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.  

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