Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mouthpiece Review: Charles Bay 1989 MO-L

1989 Charles Bay Mouthpiece

The battle tested Bay in this photo was my first handcrafted pro-model mouthpiece, purchased in 1989 (the grooves were caused by a Bonade inverted ligature, since banished to a cold corner of The Jazz Clarinet's "ligature museum"). Charles Bay's website states that his mouthpieces are intended to give clarinetists the "ability to project one’s unique sound whether Classical or Jazz." This flexibility of purpose strikes me as important, as many top mouthpiece makers seem less concerned with the jazz market. It's nice to deal with someone who takes jazz into consideration, and who values individuality of sound. 

Of all the mouthpieces I've owned, this Bay has probably seen the most diverse use. Between the ages of 17 and 25, I played it constantly and in all circumstances, including symphony orchestras, opera and show pits, jazz gigs in New Orleans' French Quarter, solo concerti, and Mozart with the Emerson String Quartet.

The mouthpiece is marked MO-L, which I believe means "Medium Open - Long" facing.

It's dominant attribute is a free-blowing, forward, booming sound. Articulation is surprisingly good, especially when slightly harder reeds are used--one excellent characteristic is that it can accept a wide variety of reeds for different styles of music.

In the chalumeau and clarion registers, this mouthpiece is ideal for gaining a fat New Orleans sound, with that 'forward in the mouth' feel. For jazz purposes, I would recommend it most strongly to players looking for a very specific type of retro-NOLA 'talking' quality, represented by players such as Albert Nicholas, George Lewis, and Dr. Michael White. This mouthpiece gets me into that sound world much quicker than others in my collection.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mouthpiece Review: Pomarico Crystal 1 and 1L (c. 1999)

When I played Buffet R13s, these mouthpieces were my bread and butter for pops concerts and jazz--in fact, they were the only mouthpieces I ever ran across that would smooth out the sound of an R13 to the point of giving a decent masquerade of the old Selmer sound.

Pomarico 1 and 1L crystal mouthpieces, c.1998

They also perform well on the classical repertoire. The darker, more used looking cork to the left is the Pomarico 1, on which I won my first professional audition. The 1L was bought as a backup, and despite the difference in facing length (I'm fairly sure "L" stood for "long" in the old Pomarico nomenclature, which has since been replaced by various gems and other symbols) it plays and responds similarly. The old Pomarico 1s were roughly equivalent tip opening to the current "Nigun" models. [ Readers of The Jazz Clarinet should note that I don't play stereotypically open "jazz" facings, but tend to medium/medium close facings.]

I'm not one who thinks crystal mouthpieces sound in any way "brighter" than hard rubber, acrylic, or wood mouthpieces. Depending on reed selection and embouchure, they can actually sound much denser, smoother, and less "bright" to my ear.

These mouthpieces yield a very consistent and uniform sound to all registers of the clarinet. This was particularly helpful when playing the R13, which was never an easy experience for me in terms of timbre. The dynamic range is very good, especially at the soft end of the spectrum, holding the sound shape firmly while producing the lightest pianissimo. At maximum volume, they resisted distortion, but also lack the type of 'jump' or 'shout' that can be gained with a Selmer C85.

Articulation is solid, but not quite as crisp as can be attained on other mouthpieces.

These mouthpieces are highly recommended for those playing instruments with timbre-control issues. For mellowness, the Pomarico concept is really quite extraordinary, and is what I most associate with them.  They really are a smooth ride and quite enjoyable to play.

Movie Review: The Dancing Co-Ed * Lana Turner * Artie Shaw * 1939

Once upon a time, jazz clarinetists were so big they starred in Hollywood movies. Or at least Artie Shaw took a prominent place in a couple of films: 1939's The Dancing Co-Ed, and Second Chorus, a 1941 film featuring the dancing team of Fred Astaire and Paulette Goddard.

The later film is better known to Shaw fans. Fred Astaire's enduring popularity kept it in public view for decades on television, and when the time came, it was released in VHS and DVD format promptly. Featuring a good amount of music, including clips of Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet", his original tune "Love of My Life" and several other numbers, well spaced throughout the movie, it's an ideal place to find footage of Shaw's physical approach to the clarinet.

By contrast, there isn't as much Shaw in The Dancing Co-Ed. Conceived as vehicle for MGM's newest girl star, Lana Turner (who a year later became Mrs. Artie Shaw), the plot is a gentle romantic comedy in the 1930s screw-ball tradition, interspersed with mild dance numbers.

For fans for Artie Shaw, the highlight will be another take of "Traffic Jam" performed by the famous "Stardust Band" of 1938-39. The rest of the movie will seem more like a tease, throwing out snippets of Nightmare, Non-Stop Flight, I'm Coming Virginia, Double Mellow, Jungle Drums, Back Bay Shuffle, and others. Like Benny Goodman's role in Hollywood Hotel, we jazz aficionados have to wait a long time before our hero takes the limelight, and when he does, it isn't for long. 

Besides "Traffic Jam", the musical highlight for me is an over-the-top-Hollywood moment where the Shaw Band joins a parade, with Artie playing an obbligato solo over "Stars and Stripes Forever." While others might find this a moment of eye-rolling endurance, for me the opportunity to hear Shaw take a casual chorus over Sousa is worth the price of the DVD by itself.

I've watched this movie a few times over the last several weeks. I bought it for Shaw's playing, expecting little more than fluff from the rest of the movie. But I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the rest of the film. Most of these sorts of films feel like extended music videos held together by rushed bits and pieces of plot. Some of the very best performances from swing era musicals (think Harry James's Private Buckaroo or the aforementioned Hollywood Hotel) can sometimes leave a lot to be desired beyond the band numbers.

But in this movie, Lana Turner is great, and so are the rest of the cast. She plays the role of Patty Marlow, a young professional hoofer without a name for herself, who has been planted at a large Mid-Western University for the purpose of winning a major studio's dance competition--all to ratchet up publicity for the coming movie. Trouble ensues when school-newspaper reporter Michael "Pug" Braddock, played by a bright-faced and earnest Richard Carlson, suspects the competition to be rigged. The two main characters fall inevitably in love, and the movie becomes a comedic parable of young love, lies, truth telling, and consequences.

Turner's charisma and charm carry the movie for 84 minutes, and while the clarinetists in the audience might be left wishing for more Shaw, the balance between comedy, plot, and music seems close to being right. For those of us weary of the increasingly cynical, dreary, and immoral nature of our current Hollywood romances, this movie is like a breath of fresh air. There is something charming hearing a dress which would be tame by current network TV standards referred to as a "homewrecker", for instance. There is nothing stodgy about this movie: its moral framework enables the young lovers to be effervescent instead of cynical, free instead of lost. Because of this, it's worth preserving for even non-musical reasons. Yet also because of this, for the jazz musician these films are more than an exercise in nostalgia--they are an aesthetic training ground, providing cultural context for the tunes we call "standards."

 In terms of practical music making, I consider it very important to watch these old films. In my opinion, seeing a great player can be as important as hearing them--watching Artie Shaw and Harry James has probably had as big an impact on my playing (especially my breathing) as the transcribing I've done.

I give this movie a rating of Four Good Reeds on the strength of the script and overall acting, which is charming and withstands repeated viewings quite well. A fifth good reed would have been added, if only Shaw and his band could have played more. Any way you cut it, though, this one is a keeper and a classic.

[ As a footnote, yesterday I was subjected to nearly three hours of orc-slaying inanity under the name of "The Hobbit". In the aftermath of that bizarre experience, I couldn't help reflecting on what the whole film would have been like had Lana Turner showed up at Bilbo's door, dressed as Patty Marlow. My bet is that Gandalf and thirteen dwarves would have blushed, stumbled for words, and left quietly, with Thorin Oakenshield perhaps mugging the camera on his way out to whisper "What's in your wallet?" sheepishly. Then Lana could sit in the parlour, turn on the "wireless" and introduce a deeply embarrassed Bilbo to the music of Artie Shaw. Is it too late to make this revision? Someone please call Peter Jackson.]

Monday, December 24, 2012

Silent Night * Kathleen Battle * Wynton Marsalis

One of my favorites:  'Silent Night' arranged by Wynton Marsalis and performed by Wynton, his band, and Kathleen Battle.

God Bless you all this Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Autobiographies: an Overview

Although most of them are out of print, jazz clarinetist are startlingly well represented by highly informative autobiographies--books that are more than marketing hype, and give a real look into the lives and thoughts of the musicians who wrote (or, more often, co-wrote) them.

In my opinion the most important of these books, and a literary work of art in its own right, is Sidney Bechet's Treat it Gentle.  Bechet's book was compiled from interview recordings and edited by a team of writers, among them Joan Reid, Desmond Flower, and the poet John Ciardi, who is still well known for his masterful translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The work was so well done that Bechet's voice comes through almost as clearly and profoundly as his playing did. This book, which Nat Hentoff called the "most valuable and moving of all jazz biographies" ought to be required reading somewhere--at the very least among all jazz musicians.

Another brilliant, if uniquely odd and idiosyncratic book, is Artie Shaw's The Trouble with Cinderella. This book is unfortunately out of print--and the Ebay prices are climbing.

Benny Goodman's The Kingdom of Swing, published at the height of his popularity in 1938, would seem by context a fluff piece meant to capitalize on music sales, but it isn't. Instead, Benny's self-portrait reveals a side of him not often mentioned by contemporary commentators. In the beginning, especially, it details his family's struggles through poverty, radiating the warmth of that large family, while always focusing on the music and what it meant to him. Like Benny's sound, it is both warm and hard edged, simultaneously. Benny's book has been out of print for a very long time, and can be quite difficult to find.

In 1972, Pete Fountain published his memoir, A Closer Walk,  which reads like his music sounds: a upbeat party, with some heartfelt blues, to be sure, but a whole lot of brightness. As of this writing, the only copy available on Amazon is selling for about $100.

Two other important autobiographies were published posthumously: Barney Bigard's With Louis and the Duke and Woody Herman's The Woodchopper's Ball. These books, while slim, give invaluable insights to the men and their era.

Finally, Bill Russell's volume, New Orleans Style, deserves mentions, as it includes brief autobiographical sketches of Omer Simeon, Edmond Hall, Raymond Burke, and Lawrence Duhe.

I'll be giving more detailed reviews of these books in the near future--interested readers will want to get copies while they are still available. This is an endangered part of our jazz heritage.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mouthpiece Review: Selmer C85

Of the fifty or so mouthpieces in my collection, only one--a Morgan purchased in 1989--might qualify as a specifically made "jazz" mouthpiece. All of the others, like each of my clarinets, were manufactured with a classical market in mind. [editor's note 6/27/18: This review was written before I purchased nearly 25 vintage Brilhart mouthpieces, and a Benny Goodman Selmer model, all of which could be said to have been designed for the jazz market--E.S.] While mouthpiece choice is ultimately very personal, with no two players getting the same results from the same equipment, jazz players often have to re-purpose materials from the classical market. This ongoing series of reviews is therefore written in the hopes that giving one player's opinions and experiences might be of some help to others.


Selmer C85 105

First and foremost, this mouthpiece is loud. But loudness itself isn't really a positive quality unless it's accompanied by other aspects of sound. Depth, flexibility, color spectrum and dynamic range all play their parts and will determine whether it's worth listening in the first place.

What makes this loud "good" and others less successful is the depth, flexibility, and a certain plaintive quality this mouthpiece yields, deep in the tone. There is an inner motion to the sound possible--rather than giving one generic sound, it's multi-layered. It also has a strong edge to the sound, without sacrificing body.

All registers respond immediately to this mouthpiece--it very much feels like a hair-trigger megaphone, freeing the player up to focus on the music rather than any physical challenges. Player who like to exert while playing might find this mouthpiece shouts too much (or that it has too little resistence), but those who like to lay back while getting big results will probably like the feel and response of the C85.

I've read elsewhere on the web that the C85 series was designed specifically for the Selmer 10S/Recital series clarinets, and that they don't work particularly well for pre-10S Selmers. This hasn't been my experience--the C85 works very well on my 1955 Centered Tone and 10S alike.

I can tolerate a pretty wide variety of facings, from fairly close (105) to fairly open (120), and have used both the C85 105 and C85 120 on my horns. They yield similar results, though I prefer the 105 (pictured above is a new 105, purchased as a backup--the one I use more often is a "vintage" 'piece from the early '80s, with an inlaid stamp of the Selmer logo, letters and numbers).

In the grand argument about whether material matters, count me with those who believe it does. These mouthpieces are made from rod rubber, and the sound seems, from both a listening and playing perspective, a bit more defined and harder edged than the molded hard rubber mouthpieces in my collection. Whether it's ultimately material that accounts for this will be debated by those more expert than I am, but my "player's opinion" is that the rubber itself does seem to contribute to that difference.

For those who like Vandoren B40s or B45s, but are looking for a slightly edgier sound, this mouthpiece handles very similarly (with the 120 being the closest facing to those popular Vandorens), and being reasonably priced, it's worth looking into.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Memos from Paradise * Eddie Daniels

Twenty-Five years ago today, Eddie Daniels was in New York City at Clinton Studios recording what I consider to be one of the great jazz clarinet albums of all time, Memos from Paradise.  

My first copy of this album was on vinyl--I was in High School and didn't yet own a CD player! In retrospect, this was a great way to approach the musical material on the album. Side A contained six tunes that would be at home on most jazz albums, while Side B was dedicated to a unique musical landscape for clarinet, rhythm section, and string quartet--the title suite for the album.

Eddie had already made his presence as a jazz clarinetist forcefully known on Breakthrough  and To Bird with Love. The former opened new vistas for classical/jazz fusion, while the second took jazz clarinet deeper into bop realms. As a young player, I was pretty amazed at what was coming out of Eddie's horn, but perhaps even more impressed by his ensemble concept, which was very contemporary. Eddie's version of "Just Friends", for example, demonstrated that a clarinet could sound very "now", even in the late 1980s. By the time Memos came out, I was ready and waiting for what might come next.

That era was very eclectic. Chick Corea was in the middle of his Elektric Band heyday, Pat Metheny had released Still Life (Talking), Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland were touring with Sting (leading many of us to wonder if some more interesting renaissance of jazz/rock hybrid might be on the horizon...alas, it wasn't), Wynton Marsalis was blazing away with a brilliant quartet featuring Marcus Roberts and Tain Watts, and players like Miles Davis and David Sanborn were very much on the scene, influencing sound. This was the music I was listening to, and when Eddie's new album floated in, it was so different from every trend, I almost didn't know what to do...except listen, over and over again, especially to Side B. It was years before I could really place it into context.    

Context is deeply important for our understanding of a piece of music. It's not the only thing, and a great piece of music can even withstand being heard by those without knowledge of the musical landscape surrounding it, but to really appreciate a performance, it helps to know a bit more. And Memos, which has been overlooked for quite a while, has probably been held back from proper appreciation for lack of knowledge among even educated listeners. The string quartet seemed strange in a jazz setting, as did the suite form, and yet it was Side B that was in danger of being worn out on my turntable.
The concept of Chamber Jazz will be familiar to readers of The Jazz Clarinet. It was the term Artie Shaw gave to his desire for a type of jazz that engaged on many different, subtle levels, and was opposed to the merely loud, bombastic music that Shaw felt was threatening to take over the music of his day. Shaw's early career as a clarinet soloist shows his active engagement with this concept--his first real break came while playing his own composition, entitled Interlude in B-flat for clarinet, piano-less rhythm section, and string quartet.

This is very close the instrumentation for Roger Kellaway's Memos from Paradise which uses Artie's orchestration plus piano and added percussion. If we read Eddie Daniels' career at the time, we find that he started with full orchestra--expanding upon Benny Goodman's work as a classical soloist by integrating improvisation--to straight ahead jazz more in the tradition of Buddy DeFranco and Bill Smith, to reengaging Shaw's concept of Chamber jazz. In each category, he didn't merely copy the players before him, but expanded it. In fact, he and Kellaway produced a piece that merges (for me at least) Artie Shaw's Chamber Jazz concept with Ellington, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane's ideas about the artistic and spiritual importance of suite form in jazz.

Two important points ought to be highlighted about the music itself: The casual listener might not realize the opening movement is in 7/4 unless they are told, but it is a masterful example of what can be done, lyrically, with that time signature. The third movement is set in an ancient Jewish mode--harkening back to the double stream of jazz clarinet. There are too many other musical points to make well in a short blog post, but I encourage readers to listen to the album again, or for the first time.    

The album cover has always struck me as being both beautiful and significant; almost as though it's informing us there's an elephant in the room--and that it might be endangered.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1955 Selmer Centered Tone

Many have called the Centered Tone (CT) the ultimate jazz horn, with its large bore and well-known Benny Goodman endorsement.  But the music biz is filled with stories of players selling one product in magazines while playing another on the stand.  Knowing that most of Benny's legendary recordings were made on earlier Selmers, and that by the time the CT came out, he was focused on classical repertoire and lessons with Reginald Kell, I wasn't so sure.

Then this horn practically fell into my lap. I saw it on Ebay this summer, with exactly what I was looking for: According to the Selmer Centered Tone Brochure (posted here by the good folks at Clarinet Perfection), it's a model 802: 17 keys, 7 rings. For me the seventh ring is nearly essential, and with the auction price of this horn so low, I just couldn't pass it up. Now buying horns on auction sites is always a gamble, and I've been burned before, but this one paid off: When I got it, the horn was still virtually unplayed and in excellent adjustment, with original pads and springs--some conscientious collector must have owned it and kept it carefully. To have a new 1955 CT come my way was something very special--I'll probably never experience it again.

1955 Selmer Centered Tone Model 802

Now for the specific playing qualities:
The chalumeau: Excellent depth and body. The CT, like my 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer, holds firm to pitch and timbre, regardless of volume down low. The subtone remains full, round, and 'jumps' like no other horn I've played. Articulation turns on a dime while maintaining bouyance and shape.

The clarion sings in matched timbre to the chalumeau. Of all the problems I've had with smaller bore instruments, the biggest is a tendency to timbral change between registers. This CT maneuvers and jumps like my 1981 10S, but without as much of  pitch downturn at the bottom of the chalumeau, and without as much pressure difference over the clarion/chalumeau break.

The altissimo is huge, full, and "fretless." Fantastic. Pinpoint precision, huge sound, great dynamic range, glissando flexibility to match the later 10S. This horn is one smooth instrument from top to bottom.

I once wrote that Fritz Wurlitzer's clarinets seem built to 'voice' the German repertoire perfectly: Brahms sings more easily through a Fritz Wurlitzer than any other horn I've played. The keywork of this CT has a similar disposition for jazz. Because of the unique placement of the throat Ab and A keys, I could actually swing easier over the break (Test tune: Artie Shaw's intro to "My Blue Heaven").

Now as to timbre, even if Benny didn't play this on his old legendary recordings it's immediately obvious that he could have: the CT is clearly the old Selmer sound. It yields the style and substance of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman quite easily on a number of mouthpieces (I've tested it with several Pomarico crystals, a Selmer C85 105, a Portnoy, a Charles Bay, a Viotto, and a Richard Hawkins). The one thing it doesn't yield quite as easily as a Fritz Wurlitzer is a sound I associate with some of the old NOLA players: the earthy chalumeau quality of Edmond Hall and others.

The old Selmer swing sound of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman is here though, and with a twist: this horn has the precision and punch to play bop as well. I've never played a horn that delivers quite as much for jazz as this Selmer Centered Tone. Since buying it last June, the CT has become my main horn.

I hope someone at Selmer is reading, and a Reference CT is in the works. If they need a horn to serve as a template, I'll gladly let them take the specs of mine.

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform Boehm

For me, this horn just might be the coolest looking clarinet ever made. In a day and age when clarinets are getting increasingly dense looking on the one hand (*), and flamboyantly whimsical on the other, Fritz Wurlitzer's clarinets look like streamlined masterpieces. I like the look of this horn so much that even after switching back to Selmers, I wouldn't change the photo in my profile picture.

Overhead shot of me playing the Fritz Wurlitzer R-B. This angle shows off the bell in particular.
The bell flare is large, gracefully paced in a "power swoop", the left hand pinkie levers are like a cluster of art deco flowers, understated and unobtrusive, the 'banana' keys fatter than any others I've played, perfect in comfort, and designed to facilitate fingerings that wouldn't be so smoothly possible on other models. 

For playing the German classical repertoire, these horns are my ideal. Schumann, Brahms, Mozart--this is their wheelhouse, and they allow a deeply personal sound. But can they swing?

The answer is certainly yes, though they're different than any others I've played in this capacity. In terms of basic sound, for me they yield something much closer to Irving Fazola's Albert system than any French Boehm clarinet. A pretty broad range of retro-NOLA sounds, specifically, are possible.

Fritz Wurlitzer's instruments are known for evenness of timbre and scale throughout the horn. They yield quite a strong sound, though mine are a bit softer than a Selmer CT or 10S at maximum output. Flexibility is unique but impressive--the glissandi on these horns is much more compact, though I found no problem glissing over the clarion/alitssimo break from G to shining G.

There are mouthpiece and embouchure differences one encounters when playing a German clarinet, especially if switching from a American-style classical Buffet set-up, but those adjustments should actually be less of a challenge for a jazz player--especially one who has any experience on saxophone (the embouchure adjustment is no more difficult than that). More challenging can be the sense of distance from the sound--a Selmer gives a bit more "back sound" to the player, and my experience was one of feeling vocally closer to a Selmer than with this F. Wurlitzer--for jazz.

This horn can be very bluesy, especially when playing subtones, once you learn to trust the instrument. My one real concern is the altissimo: it's well designed to play Spohr, with the altissimo notes locking in strongly. This is fantastic for German Romanticism, but difficult when you're looking to let loose on 'Nightmare' or 'St James Infirmary.' Still, not every jazz clarinet tradition prizes altissimo play to the same degree that swing does, and for a New Orleans aficionado, this horn can deliver quite a bit of home cooked gumbo.

Bottom line: Plays as good as it looks, and can do almost anything, but swing specialists are going to want to check out some Selmers for altissimo flexibility.

(*) my biggest aesthetic sorrow with contemporary clarinets is the trend for ringless bells. Today's instrument designers are among the best in history, so I'm sure their sonic reasons are strong, but bell rings just look so cool...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1990 Buffet R13

The only Bb soprano Buffet R13 I've owned was purchased in January of 1991 in New York City, selected from nearly twenty R13s then in stock at Weiner's. My intent was to use it for classical playing, and it served that purpose for a decade, accompanying my journey through undergrad, grad school, and my first professional orchestra jobs.

Over the course of those years, I did my best to become a true "Buffet player", holding the instrument in a more tucked position and adjusting my embouchure and breathing accordingly. Because it was so different from the Selmer 10S jazz playing of my youth, switching back and forth was increasingly difficult. So the R13 became my all-purpose horn, including jazz, which is why this review is included here.

The chalumeau was a complete shift for me. Vintage Selmers, by and large, tend to cradle the sound in a different manner, so the player can hold the horn out more and blow in a more relaxed manner, letting the horn "catch" it. By contrast, my R13 tended to spread and be poorly focused with that approach. The well known "high tongue" position, pointed chin, and slightly pulled lips of American classical playing became very important to me for achieving a focused classical sound. This, by the way, seems to me the main reason Buffet players consider Selmers to be inferior and vice versa: the playing styles are very different and tend to interfere with each other (or at least they did--as of this writing, the most recent Selmer I've played was a 1999 Recital). At the height of my Buffet playing, I couldn't switch back to Selmers and get good results; the same was true the other way around.

The clarion was a good, solid R13 clarion, ideally used for blending in American orchestral sections, and useful for most situations, whether it was Prokofiev or Pops concerts. The timbral shift between the chalumeau and clarion was pronounced, though, compared to my Selmer 10S.

The altissimo was the weakest register for me. There wasn't one timbre, but many, almost shifting with each note. Flexibility was there, to a degree, but with a tone quality quite thin and shrill. The ultimate problem, possibly, was that I'd developed my altissimo approach on a Selmer, and kept trying to get that same quality.

That Buffets can and do make great jazz instruments is evidenced by some legendary recordings made by Artie Shaw in the 1950s, and Eddie Daniels in the late '80s and early '90s. Artie Shaw's final Gramercy 5 recordings were made on a Buffet, and these are, for me and many others, among the greatest jazz clarinet recordings ever made.

As for Eddie Daniels, albums like To Bird, with Love and Memos from Paradise helped listeners reapproach jazz clarinet after the instrument had endured quite a bit of obscurity. Eddie's Buffet altissimo, especially on the title suite from Memos, is breathtakingly beautiful and consistent.
Equipment and results ultimately depend on who is playing.

Bottom line: My natural playing style was at odds with the R13, which is why I sold my set and returned to Selmers. I would recommend recordings like the Shaw's 1954 Gramcery 5 sessions and Eddie Daniels' Memos from Paradise for examples of how they can sound at their best.

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: Introduction & 1981 Selmer 10S



What is a jazz clarinet?

The short answer: a clarinet played by a jazz musician.

The longer, better answer:

A jazz clarinet needs to enable the player a range of textures, flexibility, and volume needed to perform jazz.

This sort of instrument is not so easy to find as you might think, especially as most manufacturers these days are making instruments to suit a very specifically defined classical scene. I'm personally a vintage, large-bore partisan--I think the decline of the large, straight bore has accompanied, not coincidentally, the decline of the clarinet playing a dominant role in contemporary jazz. Having said that, great jazz has been made over the years on a wide array of instrument makes. Some quick history:

Benny Goodman played a Selmer L series horn in the 1930s, then the Selmer CT (or at least he endorsed them), then Buffet R13s once he'd gone into semi-retirement and was playing both classical and jazz gigs more evenly. He may have also played Boosey & Hawkes for a brief time.

Artie Shaw played Selmers with his big band. He endorsed and possibly played Conns as well. His final Gramercy 5 sessions were recorded on a Buffet.

Pete Fountain played a Leblanc Dynamic H, then his own 'Pete Fountain' model developed by Leblanc, later renamed the "Big Easy" before discontinuation after a run of about three decades.

Edmond Hall played Albert models, then a German System Hammerschmidt.

Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon, Jimmy Noone, Barney Bigard, Raymond Burke, and Jimmy Hamilton (early in his career) played various Albert system horns (often Selmers). These are instruments with a large, straighter bore than most clarinets played today. You'll note that this list contains many of the great New Orleans players--the NOLA sound is dominantly Albert system.

Dr. Michael White, who continues the New Orleans jazz clarinet tradition, has performed and recorded on many makes of clarinet, most recently a Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm, which is a hybrid of German bore with French Boehm-style keywork.

Eddie Daniels has made masterful jazz on a variety of clarinets over the years, including Yamahas, Leblancs, Buffets, and Backun clarinet. 

I've played jazz on several makes over the last few decades and thought my impressions might be of some help or interest to other jazz clarinet fans out there, begining with my first:

1981 Selmer Series 10S

The Selmer 10S was the first pro clarinet I ever purchased, at age 14. Looking for a free blowing horn that could match the sort of Big Band era timbre of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, it was chosen from a batch of several horns, including a 1980's era Buffet, a pre-R13 Buffet, and a Yamaha.

1981 Selmer Series 10S

The chalumeau of this horn is very liquid, mellow, and bulbous. It has a nice 'boom' to the sound and 'jumps' well in the chalumeau and clarion (that Selmer 'shout' Artie Shaw used to mention). Intonation in the very low chalumeau is tough, like most clarinets. (For what it's worth, and probably due to my playing style, I tend to find modern polycyclindricals a little harder to play in tune than straight bores--the angle of the horn probably has a good deal to do with it--I've always felt most comfortable holding the horn out like early Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw).

The clarion is really nice on this horn--great mellow quality, like the chalumeau. Everything matches well, timbrally. It's very warm, yet perhaps the sound doesn't yield the same 'crackle' or quite the same depth that the CT does when pushed. This isn't a big problem, though--the character of this horn is warmth, and that's not a bad thing!

The altissimo is a pure, 'fretless' Selmer altissimo. No clarinets are better at delivering this violin-like quality, where glissandi are possible, with a tremendous amount of power.

Bottom line: For me, this horn is excellent in many ways. It has the shout, the punch, and mellowness associated with the Selmers of old (though even the 10S is getting more scarce on the used market). Highly recommended for jazz, with the caveat that those who want a wider color palette will probably prefer a CT.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1944 Selmer Balanced Tone

The Selmer BT is another on the list of clarinets considered by many to be the "ultimate jazz horn." (The others I've heard most often considered for that honor are the Selmer Centered Tone, the Radio Improved, and the Selmer Albert). I picked up an Enhanced Boehm Balanced Tone this past summer, had some work done on it, and have been playing it for about a week now. The enhancements include a seventh ring (which I consider nearly indispensable) and an articulated G# mechanism (which I haven't really used much).

1944 Selmer Balanced Tone

The basic sound quality of this BT is much different from most contemporary horns, though it bears a Selmer family resemblance to both my 1955 Centered Tone and 1981 Series 10S. The main difference is a thicker quality to the sound--very solid, even heavy if an effort isn't made to keep the sound moving.

The Chalumeau is a real vintage treat. Like my 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform Boehms, the BT has a metal sleeve between the joints, sheathing the inside of the lower joint. This adds weight and seems to add resonance as well. It is a very mellow horn down low, though less defined in sound quality than the later Centered Tone, and without as much "jump" to the sound as later Selmers.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this horn is the break between the chalumeau and clarion registers...if there even is a break! I've never played a horn where the pressure exerted for throat tones and low clarion register seemed identical, until now. It's so smooth that practice on this BT tends make my transitions even smoother on my other horns.

The Clarion therefore seems like an extension of the chalumeau, but the same difficulty in defining the sound exists--this is a fat instrument, and the sound is great, husky, mellow, all of those wonderful adjectives, but to get a ringing, light, moving sound is a challenge.

The Altissimo is a true Selmer altissimo; simply unbeatable for jazz. Easy jumps, plenty of volume; the characteristic "fretless" agility and flexibility are all there. It's very tough to tell any significant difference between this altissimo and those of my other Selmers.

All in all this is a great instrument. It yields a real vintage sound, good for swing era ballads and mellowness. In terms of all-around jazz use, I feel the definition of sound and extra "pop" of a Centered Tone can be addictive, and the agility one can gain on either a CT or a 10S edge them slightly higher in my book that the BT, but there is something wonderful about stepping back in time for a moment with this horn from the '40s. There's an honesty about the sound of this horn that is good for the soul.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck, R.I.P.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Dave Brubeck has passed away one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

Brubeck was a giant of modern jazz, whose music has given me countless hours of beauty and strength, and for which I am personally grateful. The Jazz Clarinet has featured work of his more than once, as he was one of the few major leaders in jazz to continue working with clarinet after the Swing Era. His work with Bill Smith--a collaboration worthy of study--will always be remembered here for its importance and depth.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Dave and to the Brubeck family during this time. God Bless you and keep you.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ed Rosa with the Harry James Orchestra * Oh Lady Be Good * 1945

In the liner notes to Eddie Daniels' 1994 album Real Time, Buddy DeFranco writes "[Eddie] has made his mark. I have heard as many Eddie clones as I have Benny, Artie, or [myself]."

That's always seemed to me a great compliment, except for one small thing: in all my years of listening to and collecting jazz clarinet recordings, I've never heard an Artie Shaw clone. Who else had command of the instrument in all registers the way Shaw did, with complete flexibility? Who could combine those qualities with lyricism and power? And so Buddy's compliment always rang a bit hollow to me--a drop of hyperbole seemed to spoil it.

Buddy came up during that era, though, and doubtless heard many players whose efforts remained unrecorded and un heralded. I've just stumbled across one such player in Hindsight Records 3-disc set of the Harry James Orchestra entitled Bandstand Memories 1938-1948. In the middle of the third disc, there is a cut of "Oh, Lady be Good" that jumps out. Harry James doesn't play, handing over solo duty to one of his utility wind players, Ed Rosa, instead.

When I first heard it, I thought Shaw must have been sitting in with the band. Rosa's altissimo is comparable--full, strong, mellow. His technique is fluid and his language sounds directly influenced by Shaw. Indeed, here is a "Shaw clone" if ever there was one.

By 1945, James's Orchestra was huge by Big Band Era standards. A full string section and auxiliary instruments such as valve trombone, flute, bass clarinet, and bass trombone were common. Rosa is listed in the liner notes as a flutist, but he obviously doubled on clarinet--though he was obviously no mere doubler. To master the clarinet well enough to fool anyone into thinking Artie Shaw was playing is a rare accomplishment. I can't think of anyone else who has, though Buddy DeFranco's quote suggests that there were at least a few. I hope there are other recordings of Rosa's clarinet prowess available--I'll certainly post my findings if any turn up.

Until then, here is a link to the Harry James Orchestra playing "Oh Lady Be Good" with the remarkable Ed Rosa, and unsung hero of jazz clarinet, playing the solo.

[The YouTube link lists this recording as being from 1944. The recording I have is dated August 24, 1945].