Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (1)

[ The following series of posts will focus on small groups, where jazz soloing tends to show itself in purest form. The intent is to give a sort of primer for those interested in the rich history of jazz clarinet. I hope to follow up with other lists, including Big Band clarinet and classical clarinet essentials.

The list is my own opinion only. The order is based upon many criteria, including historical importance for the development of the instrument in jazz, virtuosity, and cultural importance. I'm starting with number one, because I really hope to inspire readers to buy copies of this music, and think the earliest on the list are the most essential. ] 

1. Artie Shaw & his 1954 Gramercy 5 Last Recordings: Rare and Unreleased (released 1992) * More Last Recordings: The Final Sessions (released 1993)

The four CDs which comprise the "Last Recordings" and "Final Sessions" of Artie Shaw are not only the musical last will and testament of a great jazz clarinetist; they are one of the finest sets of jazz recordings ever made. Because Shaw refused to release them until nearly four decades afterwards, they didn't have an impact on the jazz culture they might (and perhaps should) have, and therefore can never be fully evaluated culturally in the way that the Armstrong Hot Fives, Miles Davis Quintet, or Coltrane Quartet recordings can be. This might not be coincidental. Shaw, more than any other jazz great, truly hated the "show business" side of the jazz industry and yearned for music to be appreciated outside of the trappings of marketing. By distancing his greatest recordings from the time they were made, he allowed them to be heard first as music. And what incredible music they made.

Coming out of retirement one last time in the Winter of 1954, Shaw put together his last Gramercy 5. The ensemble was comprised of:

Hank Jones, piano
Tommy Potter, bass
Joe Roland, vibraphone
Irv Kluger, drums
Tal Farlow, guitar (NY Sessions, February & March 1954)
Joe Puma, guitar (Hollywood Sessions, June 1954)

Shaw knew exactly what he was after with this last ensemble. He had been approached by New York club owner Ralph Watkins to play an eight-week stand at his 54th Street club, the Embers. After he accepted, Shaw employed his musicians for an highly unusual six weeks worth of paid rehearsals in preparation.

"Intense rehearsals," Hank Jones said. "It was a considerable length of time, enough so that we were quite familiar with his music and the way he wanted to play it. Artie was a super-perfectionist: he wanted things absolutely, exactly the way he intended to have it sound." [Nolan, pg 281].

The group went on to play a stint in Las Vegas later that year.

The music was intended by Shaw to sound "clear, pellucid" which he likened to the waters of a mountain lake, so pristine that you can see to the bottom. The metaphor is apt, and a worthy goal for jazz musicians: it implies a transparent honesty. Many such lakes exist up where Shaw had lived on a farm for much of the early '50s near Shekomeko, NY--a place he said he wished he could have remained.

"Picardy Farm..." he would write nearly thirty years later. "Good God, the emotions those two words evoke. The place where for the first time in my life I had found a real home, a warm sense of security, and a feeling of calm and peace of mind." [Shaw, pg vi]

That sense of pristine beauty, clarity, and peace of mind is never far away in these recordings, and has probably never been equalled in jazz history.

Each and every track of the set is worth the price alone. The standards represented are almost always my favorite versions of the tunes.  Artie's "My Funny Valentine" surpasses even Chet Baker's version for me--there is a warmth to Shaw's that is more mature than the occasionally dark, slightly obsessive hints found in Baker's. Likewise, Artie's "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" and "Tenderly" set a new bar for ballad singing. In his hands, "Bewitched" is transformed from what can easily turn into a cabaret tune with sleazy undertones into a deeply tender, innocent love song. Shaw's second solo is perhaps the most breathtaking--quoting "The Song is You" sotto voce while the band miraculously billows his melodic line upwards, the music lifts beyond genre, creating a moment of romantic stillness and sincerity that I've never heard equalled. This is grown up music, not adolescent pandering. "Tenderly," too, receives perhaps its most mature and perfect utterance with the Gramercy 5 and Artie blending into that crystal clear lake he envisioned.

The Last Recordings function as a personal retrospective, a summation of the era Shaw recorded them in, and an anticipation of the later work of Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and even Coltrane (Shaw's "Besame Mucho", in particular, moves in direction that heralds Newk and Trane). Had they been released in their era, they would have been divided into at least five or six albums worth of LPs. Who knows what shock waves they might have created at the time, and what impact they would have had on both jazz history and the status of the clarinet in jazz?

While writing this, I checked Amazon for links--it appears that these particular discs are now out of print, which is unfortunate, as the the liner notes contain important interviews with Shaw himself. Fortunately, Jasmine Records has released a five disc set containing the complete Gramcery 5 recordings, which I heartily recommend for any collection of jazz clarinet. That aside, I encourage interested readers to buy copies of the original releases while they are still available.

Works cited:

Nolan, Tom. Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet. Norton, 2010.
Shaw, Artie. The Trouble with Cinderella: an Outline of Identity. Da Capo edition, 1979. 

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