Thursday, January 26, 2012

Franklin Cohen plays Golijov

Sometimes words fail, and music must take their place when we shout for joy or cry out in agony. The clarinet is an instrument singularly capable of expressing certain profound emotions, and composers have often used it at moments of intense personal reflection. The Concerti of Mozart and Nielsen, the sonatas of Brahms, Poulenc, and Saint-Saens were all written close to the deaths of their respective composers. Combining the lyricism of the violin with human breath, the clarinet gives utterance to the soul unlike any other instrument; by turns joyous, melancholy, and probing.

Many composers, when writing pieces of real spiritual import, have chosen the clarinet as a primary vehicle. One such example can be found in Olivier Messiaen's monumental Quartet for the End of Time. Another has been written by Osvaldo Golijov, entitled The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Each of the last three centuries has produced an masterpiece for clarinet and string quartet. The late 18th gave us Mozart's, the late19th Brahms'; the late 20th century gave us Golijov's.

There are a growing number of excellent recordings of this piece. I remain deeply moved and impressed by David Krakauer's reading with the Kronos Quartet, but realize now that, as with any other masterpiece, Dreams and Prayers will never be exhausted by a multitude of great interpretations. Here is an important live performance excerpt by Franklin Cohen, who has also released a full recording.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Featured Recording: Sidney Bechet * Blue Horizon * December 20, 1944

Sidney Bechet * Blue Horizon

Sidney Bechet, clarinet
Sidney de Paris, trumpet
Vic Dickenson, trombone
Art Hodes, piano
George 'Pops' Foster, bass
Manzie Johnson, drums

December 20, 1944, NYC

Here is a recording every clarinetist should know and understand--even if at first the approach to the instrument is different from anything they've heard.

Sidney Bechet was called the greatest jazz musician of all by none other than Duke Ellington, and he has been credited with a fully formed jazz solo concept predating even Louis Armstrong. Because of his enigmatic career, and his sometimes intense personality (he once got deported from France for a gunfight at rush hour in the Paris metro) he is certainly less well known to the general public. Despite this, his music is of such profound value that I consider him a kind of American Muhlfeld. Rich, deep, intense, bursting with joy or sorrow, Bechet poured his soul through the horn, and the crackle he got from the wood was inimitable.

Bechet grew up in New Orleans, that garden of exotic clarinet sounds which quickly spread over the rest of the country, but never gained institutional acceptance in music schools. It was (and is) a "talking style" of playing, reminiscent of the way some historians have suggested early clarinetists in Europe played as well. Clinical and sterilized sounds are not considered a virtue in this style of playing, and every timbre from the sweet to the rough, the sublime to the piercing, is expected, exploited, and extended.

Part of the mission of The Jazz Clarinet is to reacquaint or introduce clarinetists to a variety of approaches, sound concepts, and styles which are often frowned upon or banned from the American conservatory establishment. Several of the recordings I've already shared fall into this category, the present being no exception.

"Blue Horizon" is one of the finest blues played on any instrument. I encourage every clarinetist, regardless of background or aspirations, to transcribe this solo--it will only make you a better, more flexible, and more emotional player.