Thursday, June 13, 2013

CD Review: Buddy DeFranco * Mr. Clarinet * Verve * 1953

As with many recordings from the early 1950s, the tunes collected on Buddy DeFranco's Mr. Clarinet album were released in many packages, on several Norman Granz created labels, including Clef, Norgran, and Verve. The advantage of Mr. Clarinet is simply that it is still commercially available and that it contains all the tunes from the January and April 15, 1953 recording sessions of the Buddy DeFranco Quartet.

If a man can be known by the company he keeps, there is little to say beyond listing the sidemen for these dates: Kenny Drew, Milt Hinton, and Art Blakey should be enough to convince anyone to check this album out.

Among the most important recordings in jazz clarinet history are a few sides cut by the Buddy DeFranco Sextet in 1949 for Capitol (available on Buddy DeFranco/Lennie Tristano Crosscurrents). Tunes like "Extrovert" and "Good for Nothing Joe" were the beginning of something big: in many ways they are the fulfillment of what Stan Hasselgard hinted at when he began applying bop ideas to the clarinet around the same time. Buddy did more than hint: those Capitol sessions contain bop clarinet that stands up well over half a century later. Instead of pursuing this sextet concept, however, DeFranco was to keep plugging away at the Big Band business for a a few more years. He was late quoted dismissing the early sextet as too much like the George Shearing Quintet "with a clarinet."

A couple of points ought to be made here. First, the timbres essential to the early DeFranco quintet, while influenced in musical execution by Shearing, were developed by Goodman and Shaw a decade earlier: in an orchestrational sense, the Shearing Quintet was the Benny Goodman Sextet without clarinet. Five years after DeFranco's breakthrough session, Artie Shaw's last Gramercy 5 was also derided by certain critics as "Shearing with clarinet", but these critics only betrayed their ignorance: Shearing himself told Shaw that his quintet was modeled after the mid-40s Gramercy 5. (See Tom Nolan's Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet, Norton 2010, page 280). So much for "Shearing with a clarinet" then: the model orchestration of clarinet, vibes, guitar, piano, bass, drums was developed by clarinetists and is as uniquely effective a line-up as the old New Orleans combo or the standard bop quintet.

This aside, Buddy was probably thinking in terms of financial viability rather than artistic provenance when he abandoned the early sextet project. By 1953, however, he was back in the small group business. Because it is so stripped down, and focuses so clearly on Buddy's horn, it's my pick for the the perfect introduction to Buddy's playing.

The album opens up with "Buddy's Blues", representing an entirely different approach to clarinet blues than one might hear with Goodman, Shaw, or Fountain. DeFranco was by this point a fully formed bop musician, and his soloing is unique among clarinetists to this point. Listen carefully to his finger technique: he has a 'hard' approach to fingers that is reminiscent of Leon Russianoff's classical method, but put to distinctly jazz usage in his "falls" at the ends of blues phrases. Because Buddy opted for a more locked-in tone, without as much use of scoops and pitch bend, he found different ways of expanding jazz timbral vocabulary with his finger technique--the blues "falls" are one example.

Buddy's precision is well known, as are his Hanon exercises transcribed for clarinet. But too often overlooked is the fact that all of this technique and precision was consciously developed to serve a distinctly musical purpose. Listening carefully to his lines on every tune of Mr. Clarinet  I'm particularly impressed with the naturally nuanced quality of it all--that each line seems to contribute towards the organic flow of a greater whole.

Also unique, though not without precedent, is his use of that reedy, almost classical sound with a distinctively tasteful vibrato. Johnny Mince, too often neglected in jazz clarinet histories, was an acknowledged influence on Buddy, and it shows well here, transformed though the influence be in Buddy's own voice. 

Buddy DeFranco remains one of the few truly great masters of the jazz clarinet--one who had both a unique and comprehensive approach to the horn, developing it to mastery. Mr. Clarinet is a great starting point for anyone wanting to check out his art.

Five Good Reeds.

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