Friday, January 20, 2017

Jelly Roll Morton 1928-29 (featuring Russell Procope, George Baquet, Albert Nicholas, & Barney Bigard) * CD 322 from JSPCD Jazzbox903 * Remastered by John R.T. Davies

When starting this blog over six years ago, I knew it would take a while before addressing recordings like these. The repertoire is important, because many of the tunes are great and the composer/bandleader was a giant of jazz, but the clarinet playing is generally bad and sometimes awful. My goal for this blog was (and remains) to build a substantial body of reviews demonstrating true greatness of clarinetists throughout the various eras. Unfortunately, the overall recorded catalog of music that was created in the 1920s and 30s, which is arguably the most important era for the clarinet, was a bit indiscriminate as to the quality of players. Many of the greatest virtuosi (Jimmie Noone, Benny Goodman) were recorded right alongside some of the worst clarinetists ever documented in the studio. The poor players are almost universally flat, can't handle high notes especially, their tone is overwraught and weak from overblowing,  they break notes, their tonguing his ham fisted, their rhythm is bad, and unfortunately, they are too often copied as "authentic" by amateurs and doubling professionals alike.

While blues grittiness and pitch inflection are an essential part of playing jazz clarinet, an overall flat and flabby tone is not competent playing, no matter who is doing it. Neither Sidney Bechet nor Jimmie Noone played this way--their styles, while far apart in terms of timbre and instrumental approach, are worthy models of imitation. The same can be said of many Johnny Dodds recordings, such as the sides he cut with King Oliver. But Dodds, like many others, struggled at times with his pitch, and we should be honest about those moments. Now a word of caution: we shouldn't take this too far as no one plays spot on in tune, in a mechanical sense, every time. You can find plenty of examples of variable intonation, especially if you're tracking note to note, in any of the great players--including classical virtuosi who work within even more limited intonational parameters. But as a rule, the great players aren't sagging consistently below pitch, or riding a quarter tone sharp either.

This collection demonstrates the big step down in clarinetistry in Jelly Roll Morton's bands after the initial recordings with Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds. A young Russell Procope (who had improved somewhat by the time he played with Ellington) plays flat on December 6, 1928's "Red Hot Pepper" and his solo on "Deep Creek Blues" is a real disappointment for such a beautiful tune. We can only imagine what a player like Noone or Bechet would have done.

By July 9, 1929, Procope had been replaced by George Baquet, who isn't any better. His clarinet is particularly bad on the out chorus of "Burnin' the Iceberg" and haunts "Courthouse Bump" and "Pretty Lil" from the same date as well. His intonation is so bad it sounds almost like a drunken parody at times. His low level playing continues on the next day's session, flabbing his way through a solo on "Sweet Aneta Mine" and sticking out horribly for his flatness on "New Orleans Bump (Monrovia)."

The torture continues on July 12, 1929, when Baquet rasps, flabs, and squeaks his way through "Down My Way", "Try Me Out", and "Tank Town Bump." I can't stress it enough: This is not 'authentic' jazz clarinet playing; it's just incompetent. Frankly, this sort of playing is unlistenable for any serious clarinetist, revealing that the standards for our very difficult instrument were sometimes poorly maintained on recordings, even by the most important band leaders. The clarinet playing is so bad the recordings would have better without a clarinet--and unfortunately, perhaps in part because of hideous performances like these, many bandleaders started deciding exactly that.

By November 13, 1929, Jelly Roll had replaced his clarinetist again, this time for a Red Hot Peppers session featuring Albert Nicholas, the childhood friend of Sidney Bechet who was to record successfully with him later in life. These recordings are not Nicholas's greatest recorded work by a long shot--he tends to be on the flat side, and his solos aren't great-- but he's at least a step up from the truly abysmal playing of Baquet.

Even Barney Bigard can't rescue this album, though his clarinet playing is better than most on the disc. The final four tunes, recorded on December 17, 1929, feature the Jelly Roll Morton Trio with Bigard on clarinet and Zutty Singleton on drums. Bigard struggles with his high clarion, altissimo intonation, and his attacks. Even though his ideas tend to be decent (he was a far more competent clarinetist at this point than anyone else on the Jelly Roll Morton sessions from these years) that really isn't saying much. His playing is excruciatingly out of tune on tunes like "Turtle Twist" and "My Little Dixie Home." This isn't good Bigard...it's actually embarrassingly bad for someone who was to play better (if inconsistently) in the future.

So why bother writing a review like this? Well, there are a couple of reasons. One of them is to say there have to be professional standards. If  a player can't handle the instrument on a basic level of musicianship, they can do real damage to the estimation of the instrument overall. Players like Buddy DeFranco and Artie Shaw routinely dismissed or disparaged the early New Orleans players, implying or openly saying they weren't important to the history of the instrument in jazz. If all anyone had heard were these Jelly Roll Morton sides, or some of the Hot Fives session where Johnny Dodds struggled with his intonation, this could be understood as an act of professional self preservation as much as anything else. This disc features such bad clarinet playing, it makes you want to go back in time with a saw and savagely adjust their barrels. But to dismiss all of New Orleans clarinet because of this would be terribly wrong. All one has to do (and should do) is listen to some Jimmie Noone as an antidote.

This disc earns a broken reed for clarinetists.


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