Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (5)

5. Edmond Hall * Profoundly Blue

In a rare case of mutual admiration among jazz clarinetists, Benny Goodman once referred to Edmond Hall as his favorite hot jazz clarinetist; a compliment which was reciprocated by Hall. It's difficult to appreciate this statement today. Benny had heard his style flooded by a sea of imitators throughout his career (even now there are plenty riding the Benny train). At least one of the players on this list was an admitted imitator of Goodman, in part: many of Pete Fountain's standard gig numbers were drawn directly and almost without alteration from Benny's versions. Pete never hid this influence, and it doesn't detract from his own unique approach, though it does demonstrates the dominance of Goodman's approach.

When it came time for the King of Swing to endorse another player, he chose one of the most original in the history of jazz: a New Orleans clarinetist known for his work with traditional groups (including Louis Armstrong, with whom he is most associated), yet who branched out into the High Romantic Era of Swing Clarinet, allowing himself to be influenced by Goodman and Artie Shaw.

It's this combination that makes Hall so indispensible, and my favorite of the New Orleans players. He managed to take that NOLA talking style of playing, and advance it beyond classic into romantic era jazz, giving us something profoundly different from those who came before him, yet with the same warmth.

Every time Hall plays, heat seems the result--a sweltering, humid, sauna of sound. Profoundly Blue is an excellent compilation album, and worthy introduction to his work.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

CD Review: Illustrious Clarinetists of Jazz

This compilation, released on the Jazz Legends label in 2004, and apparently compiled by Scott Yanow who also contributes excellent liner notes, is a must for anyone interested in jazz clarinet. It's by no means comprehensive, but Yanow and crew managed to fit 21 different jazz clarinetists onto one disc. For many, this disc will undoubtedly serve as an introduction to important players such as Jimmy Noone, Omer Simeon, and Edmond Hall.

It's hard to argue with the selections, as variety of clarinetists has rightly taken precedence over demonstrations of artistic range. I was happy to see Woody Herman's 'Chip's Boogie Woogie', Artie Shaw's classic 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' and the foundational 'After You've Gone' recorded by Benny Goodman in July of 1935. But the real treats for me were the ones I hadn't heard before, especially Buster Bailey's wild novelty number 'Man With A Horn Goes Berserk' from 1938. 'Berserk' is 2 minutes 29 seconds of virtuosic frenzy--and as some of the phrases seem to have worked their way into Artie Shaw's later 'Concerto for Clarinet', there is some musicological interest here as well.

I was delighted to hear such players as Tony Scott, Joe Marsala, and the all but forgotten Swedish bop player, Stan Hasselgard. Really, this a remarkable set.

My one negative criticism is the cover photo of Sidney Bechet, playing a soprano sax, and as though this isn't bad enough, they repeat the image three times--one time reversing the photo!

Still, this is a compilation not to be missed.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (4)

4. Sidney Bechet * The Best of Sidney Bechet (Blue Note)

This next selection was a difficult one to make, considering all of the options for Sidney Bechet compilations, but it seemed to me the Blue Note set had a lot to recommend itself.

First and foremost, it has one of the most perfect blues recordings ever made, "Blue Horizon", which is a must for any jazz clarinetist to transcribe and inwardly digest.

Beyond this, there are many other sides here of unique importance. The sessions represented on this disc are largely drawn from the mid-1940s, when recording technology and quality had finally caught up enough to give some real excellent representations of jazz musicians' sound. They give us the opportunity to hear Bechet in many contexts both solo and ensemble, playing opposite Bunk Johnson and Wild Bill Davison on trumpet and cornet.

Perhaps most exciting for the clarinetist is "Old Stack O'Lee Blues" with Albert Nicholas. Here we have two differing New Orleans sound concepts: Bechet with his woody, aggressive ferocity, and Nicholas with his fat, round mellowness--Bechet on Albert system, Nicholas on Boehm--both of them singing, swinging, and booming.

For many in the New Orleans tradition, Bechet's sound is foundational, and for jazz itself, Bechet's solo concept certainly is. Even Gunther Schuller, whose jazz series has a penchant for setting up a rigid and highly subjective hierarchy to jazz history similar to a German Romantic "history of heroes", had to grudgingly admit that Bechet, as "creative melodist, had...a soloist's conception even before [Louis] Armstrong did." [Early Jazz, 198]

Duke Ellington went a great deal further in his praise for Bechet. "I consider Bechet the foundation [of jazz]," he said in 1962. As far as his clarinet sound, Duke had this to say:

He was just a great clarinet player. He had a wonderful clarinet tone--all wood, a sound you don't hear anymore."

But Duke's praise for Bechet doesn't end there. Perhaps this next quote puts things in the starkest relief:

Yes, there were some very good Lester Young imitators. Lester was one of the very potent influences. Charlie Parker had plenty of imitators. Johnny Hodges too. And there was a time when there was hardly a tenor player in the world who didn't try to sound like Coleman Hawkins. But we mustn't leave out the greatest--Bechet! The greatest of all the originators, Bechet, the symbol of jazz!   [Dance, The World of Duke Ellington, 10]

The history of jazz clarinet is a story of critical and scholarly neglect since the 1950s. I can't help but wonder why Duke Ellington, whom scholars have often canonized as the greatest jazz composer in history, shouldn't be consulted more for his opinion! The great foundational saxophonists of the 20th century--Lester, Bird, and Hawk, are all considered in this quote and yet Bechet, the clarinetist, is considered more important to jazz. Though these opinions (and the opinions of critics and scholars) are ultimately mere chatter in the face of the music, they do matter in the big picture, because they shape what is preserved and passed on to further generations. As clarinetists, it's worth remembering that such canons can be reshaped and influenced.

I read constantly of the supremacy of the saxophone to the clarinet in jazz, and when I was a student in college, it was common to hear no less a musician than Jackie McLean suggest that the clarinet might not really be a "jazz instrument." The history behind such statements is often ideological, extra-musical, and culturally disappointing. But we need not accept it, especially when our ears, hearts, and souls tell us otherwise (along with the history itself, and a few powerful quotes from musicians like Duke Ellington).

Keep swinging and wailing, clarinetists!


Works cited:

Dance, Stanley. The World of Duke Ellington. Da Capo, 1970.
Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz. Oxford, 1968.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (3)

3. Pete Fountain * Pete Fountain's French Quarter (1961)

Pete Fountain * clarinet
Godfrey Hirsch * vibraphone
Stan Wrightsman * piano
Morty Corb * bass
Jack Sperling * drums

Pete Fountain is almost unique in the history of jazz clarinet, in that he is generally dismissed by critics for contradictory reasons. For modern jazz aficionados, he is too "traditional," too rooted in his native New Orleans. By contrast, many New Orleans traditionalists consider him too modern, tainted by West Coast and Las Vegas styles and sensibilities.

Lost among these misdirections is the eclectic brilliance of Fountain's playing, and one extremely salient point: his mastery of the clarinet. Pete is one of the few clarinetists to have forged an immediately identifiable personal style and to have extended it to the full range of the instrument, executing his ideas while seeming effortless. His technique is fluid in every register, and even his most jaw dropping feats were accomplished with emotional rather than athletic goals.

This album from 1961, long out of print, is a perfect example of the type of set his group put together in the early '60s, as documented on a slew of other albums from the same era (including Pete Fountain's New Orleans, Live at the Bateau Lounge, Pete's Place, and others). There is a blending of modern jazz sensibilities and New Orleans history that remains permanently fresh. Most of these cuts sound as though they might have been recorded last week, rather than half a century ago. The players are tight, polished and professional--all hallmarks of Pete's groups over the years. Jack Sperling is nothing short of brilliant as a drummer (is he the most underrated drummer in jazz history?) This group grooves and swings deeply throughout.

His impressive clarinet technique aside, I consider Pete Fountain to be the great crooner of jazz clarinet history. No other player has laid down melody lines to so many varied styles and lived to tell the tale. This is not so easy as it sounds--not many players can emotionally engage an audience with their sound and phrasing alone. Pete could and did for decades.

I couldn't find a track from the album on YouTube to share, but the LP is remarkable. Unfortunately, there seems no great groundswell to get these vintage recordings remastered and rereleased. If you have a turntable, I recommend getting this album on vinyl, while there are still good copies available on Amazon.

[For a more thorough review of this album, click here].

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (2)

2. Benny Goodman * The Complete Small Combinations Volumes 1 & 2 (1935-37)

Though I've presented these recordings as second on my essential list, they could easily be first. In terms of historical significance, they are easily the most important, as they document one of the most revolutionary ensembles in this history of American music: the interracial group which combined the talents of Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton.

Major league baseball rightly makes an annual big deal out of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in our National Passtime, but little is made these days of the earlier, musical color barrier broken by jazz groups--the nationally prominent Goodman Quartet in particular. I think part of the reason it's not talked about can be traced to Benny's own attitude about race: he just didn't care. If you were a great musician who spoke blues and walked swing, he wanted to play with you. As a Jew in a deeply anti-semitic era, Goodman had faced discrimination himself, and if you read between the lines in some of the more prominent jazz histories out there, I'm sorry to say that such sentiments have not entirely been eradicated from our cultural landscape. I don't know if he ever spoke on the subject, but this experience undoubtedly forced a choice in Goodman on some level: would he retaliate in kind, and be defensive? Or would he move above and beyond the hate?

We can all be glad he chose the latter.

These recordings, beginning with the first session with Teddy Wilson, are a watershed moment in the history of jazz. I firmly believe that they set a new bar for instrumental performance, with Benny's relaxed virtuosity surpassing the windplayers of the previous generation (including Louis Armstrong and the great Sidney Bechet, who will make his own appearance on this list soon). Just as enduring are the ballads and blues from these sessions. Can anyone else have recorded "Body and Soul" so simply and purely, relying almost exclusively on tonal inflection and that gently rocking swing Benny was so known for?

This was, in many ways, the foundational group for much of the greatest clarinet jazz--including Artie Shaw's last Gramercy 5. The basic timbres of clarinet, vibraphone, piano, and brushes has proven to be remarkably flexible and deep--it's almost a kind of String Quartet for the jazz world in its balance.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (1)

[ The following series of posts will focus on small groups, where jazz soloing tends to show itself in purest form. The intent is to give a sort of primer for those interested in the rich history of jazz clarinet. I hope to follow up with other lists, including Big Band clarinet and classical clarinet essentials.

The list is my own opinion only. The order is based upon many criteria, including historical importance for the development of the instrument in jazz, virtuosity, and cultural importance. I'm starting with number one, because I really hope to inspire readers to buy copies of this music, and think the earliest on the list are the most essential. ] 

1. Artie Shaw & his 1954 Gramercy 5 Last Recordings: Rare and Unreleased (released 1992) * More Last Recordings: The Final Sessions (released 1993)

The four CDs which comprise the "Last Recordings" and "Final Sessions" of Artie Shaw are not only the musical last will and testament of a great jazz clarinetist; they are one of the finest sets of jazz recordings ever made. Because Shaw refused to release them until nearly four decades afterwards, they didn't have an impact on the jazz culture they might (and perhaps should) have, and therefore can never be fully evaluated culturally in the way that the Armstrong Hot Fives, Miles Davis Quintet, or Coltrane Quartet recordings can be. This might not be coincidental. Shaw, more than any other jazz great, truly hated the "show business" side of the jazz industry and yearned for music to be appreciated outside of the trappings of marketing. By distancing his greatest recordings from the time they were made, he allowed them to be heard first as music. And what incredible music they made.

Coming out of retirement one last time in the Winter of 1954, Shaw put together his last Gramercy 5. The ensemble was comprised of:

Hank Jones, piano
Tommy Potter, bass
Joe Roland, vibraphone
Irv Kluger, drums
Tal Farlow, guitar (NY Sessions, February & March 1954)
Joe Puma, guitar (Hollywood Sessions, June 1954)

Shaw knew exactly what he was after with this last ensemble. He had been approached by New York club owner Ralph Watkins to play an eight-week stand at his 54th Street club, the Embers. After he accepted, Shaw employed his musicians for an highly unusual six weeks worth of paid rehearsals in preparation.

"Intense rehearsals," Hank Jones said. "It was a considerable length of time, enough so that we were quite familiar with his music and the way he wanted to play it. Artie was a super-perfectionist: he wanted things absolutely, exactly the way he intended to have it sound." [Nolan, pg 281].

The group went on to play a stint in Las Vegas later that year.

The music was intended by Shaw to sound "clear, pellucid" which he likened to the waters of a mountain lake, so pristine that you can see to the bottom. The metaphor is apt, and a worthy goal for jazz musicians: it implies a transparent honesty. Many such lakes exist up where Shaw had lived on a farm for much of the early '50s near Shekomeko, NY--a place he said he wished he could have remained.

"Picardy Farm..." he would write nearly thirty years later. "Good God, the emotions those two words evoke. The place where for the first time in my life I had found a real home, a warm sense of security, and a feeling of calm and peace of mind." [Shaw, pg vi]

That sense of pristine beauty, clarity, and peace of mind is never far away in these recordings, and has probably never been equalled in jazz history.

Each and every track of the set is worth the price alone. The standards represented are almost always my favorite versions of the tunes.  Artie's "My Funny Valentine" surpasses even Chet Baker's version for me--there is a warmth to Shaw's that is more mature than the occasionally dark, slightly obsessive hints found in Baker's. Likewise, Artie's "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" and "Tenderly" set a new bar for ballad singing. In his hands, "Bewitched" is transformed from what can easily turn into a cabaret tune with sleazy undertones into a deeply tender, innocent love song. Shaw's second solo is perhaps the most breathtaking--quoting "The Song is You" sotto voce while the band miraculously billows his melodic line upwards, the music lifts beyond genre, creating a moment of romantic stillness and sincerity that I've never heard equalled. This is grown up music, not adolescent pandering. "Tenderly," too, receives perhaps its most mature and perfect utterance with the Gramercy 5 and Artie blending into that crystal clear lake he envisioned.

The Last Recordings function as a personal retrospective, a summation of the era Shaw recorded them in, and an anticipation of the later work of Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and even Coltrane (Shaw's "Besame Mucho", in particular, moves in direction that heralds Newk and Trane). Had they been released in their era, they would have been divided into at least five or six albums worth of LPs. Who knows what shock waves they might have created at the time, and what impact they would have had on both jazz history and the status of the clarinet in jazz?

While writing this, I checked Amazon for links--it appears that these particular discs are now out of print, which is unfortunate, as the the liner notes contain important interviews with Shaw himself. Fortunately, Jasmine Records has released a five disc set containing the complete Gramcery 5 recordings, which I heartily recommend for any collection of jazz clarinet. That aside, I encourage interested readers to buy copies of the original releases while they are still available.

Works cited:

Nolan, Tom. Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet. Norton, 2010.
Shaw, Artie. The Trouble with Cinderella: an Outline of Identity. Da Capo edition, 1979.