolling Stones

From Peter J. Levinson's Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James (Oxford University Press, 1999):

"I Found a New Baby" was the first of an astounding total of seventy Billboard pop chart hits by Harry James and his Orchestra that extended [from 1938] through 1953. If one considers that the Rolling Stones have had forty-one Billboard pop chart hits but in a thirty-five year period, one must conclude that Harry James was actually a more dominating force in popular music during the years of his greatest prominence." (pg. 70)

Someday a more accurate history of music will be written for the 20th century--one wherein musical and cultural values trump ideology. Musically, it's fairly obvious to any astute listener that Harry James's mastery of the trumpet, the skill of his band's arrangements, and quality of their nightly performances were objectively superior to an act such as the Rolling Stones (or their many counterparts in Rock history). But the argument of Rock has never really been musical--instead, it's more serious critics' claim has always been of a cultural and poetic impact so great as to warrant consideration of Rock as art music.

Despite having been born in the 1970s, and having at one time taken such arguments quite seriously myself, I now personally think that Rock music and its history are little more than a chronicle of adolescent hyperbole. The 'depth' once thought of its 'masterpieces' turns out to be rather shallow in the end (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is not profound, neither is The Wall much more than paranoid narcissism. Nearly every great masterpiece of rock history wilts when compared with other great works, whether poetic, musical, or dramatic). Yet more shocking is that the more one looks into the actual statistics of cultural impact, as Peter Levinson touches upon, the less extraordinary the hit groups of the Rock era seem. According to some accounts I've read, Bing Crosby's success rivals any Rock star's, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw's meteoric rises were culturally similar, if not nearly identical, to "Beatle Mania", and the era they worked in was every bit as crucial to the last century as the 1960s could even pretend (I wouldn't downplay the importance of many aspects of the '60s, but there, too, hyperbole has reigned for over a generation).

Ultimately, when the Rock Generation finally subsides; when the smoke machines are finally turned off and the dust is allowed to settle, musical values will really still be left. And once the frenzy is over, who would honestly prefer Mick Jagger's crude strutting and preening to Harry James' actual music making?

It's good to remember that other histories have been similarly adjusted over time. Telemann once towered in stature over J.S. Bach (whose works were obscured for nearly a century after his death) and Spohr was once considered by many to be greater than Beethoven. Those conclusions now seem silly, as I believe comparisons between Artie Shaw and the Beatles will one day seem equally silly--the greater musicians will emerge when future generations want to preserve more than their Odes to Peer Pressure.

Rock is perpetually adolescent, by marketing design. It's shallow, pre-packaged rebellion. As a musical form, there is little to learn from it (though certain musical aspects of rock have served as inspiration for further positive development of jazz, independent of the generally shallow poetic of rock). When society gets tired of perpetual adolescence, it will hopefully turn to more enduring values. And when that time comes, our culture might be reintroduced to a far more enriching musical history than society at large understands at the present time.

 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Artie Shaw and the Perils of Hollywood



From the Lexington, N.C., Dispatch on November 4, 1940:


ARTIE SHAW MELTS HORN MOUTHPIECE
 
Artie Shaw, who plays such hot music that his famous clarinet figuratively melts made the mistake of putting his instrument near an electrical connection on the set of Paramount's "Second Chorus" and actually melted its composition mouthpiece.

It was after playing a number with Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith that Shaw accidentally laid the clarinet in his music case with one end touching a "spider" or open electrical switch on the stage. The mouthpiece was melted immediately with a great shower of sparks. Shaw luckily was not harmed.  

you can check it out, in vintage context, here: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1734&dat=19401104&id=-h0cAAAAIBAJ&sjid=FFEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3234,5819556

I hear Shaw did his own stunts in that movie too....

Monday, September 17, 2012

Funny Woody Herman Quote

Woody Herman wasn't the greatest of jazz clarinetists, and he wasn't shy about pointing out his frustrations with the horn from time to time, or the embarassment he sometimes felt when compared to players like Goodman and Shaw. But if Woody was anything, he was a good sport. One particularly funny moment came in an interview with Ralph Gleason, published postumously in Woody Herman: Chronicles of the Herds by William Clancy and Audry Kenton (Schirmer Books, 1995). Here is an excerpt from pages 210-211:


R.G.: Which instrument has been the most fun to play?
 
Woody: It seems, if I have any natural ability, it comes out on the saxophone, because I can pick up a baritone, or a tenor, or an alto or even a soprano and get a pretty decent sound out of it. Any yet I've fought for years and years to get a really nice clarinet sound and it still escapes me. [...]
 
R.G.: Would you rather play the clarinet, then? 
 
Woody: Well, it's a challenge, 'cause I can't make what I want to make on it, whereas with alto, in most instances the only thing is that my thoughts jazzwise on alto are pretty nothing. In other words, you will find that in most cases, it will be a melodic line that I attempt and nothing more.
 
R.G.: What do you want to do with the clarinet?
 
Woody: Break it in half! What else?
 
R.G.: I can see that I am not going to get you in a serious discussion of that.
 
Woody: No.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (10)


10. Artie Shaw as Composer/Arranger

No introduction to Big Band Clarinet would be complete without mentioning Artie Shaw's role as both composer and arranger. From his days with Austin Wylie in Cleveland, Shaw had worked as an arranger, and that continued for the duration of his musical career. One of his first compositions, Interlude in B-Flat, for strings, pianoless rhythm section, and clarinet, had a role in launching Shaw's career as a leader in 1936. It's worth noting that George Gershwin attended that 1936 performance, and reportedly told Shaw afterwards that the Interlude was "the first innovation in jazz he had heard in his career." (Though Shaw was quick to point out that "George wasn't exactly a jazz expert" the quote is still impressive). (Lees, 15)

While he hired many excellent arrangers for the duration of his career, men such as Jerry Gray, Eddie Sauter, and William Grant Still often served as collaborators or orchestrators of Shaw's arrangement ideas, and unlike most bandleaders of the era, Shaw had a direct hand in almost all of his bands' "book" (Simosko, 232). 

Of Shaw's total recordings, 15% were his own compositions. Perhaps most impressively, of the eight singles for Victor that sold over a million copies, four were his own and all were arranged by him. (Simosko, 231). Among these were his theme song, "Nightmare"  (a forerunner to the modal jazz which would become popular twenty years later), "Traffic Jam", and the early "Back Bay Shuffle" (written as a musical description of the band's rush to catch the last train out of Boston after a late gig).

Oftentimes fans will buy compilation albums with these tunes on them, and many others, without composer credits. I grew up, for example, listening to many of these songs without knowing until twenty years later that Shaw had composed them. It changes our perspective to realize that Shaw was not just a front man or soloist for his band, but the dominant creative and musical mind for the entire ensemble, not unlike the role Duke Ellington played in his.




Further reading:

Lees, Gene. Program Notes to Artie Shaw: A Legacy . 4LP boxed set, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1984.

Simosko, Vladimir. Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography. The Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (9)


9. Barney Bigard & the Duke Ellington Orchestra * Mood Indigo * 1931


Barney Bigard (1906-1980) was an unusual figure in the history of jazz clarinet. From New Orleans, he was taught by the legendary Lorenzo Tio, Jr., instructor of nearly every great NOLA player we remember from that era--including Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon, and Albert Nicholas. Yet of them all, Bigard was the only one who spent significant time, both touring and recording, with a prominent Big Band. That it was Duke Ellington's, arguably the most creative Big Band of them all, is a decided bonus.

Ellington had a love for the clarinet, fostered by his early experience hearing Sidney Bechet, who he referred to as "the foundation" and "symbol" of all jazz. (Dance, p10) For a time early in his career, Duke was able to get Bechet in the band, though Bechet never stayed with one group for very long, and was notoriously in and out of the music business for various reasons. Perhaps it was Ellington's love of the New Orleans Albert-system sound that made Bigard such a perfect fit. It remains one of Duke's great achievements that the New Orleans sound could be so well integrated into such a large ensemble.

The clarinetists of the Ellington band have been sometimes neglected by critics, sometimes over praised. Bigard himself was remarkably outspoken and shrewd in his opinions of the clarinetists inside and outside the band. For those of us distant from the era, it's helpful to read the words of an accomplished player from that era:

What [ Artie ] Shaw did to begin with was to make the clarinet sound unusually beautiful in the upper register. He wasn't a low-register guy, but he was more creative than Benny Goodman. Benny did all the popular tunes and standards, but Shaw made up his own and played them so well. The guy could execute like mad. Benny could also execute, and had much more drive than Artie, but I like Artie for the things that are almost impossible to do on the clarinet.
 
I thought Buster Bailey was one of the fastest clarinetists there ever was. He had his own style, and I could always tell his playing. He was a good musician with good execution, but he didn't have the jazz drive or the soul in there like Goodman and some other guys. In other words it didn't have the oomph to it. Where Buster was great was in a studio or a show. That's the same way I figure with [ fellow Ellingtonian] Jimmy Hamilton. He's a terrific clarinetist, but he doesn't have that soul to go with what he's doing. He should have been in classical music. He's got that studio tone to begin with, and he plays straight and fluent, but it's not jazz.

Omer Simeon was a fine musician, an unsung hero, and a great clarinet player. 
[from Stanley Dance's The World of Duke Ellington. pgs88-89]

To those of us who have read some rather strange scholarship on jazz clarinet, these words are a refreshingly clear headed assessment of the era, and worth remembering.
 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (8)

8. Clarence Hutchenrider & the Casa Loma Orchestra * Smoke Rings * 1937


Born in Waco, Texas in 1908, Clarence Hutchenrider kicked around various regional bands as a young man before ending up in Austin Wylie's Golden Pheasant Orchestra: that important Cleveland training ground which produced such esteemed alumni as trumpeter Billy Butterfield, pianist Claude Thornhill and, most importantly, clarinetist Artie Shaw. When Shaw left Wylie's band for the New York studios, Hutchenrider was his replacement.

But Hutchenrider's days on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland were numbered. He would soon jump from Cleveland's top band to New York's: the Casa Loma Orchestra. In doing so he would temporarily pole vault, career wise, over Shaw himself.

The Casa Loma Orchestra was a unique ensemble. It functioned as a corporation, where the players all owned a share in the business. There were strict rules for remaining a member, and if those rules were broken, the band could buy the offender out and hire someone else. The resulting ensemble was a highly motivated, professional, and loyal group who had a direct stake in their own future--a group which stayed relatively intact for a couple of decades, and dominated the Big Band scene of the early 1930s.

Originally from Detroit, the band was called the "Orange Blossoms" before landing a gig at the Casa Loma in Toronto--a nightclub which, paradoxically, never opened, though the band kept the name. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, work dried up in the Detroit area, so the band relocated to New York.  [see George Simon's The Big Bands] Two years later, Austin Wylie's clarinetist joined the band and became the Casa Loma Orchestra's premiere jazz soloist.

Clarence Hutchenrider's sound tended towards Artie Shaw's: round, warm, velvety. Also like Shaw, his soloing style had the essential starting point of romantic lyricism. I've often wondered if the apprenticeship in Cleveland wasn't a dominant influence on the sound concept of both men. And though it is almost certainly historical coincidence more than anything else, considering also the sound concept of Franklin Cohen (who plays in Cleveland's most successful Orchestra these days, and who has done much to champion the playing of Shaw) I tend to think of this approach to the horn as the "Cleveland Clarinet Sound." There seems to be an emphasis towards fullness, roundness, and above all lyricism--a working within the sound itself--without the more nasal or harsh edges found in other styles of playing.

Thanks in part to Hutchenrider's gorgeous soloing, the Casa Loma Orchestra was the top band of the early 1930s, and set the stage for much of the Big Band Era proper, which most historians agree was launched by Benny Goodman in 1935. Casa Loma was among the first bands to fully tap the potential of playing for college dances, for mastering many styles, and for working in a truly professional manner. Coleman Hawkins, then of the Fletcher Henderson band, would refer to them as his "favorite band" deserving of serious attention (Sudhalter, 347), and Buddy Rich would call them "the most together band ever." (Sudhalter, 351)

Of the top clarinetists of the Big Band era, Clarence Hutchenrider of the Casa Loma Orchestra drifted into the most needless obscurity, and is therefore certainly the most deserving of a renaissance. While other jazz clarinetist's contributions have been unfairly devalued by historians, which is tragic enough, his has been nearly lost.
 
 
 
Further Reading:
 
Simon, George T. The Big Bands. Schirmer Books, 1982.
 
Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost Chords. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Friday, August 31, 2012

New Name for the Blog: The Jazz Clarinet

When I first started this blog, I had no real set plan for topics or the discussion: only that it would relate to the clarinet. Since that time, I've returned to playing full time jazz clarinet, and my posts have reflected the shift away from selling instruments and discussing classical schools of thought to delving into the rich history of jazz clarinet.

Because there is so relatively little on the web concerning jazz clarinet specifically, I felt the new name would help interested folks find the information being compiled here.

I hope the switch hasn't inconvenienced any of Marlborough Man Music's regular readers. Let me know what you think!


Eric

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (7)


7. Artie Shaw * August 19, 1939 * Live at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Roof, Boston

As one who came up primarily as a jazz clarinetist before college, it always bothered me to hear the occasional live classical clarinet performance, where the soloist might come out of the orchestra to play tight, terrified music, a quarter tone or more sharp, sounding like a different player in every register, only to have the whole thing hailed as a classic interpretation. Back when I was young and foolish enough to point out the above concerns to colleagues, there would come the inevitable laundry list of excuses: the soloist wasn't used to the concert hall, perhaps their reeds weren't very good for both soloing and part playing, the conductor might have told them to play a certain way against their better judgement, and most importantly of all: you just can't judge a live performance by the same standards you might an air-brushed studio recording! 

These excuses are reminiscent of an old story well known in orchestral circles: There was once a famous piano soloist, listening to the studio playback with the conductor. The edits had all been made, so the work sounded perfect. "Don't you wish you could play like that?" the conductor quipped.

The excuses are potentially true, of course, but I'd grown up listening to big band soloists who made their daily living by live solo performance. These orchestra leaders regularly performed over the airwaves, often in new venues. They were not only in charge of their own playing but the band as well (hiring, firing, rehearsing, repertoire choosing, etc), and on top of it they had to improvise their solos! No one in the audience cared if their reed wasn't perfect, or if they'd never played the room before that night. And night in, night out, masters like Shaw and Goodman managed to not only equal, but exceed the artistry of their studio recordings.

We're lucky these live sets were recorded: had they occurred even ten or twenty years earlier, we'd have no documentation of their brilliance. One such performance is of Artie Shaw at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, almost exactly 73 years ago. Available now on Hindsight records' "Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet", the set represented is a brilliant example of the night in, night out work these players did.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (6)

6. Pete Fountain * The Blues * 1959


In 1959, Pete Fountain came to his famous realization that "Champagne and Bourbon don't mix", decided that Hollywood just wasn't for him, and packed his family for the return trip to New Orleans. But before he left, he cut two very important albums. The first, Pete Fountain's New Orleans, seamlessly blended Pete's New Orleans style clarinet with a cool, West Coast rhythm section. It went on to become one of Fountain's best selling records, and is still available for download over sixty years later. The second, equally impressive despite having sadly slipped into obscurity, is Pete's first collaboration with the large ensemble scoring of Charles 'Bud' Dant, entitled The Blues.

These arrangements are streamlined, '50s-chic Big Band Charts, demonstrating the polish musicians brought to them in that day. The band was comprised of the top musicians in L.A. at the time, many of them veterans of the Big Band era.

Some of these tracks, especially the impressive lead-off 'St Louis Blues' have been reissued in compilation albums, but many (such as 'Blue Fountain') have been oddly neglected over the six decades since it was recorded. They capture Pete's playing at a moment of particular brilliance. His legendary fat, liquidy sound is all there, from the bottom to the top of the horn. Few clarinetists have ever matched the timbral beauty throughout the horn's range that Pete has.

There are still a few vinyl discs of this great album floating around. Get a stereo copy if you can (they were pressed in both stereo and mono--the stereo versions have a blue "Coral Stereo" strip at the top). Hopefully this great album will be made available for download soon.
 

 


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (5)

5. Woody Herman & The Herd * Live at Carnegie Hall * 1946

 
Woody Herman was neither the virtuoso nor the perfectionist-taskmaster of his two rivals, Shaw and Goodman, but his band was one of the most musically adventurous and emotionally effective of the Big Band Era.

Known for his uncanny ability to hone arrangements in rehearsal, Woody Herman ran a hard swinging, lyrical, tight ensemble, unafraid to cross unusual musical boundaries. Carnegie Hall has been featured prominently on this list already, with both Goodman and Shaw. It was only natural that arguably the most exciting band of the 1940s would also make a run at that legendary venue.  

This concert features many remarkable moments. A number of the charts were to become favorites, performed for decades by Herman's successive Herds, including 'Blowin' Up a Storm' and 'Hallelujah'. But the highlights of this concert are the extremely adventurous inclusion of Ralph Burns' landmark Summer Sequence (a piece I firmly believe every American Conservatory student should be required to study) and the World Premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto.

Bridging the classical and jazz worlds has been a major preoccupation for many jazz clarinetists, and there is little wonder why: our instrument had a major solo repertoire prior to the jazz era, and an abundance of virtuosi of both styles. Artie Shaw had worked toward a "chamber jazz" concept beginning at least as early as 1936, and Benny Goodman's efforts in both realms are well known. Indeed, Goodman's recording of the Ebony Concerto has sometimes obscured the fact the Herman Herd was both the inspiration for and first performer of the work.



This musical bridge building will become even more important as we consider clarinetists closer to our own day, but the Woody Herman Carnegie Hall Concert marked a huge leap forward on the quest for such unity. It also highlights the state of the Big Band in the very important year of 1946, which has been cited as the end of the Big Band Era. As George Simon wrote in The Big Bands:

...in December, 1946, almost a dozen years after Benny Goodman had blown the first signs of life into the big band bubble, that bubble burst with a concerted bang. Inside just a few weeks, eight of the nation's top bandleaders called it quits---some temporarily, some permanently: Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter, and Ina Ray Hutton.

The German Romantic Period had lasted nearly a century, but America's was crammed into a dozen years. With the disbanding of the Herman Herd, High Summer for American music was indeed over, and the country moved into colder modernism. This juncture didn't end the contributions of clarinetists to the genre, nor of many bands from doing some of their best work (Duke Ellington's work in the '50s and '60s comes to mind), but the high point was past, and Americans would never again support the Big Bands or our unique style of romanticism with the same enthusiasm.

The recording available to us is, unfortunately, incomplete. Only the third movement of the Stravinsky remains, and only ten minutes of the Summer Sequence, but it is nevertheless an important document. Stravinsky had coached the Herd himself, and it shows: there is a 'rightness' to the articulations, especially in the brass, unlike most other recordings of the work.

There is also the landmark 1946 studio recording of Woody Herman & the Herd performing Ebony Concerto, with the composer conducting. It lacks the live feel and resonance of Carnegie Hall, and Woody's clarinet playing is nowhere near Benny's later recording, but it is nevertheless an important document.

 



Monday, August 13, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (4)

4. Artie Shaw * St. James Infirmary * 1941

In November of 1941, Artie Shaw went into the studio with his Orchestra and featured vocalist/trumpeter 'Hot Lips' Page on what amounts to a tone poem of the old standard "St James Infirmary." Using both sides of a 78 disc, the song stretches over six minutes, unusual for the recordings of the day (Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing' and 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen' were similar exceptions to the one side rule).

On this recording, the tune begins in G minor, rather than the more traditional F minor, enabling Shaw to utilize the full range of the clarinet to dramatic effect.

Shaw plays three major solos on the tune. The first comes as the primary exposition of the song, reaching up to Double C emphatically, for musical rather than virtuosic reasons. The second 'solo' is behind Page's vocal, and one of the very finest background solos of the era. The third comes in Part II of the tune, on the 'flipside', where Shaw screams a blues of perfect economy and intensity, hammering the altissimo of the clarinet with a repeated figure to Double C--yet once again the result is soulful rather than showy.

If all else had been lost, and this was the only recording we possessed of Artie Shaw, we would be forced to conclude from it alone that he was one of the finest clarinetists to record, one of the most soulful blues musicians of the 20th century, and one of the greatest background soloists of any era. Talk about essential...



Monday, August 6, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: Boosey & Hawkes Edgware

There are many on the web who say the B&H Edgware makes a good jazz clarinet. I've always been a bit skeptical of this, thinking is says more of the player's poor understanding of jazz sound than the instrument. Top jazz players have always played top pro model horns, and the Edgware was a high end student model horn from the 50s-70s when Boosey & Hawkes were at their height.


B&H Edgware


So it was with a predisposition towards dismissiveness that I recently played an Edgware dating from about 1949 (if the serial number chart I checked is to be believed). The particular model I played was in excellent condition. The keys were beautifully preserved, and my general impression was that this horn had either barely been played, or wonderfully restored recently--perhaps both. Having said that, the keywork was not the standard of a top professional horn.

chalumeau

Of all registers, the Edgware chalumeau betrays its "student" status most. Comfortable, easy to blow, and somewhat open, the main problem is a lack of depth, power, and character to the sound when compared with a vintage Selmer or Fritz Wurlitzer (whose chalumeau is perhaps unsurpassed for power and timbral palette). Still, it yields a good, solid sound with considerable body--more than I expected, but difficult to project.

clarion

The first nice surprise was the clarion. On this particular horn, the clarion matched the chalumeau better than many Buffet R-13s I've played. Keep in mind that my biggest criticism of the average R-13 is the timbral shifts between every register (and many in the altissimo).  The Edgware's smoothness would make some sense of players preferring it as a primary jazz horn--especially if they are coming to it from Buffets. Oddly enough, the higher I climbed on this horn, the better and more professional it sounded. Which brings me to the...

altissimo

Who would have though that a student horn could handle real altissimo playing? Yet the Edgware does. The altissimo on this horn is very close to a good Selmer. Flexible, with good punch to the sound, this a horn to be reckoned with.

So it is with a certain amount of surprise that I now say, if you are a doubler looking for a jazz horn with a very limited budget, give the Boosey & Hawkes Edgware a try. They are by far he best student level horn I've played, and the altissimo handles better than many contemporary pro models.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (3)

3. Artie Shaw with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra * The Blues * Carnegie Hall (1938)


It's astonishing to think that Shaw's performance with Whiteman in 1938, arguably the most impressive jazz clarinet on record (in a technical sense) and certainly one of the most important recordings in American musical history, might be out of print.

The piece, which can be understood as a sketch for Shaw's later Concerto for Clarinet (1940), is perhaps even more important than the final product--at least as a cultural document--for here the influences stand out more boldly. Entitled simply "The Blues", it's a sort of tone poem for clarinet and orchestra combining 'St. Louis Blues' with klezmer--uniting them as convincingly as Gershwin's earlier Rhapsody in Blue had united European concert music with Tin Pan Alley (not coincidentally for an earlier Paul Whiteman extravaganza).

There is something strange and sad about an American culture that takes such little interest in its own positive accomplishments. This particular piece represents a nearly seamless uniting of two strains of human experience, and could not have been accomplished without Shaw's unique background, which was not only Jewish, but steeped in African-American Blues. Had something of this calibre, even just in terms of technique, been written by Carl Maria von Weber for Heinrich Baermann a hundred years earlier, it would be considered a classic of music history. But it isn't even taught in our conservatories here. Classical faculties ignore it (perhaps because most classical clarinetists can't even approximate the techniques needed to perform it) and jazz faculties ignore it, too, as the rush to an increasingly limited understanding of the term "jazz", fueled by ideological rather than musical concerns, dominates.

So this work is buried, mentioned by no one. Perhaps our social tensions, and the desire to maintain them for political purposes, make music such as this an embarrassing reminder that good really can come when barriers are removed and ignored. And perhaps some very powerful people, who profit by our divisions and anger, don't want us to know this. For those who are tired of being treated as pawns, however, this music serves as a type of antidote.

As mentioned in the Introduction to this series, I intend to stretch the boundaries of "Big Band" a bit, if only because the groups under that name were so diverse. Shaw's band, for instance, often included string sections and even harp, and there is a decided blur between what we now accept as a more or less "standard" instrumentation, and what reality was for the groups (usually called "Orchestras") in the "Big Band Era."


[Note: There is a retrospectively chilling moment of 'humor' in the beginning of the performance, where the MC refers to Paul Whiteman as the "Fuhrer" of the orchestra on stage. Little did they know at the time what Hitler thought of Jews, Blacks, and jazz music, and how singularly unfunny such a quip would seem to the entire world only a few months later.]

Friday, July 27, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (2)

2. Benny Goodman & His Orchestra * Live from the Congress Hotel, 1935-36


There are many early performances of Benny Goodman's that might deserve placement on this list, and many by Artie Shaw that might lay claim to the number two spot. Goodman's stint on the Let's Dance  program, and his wild success at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935 have both been cited as the beginning of the "Swing Era" and therefore have enough historical merit to garner consideration. Artie's recordings from the Cafe Rouge and the Blue Room are of such a high level of playing that they, on pure musical merit, could warrant this spot as well.

But these NBC broadcasts from 1935-36, from Goodman's time in Chicago immediately after the Los Angeles success, are important to both players, and therefore unique in the history of jazz clarinet.

By 1935, Artie Shaw had given up on the music business (not for the last time) and retired, at the ripe old age of 25, to become a novelist. He was in a marriage that was falling apart (also not for the last time), and living the life of a bohemian writer in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. One night as he was driving home, he was blown away by who he heard on the radio: an old rival who had challenged him for alto sax parts in the New York studios only a year or so before: Benny Goodman.

Shaw's farm was so remote, it didn't have electricity--so when he got home, he took his radio outside and hooked it up to the car battery. He was so impressed by what he heard that he wrote Goodman a letter praising him for his success.

Goodman's response probably did more to motivate Shaw than anything else could have. Instead of thanking him graciously, Goodman jabbed back "I'm gonna blackmail you [ with that letter.]" (Nolan pg 56). A fire was lit under Shaw to return to playing--Goodman was not going to let him go away from music quietly. I believe Benny responded that way because he knew how much talent Shaw possessed, and how good it would be for the entire music scene to have him back--including a rivalry that might add to their drawing power. Shaw claimed later to have loathed the rivalry, and even tried to suggest he didn't recognize it as such, but the signs were undeniable, and the influence of Goodman--the spur and challenge he presented--undoubtedly pushed Shaw to some of his greatest musical achievements.

Apart from the importance to the Goodman/Shaw rivalry, the Congress Hotel broadcasts represent another milestone in Benny's career. Swing was officially 'dance' music--it was supposed to exist for that specific purpose. But at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, a new thing happened. Music fans showed up--and they didn't want to dance. They wanted to listen--many of them simply standing on the dance floor with their eyes and ears attentively on the band. And when some tried to dance, they were booed off the floor. [Collier pg 170 f] Perhaps it was here that Benny first started to get a notion of the importance of swing as concert music--a notion that would eventually lead to Carnegie Hall, and change the public perception of jazz forever.


 

Works cited:

Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet by Tom Nolan
Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pete Fountain Write-In Campaign Begins!



Well, the voting just opened for the DownBeat Readers Poll, and I'm sorry to say Pete Fountain isn't on the ballot.

This simply shows that we need to get the word out, folks, and reverse a trend that has devalued the jazz clarinet.

DownBeat's voting pages all provide write-in boxes, so if you're a fan of his work, I encourage you to write in Pete Fountain's name for the Hall of Fame--as I just did.

We have till Midnight, August 21st to make our impact, so have at it!




Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (1)

1. Benny Goodman & His Orchestra * Live at Carnegie Hall * 1938


Let's not kid ourselves: Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert was clearly the most important single event in the history of Big Band Clarinet. It marked the first time an all-jazz program was offered at the nation's most revered venue for classical performance, and had it flopped, the resulting clatter would have resounded throughout Goodman's career and altered the critical trajectory of jazz.

Goodman was the right man for the job in many ways. For one thing, he had already emphasized the history of the artform on his Camel Caravan radio show. This rare penchant for educating a popular audience probably paid dividends for his Carnegie Hall presentation, which featured a brief review of jazz history. This section emphasized the contributions of many artists, including Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie (some of Duke's men even performed in the sequence, and the Count himself performed). Some of the performances are more convincing than others, and the extended on-stage jam session on 'Honeysuckle Rose' might be considered a miscalculation. But even if this is concluded, there remains Goodman's unassailable intent, which was to help a subscription audience, who might have little understanding of what they were hearing, learn on the spot.

Over 80 years later, the recording still grips. Like the opening chords of Beethoven's 'Eroica', it is always bracing, and repeated listening never blunts the impact. The tension is palpable, and the soloing of Goodman, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Gene Krupa especially, are electrifying.

The concert contained an amazing breadth of material. There were standards like Gershwin's 'The Man I Love' and 'I Got Rhythm'; Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies'; originals like 'Don't Be That Way' and 'Swingtime in the Rockies'; and ethnic numbers ranging from the Scottish 'Loch Lomond' to the Yiddish 'Bei Mir Bist du Schoen'. The concert confidently and unselfconsciously demonstrated that jazz was America's artistic voice--like Whitman's poetry and the nation itself, containing multitudes and belonging to all.

The performance of Jimmy Mundy's famous arrangement of 'Sing Sing Sing' has been written about at length in many other places. Suffice it to say here that the clarinet solos, with their poignant sense of loneliness and probing, alternating between commanding and pleading, and ending in a prayer-like ascent to double C, are among the most important ever played. Much has been made, rightly, of Jess Stacy's inspired solo which followed. Rarely noticed is that Stacy's solo would have been impossible had not Benny (and Harry James before him) set the musical mood perfectly.

Too often, swing era music is caricatured as 'fun', 'lighthearted', merely diverting music, as though the musicians involved were just having one big, carefree party while playing. But a tune like 'Sing Sing Sing' was hardly fun, nor did it express anything carefree or merely entertaining. Harry James said later:

I don't think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing and it was all built around 'Sing Sing Sing'. [...] [It] happened the first time time I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on 'Sing Sing Sing'. I just couldn't make it. I fell back in my chair. Ziggy [Elman] said to me, 'Get up!' but I couldn't; so when he saw what was happening, he got up and played my solo. I was completely out of my mind. It happened again another time, too, and so every time the band played 'Sing Sing Sing' I'd get bugged and scared it would start all over again. You know, that Stravinsky-type thing that the trombones and then the trumpets play just before the chorus? Well, that would really set me off. I tried to explain it to Benny, and I'd even ask him to play 'Sing Sing Sing' early in the evening, so I could relax the rest of the night. But of course, that was his big number and I couldn't blame him for wanting to hold off. So finally I just left the band. I couldn't trust myself anymore.
[quoted in James Lincoln Collier's Benny Goodman and the Swing Era, Oxford, 1989. Pg 222]

Whatever his fears, however this music might have rattled him, James gave a solo for the ages on that cold night in 1938.

If we listen to it with fresh ears, 'Sing Sing Sing' is driving, intense, and sometimes disturbing music. It wasn't nostalgic to the men who first performed it, and it needn't be now. I consider the Goodman Carnegie Hall performance of Mundy's arrangement to have been every bit as profound a statement as Vaughan Williams's sixth symphony. This is part of the reason that Carnegie Hall concert was such a success: the music equalled or surpassed the depth of what was usually played there.