Rumor has it that the clarinet was an important early jazz instrument which rose to dominance in the Swing Era and has been in decline ever since the late 1940s. Without putting too fine a point on it, the more one knows about jazz history, the more bogus this rumor becomes. In actuality, the clarinet's fortunes in jazz have remained far more healthy than most instruments, both in a serious artistic sense and in a broader sense of cultural impact.
Consider for a moment the accomplishment of clarinetists on the scene during the 1950s and 60s (the era that supposedly witnessed the loss of the clarinet's stature). Though they are hardly remembered now, four LPs of Artie Shaw's final Gramercy 5 recordings were released on Clef Records in the 1950s. That they went virtually unnoticed by critics, dropped out of print, and weren't recognized as masterpieces until the early 1990s is not Artie's fault. Like William Butler Yeats, Shaw proved himself to be that rarest of artists: the romantic who could translate his art seamlessly into a modernist romanticism, without losing his essence or pandering to mere stylistic trends.
Shaw's accomplishment was enough to prove the clarinet an exceptional vehicle for modern jazz expression, but if any doubt remained, Buddy DeFranco's virtuosic bop should have erased it. In addition to these, Bill Smith's and Tony Scott's work from the period seems to evade historical surveys, yet remains there for anyone to listen to.
A healthy culture depends upon more than innovators, however: it needs a firm foundation to stand on. During the '50s and '60s there were many other excellent jazz clarinetists keeping earlier playing styles alive: Benny Goodman, Barney Bigard, Jimmy Hamilton, and Edmond Hall were still performing regularly. In terms of traditional New Orleans jazz, Albert Nicolas, George Lewis, Willie Humphrey, and Raymond Burke were active. In retrospect, there are few instruments in the jazz of the era which could boast such a list of players.
To this milieu we should add another very important figure who emerged in the late 1950s: Pete Fountain. Not only did he demonstrate, on a nightly basis, a rare command of the clarinet, Pete was for decades one of the most visible and prominent symbols of jazz to the larger American public. More importantly than this, and of considerable frustration to the collector of great jazz clarinet recordings, he also might be the record holder for having the largest number of excellent jazz clarinet albums to have fallen out of print. One of them, released in 1961 by Coral Records, is the subject of this review.
Pete Fountain's French Quarter was made shortly after Pete moved from the Bateau Lounge to his own club: "Pete Fountain's French Quarter Inn" on Bourbon Street. The instrumentation for the album takes it's cue from the classic Goodman quartet of the 30s and the last Gramercy 5: the sidemen are Godfrey Hirsch on vibes, Stan Wrightsman on piano, Morty Corb on bass, and Jack Sperling on drums.
From the outset, this album grips and never lets go. Gershwin's "Summertime" is the lead number: a war horse among standards, but rarely done well enough to be considered a permanent part of the song's legacy, as it is here. Even considering Sidney Bechet's version on soprano sax and the Artie Shaw Orchestra's reading of Eddie Sauter's arrangement, Pete's remains my favorite jazz rendition of the tune. That it was recorded in 1961 adds to the historical significance, setting up a useful comparison with John Coltrane's version, released the same year on his classic My Favorite Things album. Trane's art was reaching it's zenith around this time, and the string of albums before and after 1961 are deservedly famous. But of the two versions of "Summertime", Pete's is arguably more profound.
The poetic heart of "Summertime" is paradoxical: it's a lullaby sung to a baby, filled with reassurance and love, but surrounded in it's original operatic context by poverty and violence. Redemptive suffering is inherent to the tune, and any good interpretation of it has to touch, on some level, this spiritual aspect--it comforts and unsettles, simultaneously.
Trane uses the song as a howling modal cry--an obvious, confrontationally ironic reading akin to dramatically yelling at a baby--a lullaby sung by an angry madman. This reading isn't to be flippantly rejected, as it does say something disturbingly important. There is a sad truth to Trane's symbolism in our cultural history: monumental decisions were made in that era to legally devalue babies and their human right to live. Yet even with this firmly considered, there is always a musical price to pay for such confrontational, repurposed interpretation, and Trane's execution of the tune sounds more of an extra-musical "statement" than an investigation of inherent musical depth.
The original operatic version of "Summertime" features many emotional subtleties difficult to explain, or to translate into other orchestrations. For example, how can the effect of the "cold" violin counterpoint to the vocal line be reproduced except by playing it as Gershwin scored it? This is where Pete Fountain's version meets the challenge. Pete opens the album with Jack Sperling's bitter drum hits, which are like firm punches to the gut--ringing harbingers of danger. Sperling uses sticks (rare on jazz clarinet albums before this) and the simmering tension threatens to boil over at any moment. When Pete comes in, his tone is cool: he states the melody plainly, almost without adornment, drawing and maintaining a struggle between his mood and Sperling's dire portents. It's a real lullaby, and has real hope, but takes note of the danger. Pete's solo, seemingly simple, almost sounds like a parental attempt to ward off that danger. This is the very paradox the original tune sets up lyrically, and the tension of swing itself as hinted at when Artie Shaw suggested "maybe what we're talking about is life verses death."
The star of the first tune is undoubtedly Sperling--his rhythmic variations continue relentlessly as Fountain holds the lyrical line. Simple in conceptual brilliance, executed to perfection, this lead number grips the listener and delivers the promised result. What follows is assuredly less intense, and more conducive to a great nightclub act, but the basic mood, emphasizing the serious jazz nature of the disc, has been set. Tune after tune of balanced, relaxed fusing of cool west coast jazz with an earlier New Orleans style inherited from Irving Fazola rounds out the album. Classic interpretations are offered of "Dear Old Southland," "Oh, Didn't He Ramble," "Shrimp Boats" and others.
I find it both difficult and frustrating to think this masterpiece of jazz clarinet has been out of print for decades. There are still some LPs available for purchase on the web, and I recommend those interested in jazz clarinet get their hands on a copy. Many of Pete Fountain's serious jazz albums have suffered the fate of Pete Fountain's French Quarter. Hopefully this situation is temporary, and they will all be made available for download soon. This album gets an obvious Five Good Reeds.