Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mouthpiece Review: Vintage Great Neck, N.Y. Brilhart 'Tonalin' with Serial Number

Vintage Brilhart 'Tonalin' Clarinet Mouthpiece


Whenever I get the chance to pick up a vintage Brilhart Ebolin or Tonalin mouthpiece, I try to do it, if only to preserve a piece of jazz history. Unlike the saxophone market, there are very few clarinet mouthpieces, accessories, or instruments made with any sophisticated notion of jazz in mind--we are usually left to re-purpose classical equipment. This has had catastrophic results for jazz clarinetists, especially since the demise of the large bore clarinet. Of the major Parisian manufacturers, only Leblanc continued to make a worthy large bore jazz model clarinet after the early 1970s--the Pete Fountain model, which has since been discontinued. Mouthpieces suffered a similar fate, with occasional nods made to jazz players, but usually with a shallow understanding of jazz history and equipment. It's a false stereotype that jazz players use soft reeds on wildly open mouthpieces. At least two major jazz clarinetists (Benny Goodman and Edmond Hall) used medium close or close mouthpieces during important years of their careers.

Likewise, the merely raucous has been celebrated as the "jazz sound." Young players are sometimes advised to stick chewing gum into the mouthpiece, lowering the baffle, in order to sound like a "New Orleans" player. (Those who give such advice never say just which New Orleans player that is supposed to sound like--it's doubtful they've ever heard Albert Nicholas, Jimmie Noone, Irving Fazola, or Pete Fountain, among many others). The fact is that jazz clarinet sound is as diverse as jazz saxophone sound, and once upon a time there was a diversity of equipment to enable that individuality. During that time, among the most interesting mouthpieces were those made by Arnold Brilhart during his Great Neck, NY period.

Brilhart was a veteran of the Big Bands, and worked closely with Artie Shaw at one point--even co-writing Shaw's Clarinet Method. Shaw's famous clarinet sound is closely associated with Brilhart mouthpieces, and while owning one won't make you sound like Artie, I have a hard time thinking you'd get very close to that sound without something very similar to a good Brilhart Ebolin mouthpiece.

The Tonalin is a very different sort of mouthpiece. Distinguished by its ivory color, and made famous by it's association with players like Charlie Parker (on alto sax) and Woody Herman on clarinet, it seems to have been designed to emphasize a more mellow, less biting quality than the outspoken Ebolin.

For me this mouthpiece is a real treat--smooth, full, warm--the sound really cushioned in all registers. It yields a very big sound that can hover when called upon. I don't know of anything currently on the market to match it.

Brilhart Tonalin Clarinet Mouthpiece
 
Just as vintage large bore clarinets are becoming standard equipment for jazz clarinetists looking for the flexibility and personality of a bygone era, so too with these mouthpieces. My hope is that, one day, some mouthpiece maker will be inspired to reinvigorate the jazz scene by making new models based upon vintage models. An artist who could create a line of mouthpieces to match the old Selmer Benny Goodman Signature model, Brilhart Tonalin and Ebolin models, Pete Fountain crystals, and a few others, would be doing a great service to music.

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