Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Willie Humphrey * New Orleans Clarinet * 1974 * Smoky Mary Phonograph SM 1974 W

Willie Humphrey * clarinet, vocals
James 'Sing' Miller * piano, vocals
Joseph 'T' Butler * vocals
James Prevost * bass
Frank Desmond * banjo, guitar
Josiah 'Cie' Frazier * drums

Recorded May 16 & 18, 1974 in New Orleans. 

Few jazz musicians have put together the sort of life Willie Humphrey did. Born in New Orleans in 1900, like many of his generation, he found his way to Chicago, where he gigged with no less than Joe Oliver's Band at the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series. When the Great Depression hit, however, he took the unusual step of returning to New Orleans rather than moving on to New York, eventually becoming an important figure during the foundational years of Preservation Hall.

Recently I was fortunate enough to come across a factory sealed copy of his 1974 record, "New Orleans Clarinet", which features not only his clarinet, but his singing on several tracks.

There is much talk about the "New Orleans" clarinet sound, as though there was some sort of unified concept, or "school." But the fact is that New Orleans clarinet is marked by an extremely wide a variety of tonal approaches. Jimmie Noone, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Irving Fazola, Leon Roppolo, Albert Nicholas, Omer Simeon, Edmond Hall, while all sharing a soulful 'talking' quality, are more marked by unique personality than something which might be codified. Willie Humphrey's playing represents yet another take on New Orleans style, and one which I believe all jazz clarinetists should be exposed to.

From the outset of this record, if you're not accustomed to the more reedy approach to clarinet, you might be shocked. When I first heard it, Humphrey's clarion register sounded like a strange combination of a kazoo and a soprano saxophone. This wasn't the entirety of his approach, though, and his range of tonal expression included a mellower, rounded, chalumeau when he wanted it. He demonstrates a great deal of that range on this Lp.

A rarity among jazz clarinetists, Humphrey was an excellent singer as well--warm, swinging, able to shout a tune mellifluously when needed, he switches back and forth between clarinet and vocals on "Little Liza Jane", "Bourbon Street Parade", and "Bill Bailey." Other vocals are handled well on the album by James "Sing" Miller, and are sometimes entertaining (but sometimes distractingly theatrical) when handled by Joseph Butler on the flip side of the Lp (what works at Preservation Hall in front of a live audience doesn't always work well on a recording--and some of Butler's antics tend to get in the way of what the band is doing on a couple of cuts). Humphrey voice was the best of them, in my opinion.

The star of the show, however, is Humphrey's clarinet, which growls, bites, swings, shouts, rejoices, and broods in turn, always as a vehicle for Humphrey's clear, balanced, beautifully considered musical statements.

The album itself, as quickly as it flies by, represents a remarkable mix--really a cross section--of important styles. Bourbon Street Parade, Bill Bailey, Sweet Georgia Brown, My Blue Heaven, Amen, When the Saints Go Marching In, several blues numbers--they all rub up against each other on this album, and are characterized by crisp, well executed ensemble.

At the end of side one, we're treated to Humphrey's take on the clarinet show tune "China Boy." It's a satisfying version, worthy of listing with the many others set down by jazz clarinet greats. "I did my best that time," we can hear Willie Humphrey say after the tune ends. Humble, clear, honest. That's what this music sounds like, and it has rarely been executed so movingly. He did indeed do his best, and it shows.

Four good reeds for this classic of New Orleans.


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