Wednesday, September 15, 2021
Sunday, August 8, 2021
For some reason, I've just finally stumbled across a short but fascinating interview with Don Byron dating January 1, 2000: the very day we were all sitting around wondering if all the computers in the world were going to fritz out.
In it he speaks of the importance of Benny Goodman, but then reflects upon the influence (on him personally) of Tony Scott, Jimmy Hamilton, and Buster Bailey. This interview gives a better musical context to Byron's thoughts than I've run across before--I think it helps explain Byron's musical perspective very well. The last paragraph is brilliant.
Tuesday, January 5, 2021
In the wake of the ICCC Jazz Competition, I've made it my business to pay more attention to my fellow judges' websites--to check out what they're up to, the projects they've been involved with, and dig into their thoughts.
Ken Peplowski's website is a treasure trove of interesting content--well worth investigating. For the historically minded there is a very insightful interview on Ken's blog, conducted by Jesse Cloninger, entitled "My ABSOLUTELY Last Words on Benny Goodman!"
I clicked on it, expecting to find a short statement or two about how annoying it is to always have to answer questions or be compared to Goodman as a jazz clarinetist. Instead I found one of the most cogent appreciations and summaries of Goodman's actual importance to the world of band leading, arranging, style, and culture.
As one who has played in many symphony orchestras, I've always felt there was a double standard regarding Benny Goodman and music historians. Dictatorial conductors such a George Szell (horror stories of whom still abound in Cleveland) are venerated; their means of attaining their artistic ends generally considered justified by the results. They are praised for their unyielding commitment to their artistic goals and vision. But no such recognition is accorded Goodman by most historical accounts. Yet the recordings speak for themselves: his band swung like no other; they were tighter and the clarity of musical thought largely unmatched in any era. Isn't that worthy of note? And if the "Goodman Ray" played a part in attaining those ends, is that a reason to condemn Benny or praise him?
These thoughts have rattled around my mind for decades. Ken Peplowski tackles these issues and more in this brief interview. As a player who worked with Goodman, he is able to remark upon Benny's unique abilities as a leader like no other.
I encourage readers to check out the interview (linked above). Not only does it frame Goodman in a more reasonable and appropriate light, it gives insight into the priorities of a master musician--even suggesting ways we might maintain this art of jazz.
Monday, January 4, 2021
This past Fall, in the devastating wake of the pandemic that has wiped away gigs of musicians around the globe, I was asked to be a judge for the jazz division of the International Clarinet Corona Competition. This grass roots effort to help younger professionals gain some exposure was spearheaded by Artistic Directors Eva Wasserman-Margolis, Elizabeth Crawford, and Diana Haskell and coordinated by Dylan James.
In was honored with the request to serve on a panel comprised of the leading jazz clarinetists of our time:
Learning of the diverse musical backgrounds present on the judges' panel, I was more than intrigued. Not only would this be an opportunity for young professionals vying for prizes; it would be a rare snapshot of the state of jazz clarinet in our time: a discovery of the priorities all of these top players by virtue of our decisions. This is unlikely to happen again any time in the foreseeable future. God willing, the pandemic will be over soon--and then what is the likelihood all of these busy professionals would be able to take part in such a panel? So this was something I couldn't pass up: a unique opportunity to be a part of jazz clarinet history.
There were many challenges for the directors of this competition, yet every challenge seems to have been greeted not as a barrier but as an opportunity. Such was the case when determining repertoire: international copyright laws became an immediate hurdle. A suggestion from Anat Cohen solved the problem: the judges (many of whom are noted jazz composers) submitted original tunes for the competitors. The facilitator for the jazz division, the prolific Victor Goines, provided three tunes which turned out to be very popular choices among the contestants, and are likely to be considered jazz clarinet standards from henceforth; the great Brazilian clarinetist and saxophonist Nailor Proveta provided a beautiful choro so evocative of his native land and tradition; and yours truly even had an Ab jump blues about rush hour traffic in Cleveland chosen.
The ICCC has also featured Klezmer and Classical divisions (as of this writing, the Klezmer winners have been announced and the Classical Division is still ongoing). This was another reason to take part in the competition: I wanted to be a part of something that recognized jazz and klezmer as being of the same importance and artistry as the great classical music of the ages. It's not an exaggeration to say that with this competition, the clarinet in world music has entered a new era.
The directors, our coordinator, all of the judges, and the sponsors donated everything: their time, effort, compositions, products. The ICCC sponsors, like the judges, represent the finest clarinet and most recognizable products in the world: Buffet, Vandoren, Rovner, Lomax, BG, Reed Geek, Lisa's Clarinet Shop, Schwenk & Seggelke, and Clarinetquest. (See below for their logos).
As an overview, I'd like to preface this presentation of our winners by saying there were so many fine performances, and the future is bright for many who didn't not claim a prize. Everyone who participated should know their performances were valued and worthy. Our prizewinners, however, demonstrated an artistry and mastery that made them undeniable at this point in time.
So without further ado, the THIRD PRIZE of the ICCC Jazz Division went to JOAQUIN SOSA:
From Andy Firth:
Joaquin displayed a sweet, well controlled tone and soulful playing with a good sense of interpretation of each piece. His creative ideas when improvising were sound and coherent with a well honed technique evident throughout each performance. I was impressed with the harmonic knowledge so reminisce of Eddie Daniel’s playing.
From Doreen Ketchens:
Joaquin - Beautiful tone, technique and a balance of melody and solo that kept my attention. Joaquin's personality, shines throughout his performance.
I can say that [Joaquin] expressed with genuine brushstrokes of his origin, both in the Ballad and in groove, and in the "Swing" he really freed himself, no doubt,.....It was very clear this strong feeling of JAZZ... Showing freedom to all musicians!
From Eric Seddon:
Joaquin's control of the clarinet in all ranges is exceptional, as is his mastery of harmony. His tone is exceptionally beautiful; his technique virtuosic. I have no doubt we shall be hearing from this young Cuban clarinet phenom for years to come.
SECOND PRIZE of the ICCC Jazz Division went to EWAN BLEACH:
From Andy Firth:
Re: Ewan Bleach
A very soulful and expression performance with evidence of wide and varied listening to lots of traditionally styled clarinetists. A well formed and solid technique with evidence of knowledge of the harmonic underpinnings of the pieces. Wonderful to see the live jazz band accompaniment, a further testament to Ewan’s dedication to his craft.
From Doreen Ketchens:
Ewan took control of the music as well as his ensemble, from the very first note. He impressed me from beginning to end. He exuded confidence and backed it up, with style, technique and pizzazz. Fine playing.
From Nailor Proveta:
Talking about the clarinetist Ewan, it is very challenging... I felt great joy listening to his rhythmic freedom, looking at a distant place that defined what we still seek today. Ewan, without a doubt, is a great musician of great talent, a lot of heart!
From Eric Seddon:
Ewan Bleach is an artist I've been hoping to hear for a very long time: a clarinetist with the lyrical soulfulness of early jazz combined with an ear for modern harmonies. His rugged, personal sound is firmly in the jazz clarinet tradition stretching back to New Orleans, but also cultivated by trad greats on his native soil. Ewan is the natural successor to the remarkable British jazz clarinet tradition of the '50s and '60s, in the lineage of Acker Bilk, Monty Sunshine, Terry Lightfoot, and so many others. I was grateful he chose my tune 'Euclid Ave Jump' for the competition. He tore into it with vintage flavor and great ideas; I daresay he'd be able to navigate the downtown traffic of Cleveland the tune was meant to suggest!
FIRST PRIZE in the ICCC Jazz Division went to VIRGINIA MACDONALD:
From Andy Firth:
Re: Virginia Macdonald:
Virginia’s harmonic knowledge is obviously comprehensive and well studied and this is perhaps the most vital component of any jazz clarinetists adventures into the realm of jazz improvisatory performance. The sound was individual, soulful and well controlled at all times. I could hear influences from Jimmy Guiffre, Buddy DeFranco, Tony Scott, Eddie Daniels and a plethora of other jazz clarinet greats and this impressed me greatly. Listening to other players and developing the ability to harness and absorb the tonal and technical essence of their performances is so important and Virginia displayed this ability throughout her performances.
From Doreen Ketchens:
I liked that Virginia went the extra mile and added a few extras, but that wasn't what captured my attention. Her tone was beautiful and her Improv was calculated to hit the proper points at the right time. She also captured the style of the pieces while still maintained a steady groove. She played like a scholar, very refined, with plenty of soul.
From Nailor Proveta:
Virginia...thrilled me a lot with the amazing technique of the clarinet...very confident, mixed with a traditional language and looking at modernity, in the three genres with great freedom!
It was very exciting to hear she playing a composition of mine: choro Pro Paulinho (Brazilian genre), sensational... Loved! Congratulations to this incredible clarinetist of great sensitivity.
[ Note: I have not been able to locate Virginia's performance of Nailor's choro on YouTube--I will update when this can be found - E.S. ]
From Eric Seddon:
Virginia MacDonald is a young artist with a mature, balanced style. Her technique is dazzling but always serves her expression, which is ultimately lyrical, always taking the listener on a journey. She is possessing of a unique, personal sound very much grounded in the modern masters of jazz clarinet. Most importantly, in a world increasingly impressed by technique for techniques' sake, Virginia has managed to master the instrument, without being mastered by it. Her expressive goals are clearly paramount, and she uses her hard earned skill to share something very personal and important with her listeners. With an approach like this, her music will always be relevant, and I look forward to many years ahead for this young star.
From Felix Peikli [ regarding all three prize winners ]
My sincere congratulations goes out to Virginia, Ewan and Joaquin for their contribution to the competition. Three completely different players, personalities, and styles, from all corners of the world. Representing not only their dedication to the jazz clarinet, keeping our legacy and discipline alive and well, but also the global diversity and the common values that unites us as people.
For a parting thought, I'd like to summarize my feelings expressed in the zoom meeting that revealed the prize winners: this competition has demonstrated the strength and depth of jazz clarinet globally. One of my fears twenty years ago was that all jazz clarinetists were beginning to sound too much alike. Our prizewinners and other contestants have proven that is no longer a problem. The top three featured such diversity of sound, style, and nationality, that we can confidently say jazz clarinet is global, and the future (and present) of jazz clarinet is bright!
[ This article should be seen as a work in progress, as other judges have said they will be contributing comments--I'll update as they come in. E.S. 1/4/2021 ]
Saturday, November 28, 2020
Friday, November 20, 2020
To all readers of The Jazz Clarinet, especially young professionals out of work due to the pandemic: I'm thrilled to announce the opening of the ICCC Jazz Clarinet Competition. This is a competition designed to give young pro jazz clarinetists a chance to show their skills and advance their careers despite this difficult set of circumstances we're in. There are some great prizes and major backers. I'm on the panel of judges, and honored to have one of my compositions presented as an option for contestants. The tune is called 'Euclid Avenue Jump' and gives players a chance to really show some technique and soul in a fast jump blues.
Saturday, May 2, 2020
In a JazzTimes article originating in 1997, but updated only a few weeks ago, thirteen critics were invited to sound off on which among the jazz greats were overrated and which were more underappreciated. Of note were the absence of clarinetists in the overrated category, but several clarinet greats mentioned as deserving wider acclaim.
Writing of the great Pete Fountain, who was still active as of the original 1997 publication, Doug Ramsey said:
"He underrates himself. His ear for harmony and mastery of time are among the best-kept secrets in jazz because all these years he has chosen to stick with the repertoire and sidemen that make him comfortable. I’d like to kidnap Fountain and lock him in a recording studio with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Victor Lewis. He would surprise himself."
Then came Neil Tesser, writing of Buddy DeFranco:
"Probably because he came along just as the clarinet was fading as a jazz staple, DeFranco gets overlooked when the discussion turns to either (a) his instrument or (b) his metier, bebop—an idiom not known for producing great clarinet players. But he just might be the finest improvising clarinetist in jazz history, blessed with great harmonic knowledge, technical wizardry, and a meaty and expressive tone."Jack Sohmer added praise of Albert Nicholas...
"A paragon of the Creole style of clarinet playing, Nicholas worked and recorded with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Luis Russell from the mid-1920s through the ’30s. His crystalline tone, impeccable technique, and command of the blues finally came to widespread attention during the New Orleans revival movement of the mid-’40s. Had he not spent his last 20 years in Europe, where he was almost as famous as Sidney Bechet, he would undoubtedly have been better known in America."
...and Pee Wee Russell:
"A genius to those who value originality, Russell had always been a controversial clarinetist. He was uniformly respected by Louis, Bix, Teagarden, Freeman and the Condon gang, but he was also derided by others who failed to understand his obstinate nonconformity. His highly personal sound, replete with growling rasps and wistful mutterings, coupled with his advanced harmonic sense and angular phrasing, combined to form a style unique in jazz history."
It's great to see these great clarinetists get some attention. Let's hope the reevaluation of jazz history continues in this century, giving more weight to the practitioners of this great jazz instrument!