Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Rating System for The Jazz Clarinet

In general, I've shied away from rating performances on this blog, especially when it comes to those that leave me less than enthusiastic. This has been a matter of policy: since its inception, my hope has been to promote great music through this blog, rather than heckle, and I've taken as my model the approach of Buddy DeFranco, who when asked to comment on a jazz clarinetist whose playing he didn't care for, simply answered "Pass."

This policy remains my basic orientation. I don't want to tread into the waters of commenting on my colleagues in the very small field of jazz clarinetistry. I firmly believe that we all need to stick together and encourage interest in our art, rather than lob insults. Likewise, assigning grades to performances is antithetical to approaching music well, in many ways. This is especially true when evaluating new art: no one really knows the staying power of an album until it has been tested by time. As a creative artist myself, I would want others to allow for that maturing process before passing judgement--and anyhow, there are other publications out there who are set up to critique new releases. They play an important role in the promotion of new artists, but this blog isn't the place for such criticism.

Having said this, some of you might have already noticed a new rating system, begun when I gave Danny Kaye's A Song is Born Four Broken Reeds.

I then retraced my steps and gave Lana Turner's Dancing Co-Ed Four Good Reeds.

While this was done purely as a joke, it dawned on me that it might be helpful too. I've known several players who dismissed Benny Goodman, for example, because they had never heard Benny's best recordings--having only heard reunion gigs often made on sub-standard recording equipment and/or hastily released on budget labels. I've also known great jazz musicians who have never heard Pete Fountain's serious records dismiss him as an "easy listening" clarinetist on the basis of a single LP they might have heard from the early 1970s.

I've been frustrated by this for years now, until yesterday when I jokingly added those movie ratings. It occured to me that if there was a place to go on the web, honestly discussing these albums from a jazz player's point of view, with an easily navigated rating system, that those wanting to find good jazz clarinet would have a quick and helpful resource.

So it is with this in mind that I'm introducing a rating system of ten grades. Everything from Five Broken Reeds to Five Good Reeds. I doubt I'll spend much time on the broken reed side of the spectrum, but readers should be aware that a "one good reed" rating isn't to be read like a dismal "one star" rating in DownBeat. In short, all "good reed" ratings should be understood as performances that serious players should hear.

The Jazz Clarinet's  Reed Rating Scale

Here is a general key to my ratings:

5 Reeds

Classic performance, essential for players and aficionados of jazz clarinet. Usually important for historical significance, technical and tonal reasons, and sometimes 'definitive' versions of tunes.

Examples: The Last Recordings of Artie Shaw, The Complete Victor Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman.

4 Reeds

Great performance, just short of five reeds--usually because the artist in question has several performances like this, of a very high quality, some of which might trump it for historical value.

Examples: Stan Hasselgard, California Sessions; Pete Fountain, 'Pete's Place'

3 reeds

Very strong performance, with some mitigating factors: maybe the ensemble isn't quite as strong or the song material not up to greater classic performances, but the jazz clarinetistry is still excellent.

Example: Edmond Hall Live at Club Hangover, 1954

2 reeds

Two reeds says this is great, but I want more, either from the player, the recording engineers, the set selection, or otherwise. There are many albums that fall into this category--having a few tracks that are great, but several "fillers."
1 reed

Soulful and worthy of a serious listen, but technically deficient, or technically brilliant but lacking in sufficient soul.

1 Broken Reed

An album by a great player that I wouldn't recommend buying, because there are better options out there of similar material--this was an off night.

2 Broken Reeds

The worst performance by a great player committed to record, so far as I know. Paradoxically, I would only use this rating for a truly great artist--as a sort of public announcement so that people do not reject a great artist on the basis of one bad recording. The hope is that people will check out other material, through the labels on posts, and get to know the genius who might have missed on one particular project.

3 Broken Reeds

A classical player doing jazz karaoke to sell albums. These include, but are not limited to, albums made by clarinetists playing transcriptions of Artie Shaw taken down the octave, using "conservatory tone", performances of the Shaw Concerto that contain no improvisation and bad glissando technique, Benny Goodman tribute albums that don't swing and are obvious attempts to cash in, etc, etc, etc. I will probably never review any of these albums here, so you probably won't ever see this rating. Instead, I'll say here: you know who you are, you karaoke frauds: and the rest of us do too. Stop it now, or we'll have to push back.

4 Broken Reeds

A jazz movie that betrays it's subject on many levels, promising a great performance by a great jazz clarinetist only to deliver nothing! Take that, A Song is Born!

5 Broken Reeds

The Guckenheimer Sauerkraut Band. Neither good nor funny. (Okay...maybe a little funny.)
The policy of The Jazz Clarinet will be to honestly evaluate the vast catalogue of great jazz clarinet performances of the past century. Contemporary players will generally be avoided, for reasons stated above, with some notable exceptions. Buddy DeFranco, Bill Smith, and Eddie Daniels, who are still with us and cranking out great jazz (hopefully for years to come), have each released albums that should already be considered classics. I won't shy away from discussing those here.

Needless to say, these ratings will have no "official" value in any capacity. They are solely my opinion, formed over many years of playing, reading, researching, and loving jazz clarinet. I hope this little system will help others interested in the subject to find more of what they like--or to introduce them to great music.


Richard Dort said...

Anyone who puts out a 4 Broken Reed album should be forced to listen to a recording of my Junior Recital as punishment. ;)

Klarinetles Amsterdam said...

Im playing already more than two years on the plastic reeds and im very satisfide. I dont wory any more about the reed. Im just working on the music.