Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mpingo Documentary by Sir David Attenborough featuring Acker Bilk * 1992

Catching a reference to it on social media earlier today, I dug up a 1992 tv/e documentary called  Mpingo: The Tree That Makes Music, by Sir David Attenborough. It's a wonderful film giving excellent footage of mpingo wood, from the trees in Tanzania all the way to the concert halls and pubs of Europe.

When first clicking, I had no idea it would feature so much jazz clarinet. The great Acker Bilk was, in fact, the very first clarinetist shown (or even heard) on this documentary, near the seven minute mark, performing what appears to be a humble pub gig. Then, while showing off the manufacturing process of Buffet clarinets around the twenty minute mark, we're treated to Barney Bigard's classic performance of "Clarinet Lament (Barney's Concerto)" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. At around 37:30 we're back at Acker Bilk pub gig, getting the chance to hear him, without strings or extended orchestration, launch into his most famous tune, "Stranger on the Shore." After this clip, Bilk offers his opinion that the clarinet is essential to jazz performance--which is not the sort of thing clarinetists are used to hearing when jazz is discussed, but Acker makes it clear he feels something is missing from a jazz band without it. It's great to hear him mention the light and dark qualities, the shadings the clarinet possesses in contrast to other instruments, noting that mpingo wood is responsible for the special warmth and tone quality of the instrument. Overall, it's a unique little moment of grateful reflection for the instrument, and a brief but eloquent argument for the clarinet's importance in our music.

One of the most moving moments of the documentary, for me, was hearing a conservationist named Robert Lamb describe the sound of the clarinet, in terms that I think will resonate with all of us who play this instrument: "What you're hearing is nature's voice: a direct connection between nature and music." This is highly recommended viewing for clarinetists and anyone interested in this remarkable wood.

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