Friday, August 31, 2012

New Name for the Blog: The Jazz Clarinet

When I first started this blog, I had no real set plan for topics or the discussion: only that it would relate to the clarinet. Since that time, I've returned to playing full time jazz clarinet, and my posts have reflected the shift away from selling instruments and discussing classical schools of thought to delving into the rich history of jazz clarinet.

Because there is so relatively little on the web concerning jazz clarinet specifically, I felt the new name would help interested folks find the information being compiled here.

I hope the switch hasn't inconvenienced any of Marlborough Man Music's regular readers. Let me know what you think!


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (7)

7. Artie Shaw * August 19, 1939 * Live at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Roof, Boston

As one who came up primarily as a jazz clarinetist before college, it always bothered me to hear the occasional live classical clarinet performance, where the soloist might come out of the orchestra to play tight, terrified music, a quarter tone or more sharp, sounding like a different player in every register, only to have the whole thing hailed as a classic interpretation. Back when I was young and foolish enough to point out the above concerns to colleagues, there would come the inevitable laundry list of excuses: the soloist wasn't used to the concert hall, perhaps their reeds weren't very good for both soloing and part playing, the conductor might have told them to play a certain way against their better judgement, and most importantly of all: you just can't judge a live performance by the same standards you might an air-brushed studio recording! 

These excuses are reminiscent of an old story well known in orchestral circles: There was once a famous piano soloist, listening to the studio playback with the conductor. The edits had all been made, so the work sounded perfect. "Don't you wish you could play like that?" the conductor quipped.

The excuses are potentially true, of course, but I'd grown up listening to big band soloists who made their daily living by live solo performance. These orchestra leaders regularly performed over the airwaves, often in new venues. They were not only in charge of their own playing but the band as well (hiring, firing, rehearsing, repertoire choosing, etc), and on top of it they had to improvise their solos! No one in the audience cared if their reed wasn't perfect, or if they'd never played the room before that night. And night in, night out, masters like Shaw and Goodman managed to not only equal, but exceed the artistry of their studio recordings.

We're lucky these live sets were recorded: had they occurred even ten or twenty years earlier, we'd have no documentation of their brilliance. One such performance is of Artie Shaw at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, almost exactly 73 years ago. Available now on Hindsight records' "Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet", the set represented is a brilliant example of the night in, night out work these players did.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (6)

6. Pete Fountain * The Blues * 1959

In 1959, Pete Fountain came to his famous realization that "Champagne and Bourbon don't mix", decided that Hollywood just wasn't for him, and packed his family for the return trip to New Orleans. But before he left, he cut two very important albums. The first, Pete Fountain's New Orleans, seamlessly blended Pete's New Orleans style clarinet with a cool, West Coast rhythm section. It went on to become one of Fountain's best selling records, and is still available for download over sixty years later. The second, equally impressive despite having sadly slipped into obscurity, is Pete's first collaboration with the large ensemble scoring of Charles 'Bud' Dant, entitled The Blues.

These arrangements are streamlined, '50s-chic Big Band Charts, demonstrating the polish musicians brought to them in that day. The band was comprised of the top musicians in L.A. at the time, many of them veterans of the Big Band era.

Some of these tracks, especially the impressive lead-off 'St Louis Blues' have been reissued in compilation albums, but many (such as 'Blue Fountain') have been oddly neglected over the six decades since it was recorded. They capture Pete's playing at a moment of particular brilliance. His legendary fat, liquidy sound is all there, from the bottom to the top of the horn. Few clarinetists have ever matched the timbral beauty throughout the horn's range that Pete has.

There are still a few vinyl discs of this great album floating around. Get a stereo copy if you can (they were pressed in both stereo and mono--the stereo versions have a blue "Coral Stereo" strip at the top). Hopefully this great album will be made available for download soon.

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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (5)

5. Woody Herman & The Herd * Live at Carnegie Hall * 1946

Woody Herman was neither the virtuoso nor the perfectionist-taskmaster of his two rivals, Shaw and Goodman, but his band was one of the most musically adventurous and emotionally effective of the Big Band Era.

Known for his uncanny ability to hone arrangements in rehearsal, Woody Herman ran a hard swinging, lyrical, tight ensemble, unafraid to cross unusual musical boundaries. Carnegie Hall has been featured prominently on this list already, with both Goodman and Shaw. It was only natural that arguably the most exciting band of the 1940s would also make a run at that legendary venue.  

This concert features many remarkable moments. A number of the charts were to become favorites, performed for decades by Herman's successive Herds, including 'Blowin' Up a Storm' and 'Hallelujah'. But the highlights of this concert are the extremely adventurous inclusion of Ralph Burns' landmark Summer Sequence (a piece I firmly believe every American Conservatory student should be required to study) and the World Premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto.

Bridging the classical and jazz worlds has been a major preoccupation for many jazz clarinetists, and there is little wonder why: our instrument had a major solo repertoire prior to the jazz era, and an abundance of virtuosi of both styles. Artie Shaw had worked toward a "chamber jazz" concept beginning at least as early as 1936, and Benny Goodman's efforts in both realms are well known. Indeed, Goodman's recording of the Ebony Concerto has sometimes obscured the fact the Herman Herd was both the inspiration for and first performer of the work.

This musical bridge building will become even more important as we consider clarinetists closer to our own day, but the Woody Herman Carnegie Hall Concert marked a huge leap forward on the quest for such unity. It also highlights the state of the Big Band in the very important year of 1946, which has been cited as the end of the Big Band Era. As George Simon wrote in The Big Bands: December, 1946, almost a dozen years after Benny Goodman had blown the first signs of life into the big band bubble, that bubble burst with a concerted bang. Inside just a few weeks, eight of the nation's top bandleaders called it quits---some temporarily, some permanently: Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter, and Ina Ray Hutton.

The German Romantic Period had lasted nearly a century, but America's was crammed into a dozen years. With the disbanding of the Herman Herd, High Summer for American music was indeed over, and the country moved into colder modernism. This juncture didn't end the contributions of clarinetists to the genre, nor of many bands from doing some of their best work (Duke Ellington's work in the '50s and '60s comes to mind), but the high point was past, and Americans would never again support the Big Bands or our unique style of romanticism with the same enthusiasm.

The recording available to us is, unfortunately, incomplete. Only the third movement of the Stravinsky remains, and only ten minutes of the Summer Sequence, but it is nevertheless an important document. Stravinsky had coached the Herd himself, and it shows: there is a 'rightness' to the articulations, especially in the brass, unlike most other recordings of the work.

There is also the landmark 1946 studio recording of Woody Herman & the Herd performing Ebony Concerto, with the composer conducting. It lacks the live feel and resonance of Carnegie Hall, and Woody's clarinet playing is nowhere near Benny's later recording, but it is nevertheless an important document.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (4)

4. Artie Shaw * St. James Infirmary * 1941

In November of 1941, Artie Shaw went into the studio with his Orchestra and featured vocalist/trumpeter 'Hot Lips' Page on what amounts to a tone poem of the old standard "St James Infirmary." Using both sides of a 78 disc, the song stretches over six minutes, unusual for the recordings of the day (Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing' and 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen' were similar exceptions to the one side rule).

On this recording, the tune begins in G minor, rather than the more traditional F minor, enabling Shaw to utilize the full range of the clarinet to dramatic effect.

Shaw plays three major solos on the tune. The first comes as the primary exposition of the song, reaching up to Double C emphatically, for musical rather than virtuosic reasons. The second 'solo' is behind Page's vocal, and one of the very finest background solos of the era. The third comes in Part II of the tune, on the 'flipside', where Shaw screams a blues of perfect economy and intensity, hammering the altissimo of the clarinet with a repeated figure to Double C--yet once again the result is soulful rather than showy.

If all else had been lost, and this was the only recording we possessed of Artie Shaw, we would be forced to conclude from it alone that he was one of the finest clarinetists to record, one of the most soulful blues musicians of the 20th century, and one of the greatest background soloists of any era. Talk about essential...

Monday, August 6, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: Boosey & Hawkes Edgware

There are many on the web who say the B&H Edgware makes a good jazz clarinet. I've always been a bit skeptical of this, thinking is says more of the player's poor understanding of jazz sound than the instrument. Top jazz players have always played top pro model horns, and the Edgware was a high end student model horn from the 50s-70s when Boosey & Hawkes were at their height.

B&H Edgware

So it was with a predisposition towards dismissiveness that I recently played an Edgware dating from about 1949 (if the serial number chart I checked is to be believed). The particular model I played was in excellent condition. The keys were beautifully preserved, and my general impression was that this horn had either barely been played, or wonderfully restored recently--perhaps both. Having said that, the keywork was not the standard of a top professional horn.


Of all registers, the Edgware chalumeau betrays its "student" status most. Comfortable, easy to blow, and somewhat open, the main problem is a lack of depth, power, and character to the sound when compared with a vintage Selmer or Fritz Wurlitzer (whose chalumeau is perhaps unsurpassed for power and timbral palette). Still, it yields a good, solid sound with considerable body--more than I expected, but difficult to project.


The first nice surprise was the clarion. On this particular horn, the clarion matched the chalumeau better than many Buffet R-13s I've played. Keep in mind that my biggest criticism of the average R-13 is the timbral shifts between every register (and many in the altissimo).  The Edgware's smoothness would make some sense of players preferring it as a primary jazz horn--especially if they are coming to it from Buffets. Oddly enough, the higher I climbed on this horn, the better and more professional it sounded. Which brings me to the...


Who would have though that a student horn could handle real altissimo playing? Yet the Edgware does. The altissimo on this horn is very close to a good Selmer. Flexible, with good punch to the sound, this a horn to be reckoned with.

So it is with a certain amount of surprise that I now say, if you are a doubler looking for a jazz horn with a very limited budget, give the Boosey & Hawkes Edgware a try. They are by far he best student level horn I've played, and the altissimo handles better than many contemporary pro models.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (3)

3. Artie Shaw with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra * The Blues * Carnegie Hall (1938)

It's astonishing to think that Shaw's performance with Whiteman in 1938, arguably the most impressive jazz clarinet on record (in a technical sense) and certainly one of the most important recordings in American musical history, might be out of print.

The piece, which can be understood as a sketch for Shaw's later Concerto for Clarinet (1940), is perhaps even more important than the final product--at least as a cultural document--for here the influences stand out more boldly. Entitled simply "The Blues", it's a sort of tone poem for clarinet and orchestra combining 'St. Louis Blues' with klezmer--uniting them as convincingly as Gershwin's earlier Rhapsody in Blue had united European concert music with Tin Pan Alley (not coincidentally for an earlier Paul Whiteman extravaganza).

There is something strange and sad about an American culture that takes such little interest in its own positive accomplishments. This particular piece represents a nearly seamless uniting of two strains of human experience, and could not have been accomplished without Shaw's unique background, which was not only Jewish, but steeped in African-American Blues. Had something of this calibre, even just in terms of technique, been written by Carl Maria von Weber for Heinrich Baermann a hundred years earlier, it would be considered a classic of music history. But it isn't even taught in our conservatories here. Classical faculties ignore it (perhaps because most classical clarinetists can't even approximate the techniques needed to perform it) and jazz faculties ignore it, too, as the rush to an increasingly limited understanding of the term "jazz", fueled by ideological rather than musical concerns, dominates.

So this work is buried, mentioned by no one. Perhaps our social tensions, and the desire to maintain them for political purposes, make music such as this an embarrassing reminder that good really can come when barriers are removed and ignored. And perhaps some very powerful people, who profit by our divisions and anger, don't want us to know this. For those who are tired of being treated as pawns, however, this music serves as a type of antidote.

As mentioned in the Introduction to this series, I intend to stretch the boundaries of "Big Band" a bit, if only because the groups under that name were so diverse. Shaw's band, for instance, often included string sections and even harp, and there is a decided blur between what we now accept as a more or less "standard" instrumentation, and what reality was for the groups (usually called "Orchestras") in the "Big Band Era."

[Note: There is a retrospectively chilling moment of 'humor' in the beginning of the performance, where the MC refers to Paul Whiteman as the "Fuhrer" of the orchestra on stage. Little did they know at the time what Hitler thought of Jews, Blacks, and jazz music, and how singularly unfunny such a quip would seem to the entire world only a few months later.]