Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jazz Clarinet Q&A: Mouthpiece Strategy for Selmer Centered Tone


Great blog. It's a joy to read. Because of your blog, I have a question. I'm a life long sax player, studied in college, etc. Unfortunately, I never needed to play clarinet. My double was always flute. Anyway, for the past year or so, I've been diving into clarinet. I've always loved it, especially in traditional Jazz and Brazilian choro. I play soprano in a trad jazz group and in a choro group, but I really want to play clarinet as well.  So...

I recently acquired a beautiful Selmer Centered Tone and I'm in love. Can you recommend one, two or a few good mouthpieces that seem to work well with the Centered Tone? It came with a HS* oval mouthpiece which is way more closed than I'm accustomed to, but it definitely sounds good. I know how personal sound and mouthpiece choice are, but some of problems have to do with how open I should go. I know a lot of sax players seem to like open clarinet pieces, but I like to approach the clarinet as its own instrument.


Wayne Swanson
Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute & EWI


Hey Wayne--

Congrats on the Centered Tone and thanks for the kind words regarding The Jazz Clarinet. As you probably know I'm a CT player myself--I think they're the Mark VI of the clarinet world. 

As to your mouthpiece question, all the usual caveats apply (I'm sure you know them)--the choice is individual; use what works for you; etc., etc. 

Having said this, I think you're smart to ask, because it's quite possible to make a mistake with that HS* oval, which would be a real shame. The obvious advice would be to say "go ahead and have someone open it up", but the trouble is that it's axiomatically easier to take rubber off than add it back on, and you're looking to stabilize your concept right now, first and foremost. 

So, my suggestion would be to do something like this:

Although they're not perfect for a CT bore, you can sometimes get very good results from a contemporary Selmer C85 mouthpiece. If you have the time, money, and inclination, I'd buy, or at least test, a few different facings (105, 115, 120), and see if one of them is more comfortable than the others. You're job might be done there--if a C85 120, for example, works well for you, the search might be over. Be forewarned, though, that while many players like myself have had no trouble with the C85 on a Centered Tone, others have experienced intonation problems--a lot of it comes down to embouchure and air flow concept. 

After experimenting with the C85, and determining which facing is best for your playing, you might want to have the HS* oval opened up to your specs. But I'd make sure you really believed in what you were asking for first--in other words, make sure you know and are comfortable with your playing before having a great vintage piece worked on. That HS* oval is, in my opinion, the equivalent of a vintage Otto Link for a tenor player. If and when you get to that point, let me know and I can offer a suggestion or two regarding who to send it to.

Keep swinging, man!


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.


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.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: Vintage Ligatures

Reviewed today are three vintage ligatures, associated with three jazz clarinet masters: The Leblanc "L" ligature used by Pete Fountain, the Benny Goodman single screw model produced by Selmer in the 1950s, and the original Eddie Daniels model put out by Rovner c. 1999.

L to R: Leblanc "L", Benny Goodman model, Eddie Daniels model

L to R: Leblanc "L", Benny Goodman Model, Eddie Daniels Model

This post is as much a public service announcement as it is a review, for the simple reason that some of these ligatures (especially the Benny Goodman model) are fetching rather high prices on internet auction sites. I've seen the Goodman go for over $100 at least once this past year. 

Now it's none of my business how a fool and his money are parted, and if someone wants to buy a Benny Goodman lig to put on their mantle for display as a piece of rarely used clarinet memorabilia, I say have at it. But if the buyer is a serious player, looking for a functional ligature that gives good reed response and doesn't hinder the sound, my advice is to ignore all vintage ligs, go to your local music shop, and test them until you find what best works for you.

In my experience, for what it's worth (and beyond personal practical value, no one's ligature experience is worth much) the Leblanc model plays well, and can often be found on eBay at a low price. The Eddie Daniels model (now sold, I believe, under the name "Versa") is the one I currently use daily. The Benny Goodman model, very rare and usually highly priced, is undoubtedly the worst ligature in my entire collection. It's telling that I've never seen a picture with Goodman actually playing it. The pressure plate seems to merely deaden the sound.

Maybe some folks would buy a Benny Goodman Selmer model just to see that rarest of combinations: a Selmer CT with a Benny Goodman Signature Mouthpiece and a Benny Goodman Ligature. If that's the case, look no further:

1955 Selmer CT, Circle BG mouthpiece, Benny Goodman Ligature

Look real close, though, because you'll never see me play this set-up on the stand.

Bottom line: if you want the vintage Benny Goodman sound, save the Ben Franklin you were gonna drop on the lig, and spend it on old recordings. The only way to get Benny's sound is to let him do it. Then pick up a lig that works for you, of the many models available today.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

CD Review: "Chicago Rhythm-Apex Blues" * The Recordings of Jimmie Noone 1923-1943 * JSP926

Perhaps no virtuoso has been more obscured over the decades since his death than the great Jimmie Noone (1895-1944), whose achievement as a jazz clarinetist is unique and in many ways unparalleled. As a player of the Albert system clarinet, his technique was unmatched--none of the 'second generation' New Orleans clarinetists could complete with his executive skills. Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Leon Roppolo--all of these men were important and foundational to the history of jazz--but none of them could match Noone's mastery, which went beyond the realm of jazz men from that era, surpassing many classically trained 'virtuosi' in the process. It wasn't until a younger crew of jazz clarinetists--Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Buster Bailey--all undoubtedly influenced by Noone, would play in such a way that might even admit comparison to this master's chops.

Like Goodman and Bailey, Noone studied clarinet technique with Franz Schoepp in Chicago. Yet unlike those younger players, he was already an established professional. It is a mark of his seriousness and humility that he would take the highly unusual step (in that day) of bothering with lessons. From the recordings we have of Noone, it's obvious he could have matched up with any clarinetist of his day without them. Some deeper musical reason must have compelled him to press forward and master the instrument further, and because of this he catapulted the art of jazz clarinet.

Noone's facility over the the 'breaks' of the instrument remains one of the marvels of his playing. He was so fleet and flawless that the most difficult of his figurations can sound simple and straightforward, when in fact they are nearly impossible for lesser players to accomplish. I've often wondered if this hasn't hindered appreciation--had he made his passages sound more strained, his virtuosity might be paradoxically praised (this has certainly been true of other, lesser 'virtuosos', whose playing has pulled the wool over the ears of more than one critic). Ultimately, this isn't important, though--what is important is finally recognizing how much we have to gain from a proper look in this master's playing career, and that's what this remarkable box set of CDs put out by JSP Records affords us.

The first disc begins with Noone's earliest recordings as a sideman in little remembered groups such as Ollie Powers' Harmony Syncopators and Cook's Dreamland Orchestra, though quickly enough the set is distinguished by recordings from Noone's seminal Apex Club Orchestra, which twenty years later was compared to Thelonious Monk's early groups at Minton's--"That band at Minton's made an era of it's own," wrote critic Paul Bacon, "much as Jimmy Noone's did at the Apex Club." [The Record Changer, Nov. 1949]. This group's recordings are extremely important to the history of jazz, as they form an impressive body of work by a band leading clarinetist--demonstrating the strength of the instrument as a lead voice, and breaking with the already traditional New Orleans lineup of cornet dominated melody lines. For the next decade and a half at least, the clarinet was to prove the equal or superior of the trumpet/cornet as a lead instrument--from the Apex Club through the Casa Loma Orchestra to the zenith represented by the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw Orchestras, the sound of jazz clarinet was to lead the way to the mass popularity of jazz in American culture. It is significant that, if Goodman and Shaw presided over the era in which jazz was America's popular music, Noone's revolutionary approach with the Apex Club Orchestra provided the initial proof that it could be done.

This box is dominated by great Apex Club sides, which fill roughly two and half discs of the set. Over the course of those cuts, a significant portion of the jazz clarinet canon was established, with Noone laying down the first important interpretations of such tunes as "I Know That You Know", "Sweet Sue", Four or Five Times", "Sweet Lorraine", "She's Funny That Way", "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", "After You've Gone", "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me", "Am I Blue", and "Ain't Misbehavin'." Anyone familiar with the work of Benny Goodman, Edmond Hall, Pete Fountain and countless lesser known players can immediately tell how influential Noone's choices were. Speaking personally, as a gigging jazz clarinetist in Cleveland, it is a rare week indeed when I don't play at least one or two of these tunes on a job. Audiences still love them, and they are perfectly suited to our instrument. Over 80 years later, Noone's leadership and soloing at the Apex Club on the South Side of Chicago echoes wherever clarinet is swung.

Having said this, the Apex Club recordings are generally well known to fans of early jazz, and have been available in other collections long before now. More rare, and extremely gratifying are the recordings collected on the last disc, especially the live date of the Jimmie Noone Quartet recorded at Chicago's Yes Yes Club on July 17, 1941. Seven tracks of unsurpassed brilliance await anyone who listens, including essential versions of "A Porter's Love Song", "Body and Soul", "Lady Be Good", "Memories of You" and "Honeysuckle Rose." So many of these tunes had been given unbeatable performances by Benny Goodman that it can seem daunting for a clarinetist to attempt them differently. Noone, of all the clarinetist contemporary with Goodman, was perhaps the only one who could take on the very same tunes and reveal equally compelling, yet entirely different interpretations.

Jimmie Noone's rich chalumeau, which never sacrificed intonation for depth, his clarion and altissimo registers which were never overblown or distorted, while still retaining extreme levels of subtlety and power, was unmatched in his day. He paved the way for Goodman and Shaw, especially, whose music was to unite, for one brief era, jazz with mainstream popularity. This four disc set finally does justice to his work.

Five good reeds.