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.



Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: Pete Fountain * I Love Paris * Coral Records * 1963

Can a real jazz musician record an "easy listening" album? Louis Armstrong did, so the answer must be yes. With this irrelevant question out of the way, once and for all, let's get on with the music.

There are quite a few high quality easy listening clarinet albums out there, not all of them from jazz musicians. Both Reginald Kell and Artie Shaw dabbled in the "light classical" genre beginning in the 1940s. The best results of these can be found on Reginal Kell and his Quiet Music, fortunately still available on CD, and Modern Music for Clarinet, a rare Columbia LP of Shaw's. The Shaw disc tends to sell for rather high prices these days, owing to both its rarity and the rumor that the cover art might be an example of early Warhol. It's also one of the more interesting in the genre, for its blending of both jazz and classical repertoire.

Yet even with these efforts in mind, my favorite in the Jazz Clarinet Easy Listening category is Pete Fountain's I Love Paris. This is music with absolutely no pretense: no throwing in Debussy's "Petite Piece" to "legitimize" the album, no busting out a virtuosic Django Reinhardt number to save face... this is straight up "turn-on-the-A/C-and-mix-your-martini-after-a-hard-day-at-the-office-to-unwind-with-the-missus" bourgeois relaxation. This is Rob and Laura Petrie chilling to some "jazz." This is suburban America trying to unwind (and that's no easy task--trust me, suburban America can be a bizarro world of reality denial).

The arrangements by Bud Dant are brilliant--lush strings, but spare in their lines, uncluttered. So many jazz "with strings" albums are ruined by arrangers bent on proving they can make a Hoagy Carmichael tune sound like Schoenberg. Bud Dant is much better than that.

Pete's playing is great--probably better than on any of his many Easy Listening projects. His tone takes over and he sells every tune well. I'm not a big fan of tunes like "La Vie en Rose" or "Autumn Leaves", but Pete's playing of them, his use of subtone, and his spare but tasteful solos transform them. He has a lightness of touch and intimacy that keeps these songs from slobbering over-emotion.

If you ask me in the winter time how many reeds I rate this, I'll probably answer "three." But as soon as the A/C has to be turned on, and summer heat rolls in, this album is Five Good Reeds. It's just the best in the genre for me.

If you're lucky enough to get an LP in good condition, be sure to check the right hand corner of the cover: just above the blue I LOVE PARIS lettering, it should be marked STEREO in white block letters. If it's unmarked, it's likely one of the mono versions. I highly recommend the STEREO version: one of the great joys of this album is to hear the ride cymbal and trombones on the left channel answered by the accordion and bongos [sic] on the right! So don't gyp yourself! Turn that A/C on full blast, in stereo!


   

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

CD Review: Benny Goodman * The Complete 1937 Madhattan Room Broadcasts

Once upon a time, there was a six disc box set of Benny Goodman's 1937 broadcasts from the Madhattan Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City, available at your local Borders Books & Music. Now Borders is defunct, and the old boxes (put out by Viper's Nest Records in 1995) have been scattered to the winds--the only way to get your hands on them is to piece the set together one volume at a time. For those willing to hunt through Amazon or eBay, though, it's worth it.

These recordings give a rare glimpse of Benny's greatest band after hours. Unlike the prime time "Camel Caravan" broadcasts, with their carefully timed numbers, commercial plugs, and shtick (entertaining though much of it was), these broadcasts were unsponsored ("sustaining" radio) and the arrangements didn't need to be clipped for commercials. They routinely broadcast around midnight and give the feel of the band stretching out and winding down for the night. It can be difficult for contemporary musicians to imagine, especially in this day and age when gigs barely exist, but bands like Goodman and Shaw routinely worked six or seven days a week, with five to seven shows per day. To reach the midnight hour, with one last whirl through the arrangement book, was a nightly achievement.

This set documents twelve complete half-hour broadcasts that ran from October 13, 1937 through December--the lead up to the 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy, and Martha Tilton are all here, with the usual high quality results.

Of particular interest are the many charts played over the airwaves that never made it into the recording studio. A partial list:

Caravan
Whispers in the Dark
I'd Like to See Some Mo' of Samoa
Roses in December (Trio Version)
So Many Memories
Moonlight on the Highway
Stardust on the Moon
Am I Blue?
In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree
Everybody Loves My Baby
In the Still of the Night
All of Me

But for me the star of the show is the relaxed, after hours vibe. Unlike the heady, raucous BG-mania that rocks so many live recordings of the band in this era, there is minimal crowd noise. There are some special moments of audience involvement too, that wouldn't likely have happened on a Camel Caravan Broadcast. During the October 23 broadcast, for instance, there were a bunch of college students on the dance floor during a trio version of "Where or When." The young men began spontaneously singing the words to their dates. Benny kept playing the melody along with them, the chorus swelling slightly, until we can hear the young ladies gently joining in by the end, an octave higher. The tenderness, spontaneity, and warm enthusiasm of the applause that bursts out afterwards is for me the epitome of what this music is about, and why it is so important to preserve.

Because of the relaxed nature of these air checks, there are several fade outs of closing numbers, and a good deal of repeated material (a forty second "Let's Dance", for example, leads off most broadcasts). While the band lacks the pinpoint precision and some of the killer attitude that it displays on other live sets of this era, these stand out for their contrast. The liner notes by David Weiner are informative and detailed. As of this writing, these might very well be out of print. Get 'em while you can.  Four Good Reeds.    




Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Pete Fountain's French Quarter * Coral Records * 1961

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.