Saturday, December 15, 2012

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...

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