Thursday, February 23, 2017

Two Sides of Bill Smith * CRI * 1974

Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra
William O. Smith, clarinet
Orchestra U.S.A.; Gunther Schuller, conductor

William O. Smith, clarinet
Robert Suderburg, piano 

Variants for solo clarinet
William O. Smith, clarinet

I first heard this recording on LP, nearly twenty five years ago, while an undergraduate clarinet performance major at the Hartt School of Music. Our 20th century form and analysis professor, Dr. David Macbride, had given us the assignment of presenting the class with recorded examples of extended techniques on our major instrument. I presented two clarinetists: Artie Shaw and this album by William O. Smith. Shaw's Concerto for Clarinet served as a primer for how jazz timbral language had broadened our understanding of the expressive sonorities possible on the clarinet, outside of the classical canon. William O. Smith took matters even further, showing how a clarinetist equally comfortable in jazz and classical realms could expand both genres exponentially.

I'm not going to do a full analysis of this album, which would look and read more like a graduate thesis than a blog post. Suffice it to say there is actually enough material here for a graduate thesis, and a good one at that. There have been many attempts at concerti for jazz soloists and orchestra, and many clarinet concerti have been written with jazz clarinetists in mind. But this has to be one of the finest. Applying his extensive knowledge of jazz, modern classical methods (such as serialism) and an inside knowledge of extended clarinet techniques (many of which he discovered and charted), the concerto on Side 1 is a unique tour de force. I know of no other wind player who has done anything quite like it for their instrument--expanding our knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument while mastering multiple genres, seamlessly fused together in a thrilling and meaningful musical expression.

It helps tremendously that the orchestra was sympathetic, could swing and articulate like a jazz band, and was lead by a champion of  this music. Indeed, the conductor, Gunther Schuller, coined the term "Third Stream" to describe a potential fusion between European concert music and jazz, so successfully accomplished here. Beyond that, the music itself is fully effective: the liner notes to the album point out the following:

A twelve-tone row is the basis for both the orchestral material and the improvised clarinet part. Although the listener is not expected to follow the various permutations of the row, it is hoped that he will feel a psychological cohesion. The row itself utilizes only two basic intervals, the major 2nd and the minor 3rd, and is simply the transposition of a four note figure which happens to be the first four notes of I Got Rhythm. The simplicity of the the row lends itself to spontaneous improvisation. The four movements correspond roughly to traditional concerto form. In style, the jazz idiom is consistently employed. 

Here serialism isn't presented as dry or melodically meaningless. Upon listening, the reasons for using twelve tone method seems to be manifold, but include a chance to focus more on timbral issues, and tone color. There is an expansive, lyrical quality to it rather than restrictive (the technique can be used either way), and the connection to jazz history really works.

Side 2 features a more intimate chamber setting, and for those interested in Smith's jaw dropping, abstracted use of extended techniques (including multiphonics, extreme altissimo, and even mutes, if my memory of the score to Variants is accurate after 25 years) this will keep you interested. When I was in music school, it was common for clarinetists to program William O. Smith's Five Pieces for Clarinet Solo on recitals. Those are great pieces, and a worthy addition to the unaccompanied clarinet repertoire, but I always thought the more challenging and intriguing pieces of his for solo clarinet were the Variants. They are certainly more demanding on both the clarinetist and the audience, and are also the fruits of Smith's extensive research in the area of extended techniques. Combined with this recording of the composer himself, the Variants represent a real watershed moment in the history of the clarinet.

This album is off the charts, should be in every clarinetist's library, and ought to be more widely available. Buy one of the vinyl copies still to be found before they're all gone.  


Hans Dörrscheidt said...

It appears to be available as MP3 download

Spotify has it as well.

Lisa and da boys said...

What MP are you using on your Selmer center-toned A?

Eric Seddon said...

Depends on the gig, but my usual piece for the last three years has been a vintage Brilhart Ebolin (real early--four serial numbers). With the exception of my ligature and reeds, I don't play any modern equipment (and even my lig is now 'vintage' in a sense: I play the Rovner Eddie Daniels model, which has been replaced by the 'Versa' which I don't like as much.)