Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jazz Clarinet Question & Answer: Legere Reeds and Backun Products

Hi Eric;
First I want to thank you for excellent "The Jazz Clarinet" that you produce every month. It's very informative and just FAB!
I have a couple of question about clarinet accessories:
What are your feelings about the synthetic reeds manufactured by Legere, a Canadian firm? I read an article about Artie Shaw that he used a plastic reed called Enduro. [...]
Lastly, does pay to purchase the Cocobolo Barrels and Bells from Backun? Does the tone and projection really improve?
Thank you, very much, for your time and consideration.
Best regards,
J. A.-Chicago
Thanks for reading, J.A.!
I'm glad you brought up the question of synthetic reeds, as I've been meaning to get to it for quite awhile.
If you check out any of my reviews, you'll see that I "rate" recordings in either "good reeds" or "broken reeds." All of my good reeds are Legeres; the broken ones are cane from an undisclosed reed manufacturer who will never see any of my money again. When I first tried Legeres over a decade ago, it was one of the best moments in my clarinet playing career. Not only did they eliminate the frustration and time consumption of reed selection and adjustment, they just flat out sounded and felt better to me in all registers.
It's true that Artie Shaw used Enduro reeds extensively. The Enduro was developed by Arnold Brilhart, who also made Artie's mouthpieces (even producing an Artie Shaw model) and served as editor to Shaw's Clarinet Method. In interviews, Shaw noted that his famous 'Stardust' solo was played on an Enduro. No doubt it benefited Shaw to be in the unique position of having his reeds and mouthpiece made by the same craftsman.
Ultimately, the choice of a reed is a very personal matter, and each player makes their own decision, but my experience has been that Legeres smooth out the timbral contrasts between registers, making a more homogenous experience from the bottom to the top of the horn. Perhaps the Enduro did the same for Artie.
Regarding Backun cocobolo barrels and bells, I have no experience. I play vintage large bore Selmer Centered Tones and am not looking to change. Having said this, many pros use and endorse Morrie Backun's products. If you're looking to change your sound, I say check his stuff out for yourself and see if you like them.
Keep swinging!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Artie Shaw's Smithsonian Interview

Public Service Announcement:

There's a great interview with Artie Shaw available on the Smithsonian Jazz site here.

Shaw's thoughts are expressed in his trademark dogmatic edginess, discussing jazz history and his place in it. Some quotes to whet your appetite:

No classical player worth his salt, that I know of, can play jazz.

I’m the only world-class clarinet player who started on saxophone.

What do we mean by the best? It’s not a pole vault, where you can measure. Who’s better? I don’t know who’s better. Who do you like better? And what causes your likes and prejudices? Why do some people like Coltrane and others like, like I do, Lester? I think Lester was the prototypical
tenor player. I don’t think anybody’s gone past him. I think he invented the tenor, he and
Coleman [Hawkins]. Just as Benny and I invented the clarinet, the jazz clarinet. I don’t
care who they talk about that came ahead of that. It’s not significant. There it is.  

Music isn’t . . . It’s not rote. You don’t plan it out. What you think about is psychology.
Get the audience’s nerves jangling, and then smooth it out. It’s psychology through the
medium of notes.

[Tip of the hat to one of The Jazz Clarinet's readers, Frank Jellison, for letting me know about this].

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mouthpiece Review: Vintage Ebolin Brilhart with Serial Number

One of the most iconic pictures of a jazz clarinetist depicts Artie Shaw, meditatively putting a Brilhart mouthpiece to his lips, with fingers thoughtfully poised over an enhanced Boehm Selmer Balanced Tone clarinet. It's such a cool mood shot that it can make you want to go out and buy a BT, then cap it off with a Brilhart.

Vintage Brilhart with Serial Number

Fortunately, The Jazz Clarinet's instrument and mouthpiece museum contains both items, and I've done exactly that today to find out what the combination might yield.

I'm happy to report that, once you've gone to the trouble of finding an Enhanced BT and a good, vintage Brilhart, you will sound exactly like...[drumroll please]... yourself playing a BT and a Brilhart. In other words, despite any delusional hopes, Artie Shaw's sound will not be making phantom tones your studio. (In a similar way, while you might also buy clothes like his, you probably won't end up looking like him).

With that out of the way, what can I say about this vintage 'piece?

First, it's important to distinguish these from the cheap Brilharts made since the late 1960s by Conn Selmer. The contemporary Brilharts are very cheap, and generally sound that way. While the current design owes a debt to the earlier Brilharts, vintage pieces have characteristics of being a more serious, professional level mouthpieces--in terms of projection and depth of sound especially.

The sound of this one is round and open: very loud and strong. The core is not easy to control, tending to split in several directions unless directed strongly by the embouchure. Artie's embouchure was quite muscular and unusual; perhaps the Brilhart was optimal for his approach. A good refacing job might mitigate these factors, but the base sound of the mouthpiece seems more wild than a Selmer or Vandoren.

Earlier caveats aside, there is a hint of Shavian sound concept--the big roundness, at least. But I'm hesitant to recommend these mouthpieces. I'm one who believes material matters to the sound, and my preferred 'pieces are Selmers made from rod rubber. I've also liked crystal and even wood. By contrast to these, this 'ebolin' feels flimsy to me, and insubstantial in weight of tone.

It's important to remember that Artie knew and worked with Arnold Brilhart (Brilhart even collaborated on Shaw's Clarinet Method). Undoubtedly the mouthpieces Artie used were hand finished to personal specifications. And this, ultimately, is the best strategy for today's clarinetists too: to work with a master mouthpiece maker/refacer personally.

Having equipment like this is interesting for historical reasons, but that's pretty much what it's limited to in my opinion. Still, they are fun, loud, and for someone who prefers a brasher, wilder side, who knows? Maybe a vintage Brilhart is just the right thing.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Jazz Clarinet Question & Answer: School Jazz Band: Clarinets Need Not Apply?

This past weekend a reader of The Jazz Clarinet contacted me about an issue that is rather close to my heart:

Hi Eric,

I stumbled on to your blog "The Jazz Clarinet", so far I'm really enjoying it. Thank you. I have a question for you. My son is 12, he has played clarinet since the 4th grade (he's now in 7th). He is quite good, he has a nice natural feel, or so I think, I am a lifetime guitarist. He isn't able to join jazz band at school until next year, but his teacher suggested he learn sax since they do not have clarinet in the jazz band! He and I are both a bit confused by this. I have exposed him to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and the jazz of the 20's-40's. So, for now I would like to get him started myself on learning jazz clarinet, particularly improvising. Do you have any suggestions on book, ways to teach him jazz?

Thanks for your time.

M. C.

Thanks for reading, M.C.!
Both the question and my ultimate advice on this matter require a decent amount of historical and personal background. It's a question that comes up frequently among jazz clarinetists, and one I've wanted to address for awhile now in more depth.
First, there is a long history of saxophone/clarinet doubling in jazz band history. While the Swing Era (circa 1935-46) has rightly been considered the golden era of jazz clarinet, it's important to realize that only two of the top bandleaders--Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw--were full time, virtuoso clarinetists. Others band leaders associated with the instrument (such as Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman), were almost invariably doublers, and equally invariably sounded better on saxophone than clarinet.
To play clarinet within the saxophone section was a standard double for many bands. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James and most other bands employed reed doublers, often hiring important jazz clarinetists such as Barney Bigard, Jimmy Hamilton, and even Lester Young to do so (Prez was not only one of the greatest tenor players ever, but a fairly interesting clarinet soloist too).
Up through the 1940s, clarinet parts were an important part of jazz band arrangements. This started to change sometime shortly after WWII, though the reasons for it are vague. As early as the 1950s, publications like DownBeat were wondering why the clarinet was losing prominence in the jazz world. As a touchstone for historical trends we might look to arguably the most important Big Band album of the decade, 1958's Atomic Basie, which featured an array of now classic, benchmark arrangements by Neal Hefti--none of which called for a clarinet. To my knowledge, no one ever complained.  
The 1950s also saw an exodus of Big Band alumni, now looking for work and stability, into the ranks of public school teachers. The impact of these musicians on our culture has been profoundly positive. If the Big Band has been preserved, it has been largely through High School educators and their college counterparts since the 1950s. Unfortunately, though, the need for a large number of simple, educational arrangements and methods coincided with a trend away from clarinets in the jazz band. The vast resources of jazz educational literature that have developed since then have tended to neglect instruments that weren't fashionable during the 1950s. That means that if a student plays clarinet or banjo (both of which are musically essential and culturally important to early jazz), he or she is generally asked to switch to saxophone or guitar. 
Ordinarily, this is no big deal. Most 12 year olds who want to play jazz aren't in love with a certain instrument, and just want to be in the band. But there are important exceptions.
Imagine a girl who has a natural coloratura soprano voice, trying out for the school musical, only to be told she has to sing mezzo--because those are the only roles they intend to do. Or imagine a boy who can sing countertenor told he has to be a Heldentenor. In such situations, you'd hope the music director would have the sense to use the talent they have, rather than slotting people into roles that go against their natural abilities.
Instrumental music is not quite so dependent upon natural endowment as these: it is true that a kid can generally hold an alto as well as they can hold a clarinet. Still there are natural traits, and even basic attractions to an instrument, that ought not be ignored. It's relatively rare for a kid to be able to play easily over "the break" early on, or cover the open holes of a clarinet deftly, or reach into the altissimo without instruction. I was like this, and therefore could have been one of those kids put in a bind wanting to play jazz. Which brings me to the personal part of this response.
The question of doubling came at around the same age for me. By 13, I had been casually transcribing jazz for a few years (though I wouldn't have known the word for it--I just copied recordings for fun), I had learned to improvise some basic blues, and was reaching into the altissimo as a regular feature of my improvisations. When the question of whether or not I should switch to saxophone to follow my love of jazz came up (this was in the mid-1980s), I was fortunate to have asked the question in the company of  some old New York veterans of the Big Bands, and a unique trumpet maker named Jerome Callet.
Callet, who has a specialty of teaching altissimo trumpet, put it best when he heard me play at age 13 and said "He has a natural sound on the clarinet: don't ruin that. Let him develop his voice." This concept of personal voice and distinctive sound is unfortunately growing less common, and I fear that if we lose it, as a society we're going to opt even more for a utilitarian approach to music rather than something that enhances basic human dignity. While this might sound very heady, the old jazz musicians I spent time with as a kid felt exactly this way, and often expressed it in similar terms--they saw voice and sound development as spiritually and culturally important. Rather than becoming cogs in a wheel (as classical orchestras have too often turned into), the jazz community was supposed to be a bastion for respecting and encouraging the unique and personal.     
Fortunately, my High School Band director agreed with these assessments--he was one of those enlightened jazz musicians too--and while our school didn't have a jazz band, he comped for me daily during Study Hall, featuring me during Concert Band concerts. He also lobbied at the County Band level, suggesting to those who ran the auditions that I might perform as a "featured soloist" if there were no charts with clarinet. I continued this approach at music camps, and was never turned down.
It has been my experience that jazz band directors are among the more open minded people in this world; usually quite enthusiastic about what they do. Jazz is a medium that prizes originality, risk-taking, creativity, and non-conformism--it's one of the few paths in our education system that actually encourages many of these qualities.  If a kid really wants to play jazz clarinet, or tuba, or flute, unless you're dealing with one of the very worst personalities in the music education business (and if so, I haven't met them yet), chances are they're going to reward that enthusiasm and determination with a chance.
My advice: If you're a kid who is addicted to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw; if you're wailing the blues on the clarinet and feel great doing it; don't feel you need to switch to sax. When all is said and done, there probably will come a time when you play sax (even Benny and Artie did--and so have I), but if you really feel the clarinet is your thing, let your band director know. Tell him or her about the recordings you're into, and how much they mean to you. Suggest that you might read out of a trumpet or tenor sax book, if it's a question of method materials. Show that you're willing to be flexible. Chances are your band director will be impressed and want to encourage such enthusiasm.  
If it doesn't work out, and you have a very rare closed minded teacher to deal with, well, then  you have to look at your options again. Playing sax can be an extremely valuable experience, and even help your clarinet playing, so there is certainly more than one way of looking at this. But for me, a decisive moment happened when I asked this very question: it was a moment when a bunch of enlightened jazz musicians heard me and said my "voice" was important and worth something. A kid doesn't forget that lesson any time soon, believe me.
Best of luck to your son, M.C. Keep swinging, and please let us know how it turns out.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

CD review: The Benny Goodman Sextet * 1939-41 * Featuring Charlie Christian

On October 2, 1939, exactly 74 years ago today, one of the great combos in the history of jazz went into the studio to record for the first time: The Benny Goodman Sextet. In the wake of exits by Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, and at the behest of John Hammond, Benny hired a new star for his rhythm section: guitarist Charlie Christian, whose contributions to the group would revolutionize the history of jazz guitar, beginning with the very first recording, "Flying Home."

Nick Fatool would replace Krupa on most of these cuts. Fletcher Henderson initially took over for Wilson, though he would be replaced rather quickly by Johnny Guarnieri. It's fascinating to note that, less than a year later, both Fatool and Guarnieri would be founding members of Artie Shaw's Gramercy 5--another combo of importance to jazz history.

The Sextet was to become Goodman's chosen small combo vehicle, albeit with varying personnel, for the next two decades. Often the group would expand to a septet, under which circumstances it would be promoted as "Benny Goodman and his Sextet" rather than "The Benny Goodman Sextet." Goodman must have realized that "Sextet Sells" however, as he would even use the term when the group was expanded to eight members!  

In the liner notes to the 1989 CD release of these tracks, Leonard Feather comments on how non-dated the material still sounded in the late '80s, and marveled at how much musical material was presented in such short tracks. "Who today can say in ten minutes what these men could in three?" he marveled. This is indeed a unique group, and for me the greatest of all lineups of the Goodman Sextet. There is a relaxed, expansive, and balanced quality to the group that has rarely been matched. With two other brilliant soloists in Hampton and Christian, there is a triangulation regarding the leadership and timbre. Benny regularly sits back in the head arrangements as "one of the guys", leading sometimes from an easy chair (or so it seems). More than any other Goodman group this really sounds like six guys lounging around and sounding brilliant just for each other.

These recordings also serve as an important lesson regarding Benny's style. For those who think Goodman used an essentially "straight" classical tone, without much pitch bend or jazz inflexion (as I have seen erroneously asserted, both on the internet and elsewhere), these recordings are among the best refutations. Players can listen to "Stardust", (from the first session), "Memories of You", and "These Foolish Things" for a clinic on portamento, tone shading, and jazz inflexion. Just because the pitch bend or gliding between notes isn't obtuse, vulgar, or obvious doesn't mean it's not happening. For me, Goodman set the standard for tasteful, subtle shading. His use of these approaches is so nuanced and complex that it is often missed altogether by ears unaccustomed to listening carefully.

Goodman's playing on these recordings is a study in relaxed perfection. His solos and statements of the melodies tend to be more laid back than the earlier Quartet and Trio recordings. Despite the virtuosi in the group, this Sextet wasn't a virtuoso vehicle, but an exercise in ensemble.

Two cuts ("On the Alamo" and "Gone With What Draft") feature a rare appearance by Count Basie. Other notables among the rotating members are Cootie Williams and Georgie Auld. And despite the triangulation of voices, it is Goodman's (even when whispering) that holds all together conceptually, shaping the direction and mood of each number--not by force, but by depth and musical sympathy.

Five Good Reeds.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Shekomeko Shuffle: In Search of Artie Shaw

Leading off his series In Search of Shakespeare, Michael Wood asked:

"[Why] go in search of Shakespeare? Can the life of a writer ever be as interesting or exciting as a conqueror, an inventor, or an explorer, a Napoleon, a Columbus, an Alexander the Great? Well yes it can. More so, because the writers and the poets are the explorers of the human heart, and long after the conquerors are forgotten, their legacy will be the most valuable to us as human beings."

If poets are the explorers of the human heart, perhaps musicians are the explorers of the soul--that region touching the eternal; the essential aspect of human beings so difficult to describe or analyze. And just as the geography of great writers warrants our attention, so too those of musicians--especially jazz musicians, who more than any others seem to carry their lives with them wherever they go, singing them through their horns.

America isn't the type of nation that likes to honor (or perhaps even remember) its artists, especially those outside the mainstream, who might serve little immediate commercial or political purpose. Try naming the historical markers for great poets or musicians, and you might find the list to be short. In my own lifetime, I can remember seeing only three monuments to writers: A statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Maine; another of James Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown, NY; and a statue of Hart Crane (since removed or relocated) in Cleveland. I'm sure there are others, but a casual trip through the UK will show more constant markers denoting important artists. In the history of jazz, only New Orleans seems to fully acknowledge importance of place, and has done an admirable job maintaining the roots of jazz history.

With this in mind, I set out this past week to visit one of  the most important landscapes outside of New Orleans for a jazz clarinetist: the site of Artie Shaw's farm near Pine Plains, NY, in the bucolic Hudson Valley Region.

Shaw remains for me among the most important of all jazz clarinetists, for several reasons. First, if you poll musicians you'll find that just about every type of clarinetist has endorsed him. In a world of rivalry, jealousy, and bravado, his playing remains close to universally admired.

New Orleans native and Ellington alumnus Barney Bigard called Shaw the greatest of all jazz musicians.

Buddy DeFranco, the first great bop clarinetist, called Shaw's 'Stardust' solo the finest ever played.

Don Byron, a representative of the avant garde in current jazz clarinet, has said "I remember the clarity of [Shaw's] tone, a harder, edgier, and more modern tone than Benny Goodman's. He could play stuff that made harmonic sense way up high, and where Goodman's playing seemed both triadic and ornamental, Shaw's note choices seemed to foreshadow the discipline that would become bebop."

Even the classical world has paid homage to Shaw's clarinetistry. Franklin Cohen of the Cleveland Orchestra said "Shaw is the greatest player I ever heard. It's hard to play the way he plays. It's not an overblown orchestral style. He makes so many incredible shadings."

This is nothing short of remarkable. There are few musicians who can claim, on any instrument, such a list of admirers.

Second, on a personal level, Shaw's geography has overlapped my own. Both of us grew up in New York and Southern Connecticut as kids. Both of us lived in Cleveland, and both of us had a deep attachment to the mystic beauty of the Hudson Valley region of New York State.

It was in the Hudson Valley that Artie Shaw made his most significant strides as a musician, expanding his musical style from swing to modern jazz. While living at Picardy Farm, four miles south of Pine Plains, New York, he wrote his autobiography and quietly deepened his playing, composing tunes reflective of the landscape. The first of these, entitled "The Shekomeko Shuffle" was a tongue-in-cheek tone poem describing the frustrations of having to commute from the farm, where he had felt such peace, to New York City. The tune begins and ends with a bitter quote from Stravinsky's Petrushka--but eschewing existential whining, Shaw launches into an argument that feels like an upbeat drive down the Taconic Parkway. Along the way, Shaw demonstrates how he was assimilating and transforming modern jazz influences--an expansion of jazz clarinet vocabulary that would ultimately result in the massive Last Recordings of 1953.

Shekomeko was very close to Shaw's farm--just over a few hills, in fact. Originally a Mohican village for converts of the Moravian missionaries, it was also the likely place where the fictional Natty Bumppo would have met Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking tales.

The Jazz Clarinet goes to Shekomeko

Driving over the hills to the site of Shaw's old farm, I listened to tunes like "Lyric", which Shaw said was inspired by Robert Henri's quote about another painter; that he painted "like a man going over a hill, whistling." Nowhere has this music seemed more at home than these hills.

Landscape near the site of the Shaw Farm

Before this trip, I'd contacted the Library at Pine Plains, inquiring as to whether or not anyone still knew where Shaw lived, exactly, as the properties have changed hands and boundaries several times since he sold his acreage. As of this writing, I haven't gotten a reply--but I did manage to find out that his farm was located "four miles south of Pine Plains on route 82."

When I arrived at the spot along Route 82, there were a few options for potential homes. Not knowing exactly which might have been Artie's, I did the next best thing: stood alongside Route 82, by a barn that might have belonged to Artie Shaw, and played the Shekomeko Shuffle. Unless anyone can prove otherwise, I now lay claim to being the first jazz clarinetist since Shaw himself to play 'The Shekomeko Shuffle' along Route 82.

ES along Rt. 82

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I mentioned the importance of place regarding the final Gramercy 5 recordings:

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."

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

Near the old Shaw farm is Taghkanic State Park, where one might experience one of those pellucid lakes. To see the morning mists turn into clouds in the sunrise at such a place, in a landscape that seems to eschew the banalities of commercialism and wrangling--somehow remaining pristine throughout it all--is to come into contact with some of the essential inspiration for Shaw's greatest music. It is a landscape that is unique for the variety of artists it has inspired: from James Fenimore Cooper's novels, to the paintings of the Hudson River school, to Artie Shaw, to Sonny Rollins.

Morning Mist over Lake Taghkanic

If I'd never gone to New Orleans, I might never have understood, on a deeper level, the roots of jazz--especially the playing of Sidney Bechet and the earliest jazz clarinetists. Likewise, going in search of Artie Shaw's farm; hearing and playing this music in this landscape, has brought me a deeper appreciation of both.

Monday, September 9, 2013

CD Review: Frank Teschemacher * Jazz Me Blues * 1927-1930

Frank Teschemacher (1906-1932) was the central figure of the famed 'Austin High Gang'  whose membership and influence extended through the 1920s to such players as Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Dave Tough, and Jess Stacy.

Tesch was remembered by Benny Goodman as "a fine musician and perhaps the most inventive it has been my privilege to hear." Gunther Schuller called him "the Ornette Coleman of the twenties, a lone original who, killed in an auto accident on leap-year day in 1932 at age twenty-five, never had the chance to fully develop his curious art"(The Swing Era, 11).

Artie Shaw remembered a session with Tesch at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago one night in 1930:

[On] this same session was the clarinet player...Frank Teschemacher. I sat next to him and watched him while he played. We were all slightly drunk on bad bootleg gin, but it didn't seem to affect his playing any. He...had this odd style of playing (...). Even while he'd be reaching out for something in his deliberately fumbling way, some phrase you couldn't quite see the beginning or end of (or for that matter, the reason for in the first place), there was an assurance about everything he did that made you see that he himself knew where he was going all the time; and by the time he got there you began to see it yourself, for in its own grotesque way it made a kind of musical sense, but something extremely personal and intimate to himself, something so subtle that it could never possibly have had great communicative meaning to anyone but another musician and even then only to a jazz musician who happened to be pretty damn hep to what was going on. [ The Trouble with Cinderella, pp198-199]   

It can be difficult to find recordings of Tesch--one of the only compilations available these days is this 2011 CD with 26 tracks, from Retrospective Records in the UK. Though not as comprehensive as some of the earlier LP sets, this CD is an excellent collection of recordings from 1927-30, featuring Tesch's work in groups such as the Chicago Rhythm Kings, Wingy Manone and his Club Royale Orchestra, and even playing "Jazz Me Blues" under his own name. Also featured on these cuts are some early performances of Gene Krupa, Eddie Condon, Muggsy Spanier, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and others.

For those who have heard a wide variety of jazz clarinet recordings, the legendary wildness and roughness of Teschmacher's style might seem to have been exaggerated a bit by history--perhaps as much as Benny's "refinement" of sound has been exaggerated (the two seem to have been treated at times as poles of jazz clarinetistry, in a way that does neither of them justice). My dominant first impression on hearing Tesch was not how contrasting he was to Goodman, but how similar Tesch's altissimo approach was to Benny's mature, 1930s style. More than any other clarinetist before him, Tesch had a clear, strong, commanding altissimo with tongue attacks that jumped. To my ear, Benny's altissimo articulation resembles Tesch's more than Roppolo, Noone, Dodds, Lewis, or any other jazz clarinetist of the era. Likewise, the astonishing solo formulations of Tesch seem less shocking than they must have during the pre-swing era.

Having granted these things, this CD is an important document of a trailblazing jazz clarinetist, who like Stan HasselgĂ„rd a generation later, died tragically in a car accident before his full artistic stature could be realized. His playing gives us a better picture of the clarinet milieu of the 1920s, particularly the supremely important Chicago scene that produced Goodman. Three Good Reeds.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

David Stone Martin Album Covers

Most of us who participate in jazz, either as musicians or as listeners, owe in some way a debt of gratitude to Norman Granz, the impresario who is perhaps best remembered for spear-heading the Jazz at the Philharmonic series and founding five important record labels: Clef, Norgran, Down Home, Pablo, and Verve. Albums like Bird with Strings, Bird & Diz, the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook series, Lady Sings the Blues, and a vast slew of other classics might never have reached the public without him.

Granz was not only remarkably attuned to musical values, but understood the importance of matching great music to great contemporary art. His hiring of David Stone Martin, an artist with a rare understanding of jazz, was a stroke of brilliance. Stone Martin's album covers are deservedly revered in their own right, and some of his finest works depicted the clarinet and jazz clarinetists.  

In 1954, Granz convinced a reluctant Artie Shaw to release four albums worth of his last Gramercy 5 sessions on the Clef label. The albums are extremely rare these days: they went almost entirely unnoticed and fell immediately out of print, with rights reverting back to Shaw, who didn't share them with the world again for several decades. Unfortunately, the Clef releases didn't present Shaw's work particularly well sonically--choosing to emphasize Shaw the soloist, the audio mix brings his clarinet so far to the foreground that the rest of the band sounds muddied and less relevant: mere accompaniment. This fault was corrected on Shaw's subsequent releases of the material, but if the final Gramercy 5 had any chance of success, conceptually, in the 1950s, the Clef versions did little to help. Moreover, Granz, whose heart was certainly in the right place, nevertheless shot the project in the foot with his liner notes, defensively suggesting that Artie was a real jazz musician (as though that needed proof), and that he didn't lose sight of the melody in the recordings (as though that mattered). The sum total of the Clef recordings, between the vinyl and the back covers, amounted to naught but stoked disappointment for Shaw, leaving only one overwhelming saving grace: the covers by David Stone Martin, which happen to be some of the greatest artworks inspired by jazz clarinet.

These album covers are now extremely rare. Unlike the more famous bop covers for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, which have been issued and reissued regularly, the Shaw Gramercy 5 covers immediately fell into obscurity. I have three of the covers, along with my three favorite Stone Martin Buddy DeFranco covers, on the wall of my studio (the bottom three in the pictures below).

David Stone Martin Jazz Clarinet Covers: (clockwise from top left) Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson play Gershwin, The Music of Buddy DeFranco, Buddy DeFranco: Closed Session, Artie Shaw Gramercy Five #4, Artie Shaw Gramercy Five #3, Artie Shaw Gramercy Five #1

These album covers are my favorite depictions of the clarinet, and of the music, that I've ever run across. David Stone Martin not only understood the construction of the clarinet, but something of the feel of playing it. His varying abstractions of the keys and the joint sizes (particularly on The Music of Buddy DeFranco) speaks of a mind actively engaged in what it is to play clarinet. The differences between his depictions of DeFranco and Shaw are as telling as the musicians' styles: the modernist profile of DeFranco, with concentrated, abstractedly gnarled fingers (as though he was working out a particularly vexing problem); the reflective, meditative Shaw bowing his head and listening.

The pictures tell stories, too: how many jazz clarinetists will recognize the scene of a bed, with an open case--practicing in the bedroom or a hotel room before a gig? Then there is the cover of DeFranco's Closed Session: Buddy stares at the "fine instruments", his head turned away from the tenor sax (rejecting the double?), casually looking while his own horn is safely tucked under his shoulder, the case melding into his torso. Perhaps the masterpiece of them all is the final Gramercy 5 release, with the stabbed heart, like a guitar, the clarinet, and the profile of the beautiful woman--is she dancing to the music or is she leaving him? The poignancy of the abstraction works like a triad, but one so subtle we can't tell whether it's major or minor--in reality it's a graceful, extended chord.

Great album art is rare. Some labels have opted for a sensible and safer approach than Norman Granz's labels did: black and white photos of the musicians themselves is usually a smart way to go, and labels like Blue Note have produced some of the most iconic jazz photos utilizing that method. Rolling the dice on contemporary art styles and graphic design is considerably more dangerous. Having said this, we can be grateful for the many risks Granz took, and for the masterful work of David Stone Martin.

For jazz clarinetists, the work is inspiring: these covers are a testament to the complexity, beauty, and value of the music we have dedicated so much of our lives to.   

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1952 Selmer Centered Tone

If readership of The Jazz Clarinet is any gauge of market interest, the Selmer Centered Tone should be ready for a comeback. By far the most read post on this blog is last year's gear review of my 1955 Q Series Selmer Centered Tone, Model 802.

There is so much interest in the Selmer CT that the 1955 review routinely tops my weekly and monthly charts, and as of this writing more readers have flocked to it than to the those reviews posted here of the Buffet R13, Boosey & Hawkes Edgware, Selmer Balanced Tone, and Fritz Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm combined.

Having played a Centered Tone for over a year now, I can understand why. They are in a class of their own when it comes to dynamics, power, color palette, jazz flexibility, intonation, ease of projection, and modern tone conception. Of all the horns I've played, only the later Selmer 10S rivals its volume.

Because the 1955 Q Series CT worked so well for me, and because 7 ring models are becoming increasingly rare, I purchased a back up earlier this summer: a 1952 P Series Centered Tone, Model 804 (which includes the articulated G# mechanism).

1952 P Series Selmer Centered Tone Model 804

This horn was previously owned by a conscientious player and collector, so it arrived in excellent adjustment. Besides the difference of key work to my 1955 Model 802, and perhaps more importantly to the resonance of the instrument, the lower joint was topped off by a metal sleeve (standard on these horns when possessing an articulated G# and present on my 1944 BT and 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm as well):

Bottom Joint/Inner Sleeve P-Series CT
Whether this or any slight difference in bore between the models accounts for it, this P Series horn is not only slightly heavier in a physical sense, but darker and more solid in tone than my 1955 Q Series. In many ways, the horn seems a perfect median between the Balanced Tone and later Centered Tones--it has some of the retro-depth of a BT, while giving the hair-trigger response of the CT.

The chalumeau of this horn is rich and mellow, the clarion perfectly matched, and the altissimo is even more spot-on, intonation-wise, than my 1955 Q Series. The 1955 has a bit more 'jump' to the sound and a type of warmth I've not found in any other instrument, so each has their strength--the P Series would be my choice in more intimate settings, perhaps. Either way, they compliment each other well, and my goal was met: to have a pair of Centered Tones that were interchangeable from my playing standpoint. Because different horns demand different breathing approaches and voicing, it was important for me to have one that behaved in the same manner while my main axe was in the shop.

Several months back, there were some internet rumors that Selmer was considering a Reference Clarinet based upon the Centered Tone. Those rumors seem to have come to naught. But if anyone from Selmer Paris is reading, they might want to know that my Centered Tone review is by far the most popular on this blog--a popularity that never seems to wane. I hope, with many others, that a Reference CT is the works and will be available eventually.    

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Eddie Daniels Reissues Needed

The September DownBeat features a brief, though refreshingly honest interview with Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway, conducted by Josef Woodard. Ostensibly promoting their forthcoming duo album, it's also worth anyone's read who might be interested in the current difficulties facing professional jazz musicians.

Of particular concern to jazz clarinet history was a question regarding Eddie's work for GRP:

Eddie, your body of work on GRP was really varied, and each album seemed to head in a different fresh direction.
ED: Yeah, and it was great having Dave [Grusin] and Larry [Rosen] let me do a lot of different things. I did about seven or eight albums for GRP. Of course, you can't get any of them, and I can't get the rights to any of them. It would be nice to just reissue them.
Eddie Daniels's seven jazz clarinet albums for GRP were a watershed in the history of the instrument, breaking ground in everything from jazz/classical fusion and bebop, to chamber jazz and jazz/pop fusion. Copies of these albums are getting more difficult to find. For those interested in getting any of them, below are the titles, linked to Amazon:

To Bird, with Love
Memos from Paradise
This is Now
Benny Rides Again
It's both saddening and difficult to believe that an album as musically satisfying and technically jaw-dropping as Breakthrough is out of print, or that players today can't get easy access to a brilliant and unique piece like Memos from Paradise. For anyone who has heard it, This Is Now remains one of the definitive bop albums from a clarinetist, while albums such as Blackwood and Nepenthe demonstrate the viability of the clarinet in the arena of smooth jazz and pop-fusion.

As with so many masterpieces of jazz clarinet history, the greatest obstacle to recognition is availability of recordings to the public. Reissues are desperately needed.  

Special note to Josef Woodard: you get The Jazz Clarinet's Five Good Reeds just for bringing up this subject!


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pete Fountain for DownBeat Hall of Fame

A little over a year ago, The Jazz Clarinet began a campaign to get Pete Fountain elected to the DownBeat Hall of Fame. At the time, Pete was so overlooked that his name wasn't even on the ballot.

Thanks to many readers of this blog, and the many write-in votes generated last year, a great jazz clarinetist is no longer relegated to write-in status: this year's DB ballot includes Pete Fountain.

Those interested in exploring the importance of Pete's work are encouraged to search The Jazz Clarinet--there are several posts that will help the uninitiated gain a better appreciation.

Those who already know of Pete Fountain's artistry can head to the DownBeat page and vote!

Now if we could only get some of his classic LPs released again...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

CD Review: Buddy DeFranco * Mr. Clarinet * Verve * 1953

As with many recordings from the early 1950s, the tunes collected on Buddy DeFranco's Mr. Clarinet album were released in many packages, on several Norman Granz created labels, including Clef, Norgran, and Verve. The advantage of Mr. Clarinet is simply that it is still commercially available and that it contains all the tunes from the January and April 15, 1953 recording sessions of the Buddy DeFranco Quartet.

If a man can be known by the company he keeps, there is little to say beyond listing the sidemen for these dates: Kenny Drew, Milt Hinton, and Art Blakey should be enough to convince anyone to check this album out.

Among the most important recordings in jazz clarinet history are a few sides cut by the Buddy DeFranco Sextet in 1949 for Capitol (available on Buddy DeFranco/Lennie Tristano Crosscurrents). Tunes like "Extrovert" and "Good for Nothing Joe" were the beginning of something big: in many ways they are the fulfillment of what Stan Hasselgard hinted at when he began applying bop ideas to the clarinet around the same time. Buddy did more than hint: those Capitol sessions contain bop clarinet that stands up well over half a century later. Instead of pursuing this sextet concept, however, DeFranco was to keep plugging away at the Big Band business for a a few more years. He was late quoted dismissing the early sextet as too much like the George Shearing Quintet "with a clarinet."

A couple of points ought to be made here. First, the timbres essential to the early DeFranco quintet, while influenced in musical execution by Shearing, were developed by Goodman and Shaw a decade earlier: in an orchestrational sense, the Shearing Quintet was the Benny Goodman Sextet without clarinet. Five years after DeFranco's breakthrough session, Artie Shaw's last Gramercy 5 was also derided by certain critics as "Shearing with clarinet", but these critics only betrayed their ignorance: Shearing himself told Shaw that his quintet was modeled after the mid-40s Gramercy 5. (See Tom Nolan's Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet, Norton 2010, page 280). So much for "Shearing with a clarinet" then: the model orchestration of clarinet, vibes, guitar, piano, bass, drums was developed by clarinetists and is as uniquely effective a line-up as the old New Orleans combo or the standard bop quintet.

This aside, Buddy was probably thinking in terms of financial viability rather than artistic provenance when he abandoned the early sextet project. By 1953, however, he was back in the small group business. Because it is so stripped down, and focuses so clearly on Buddy's horn, it's my pick for the the perfect introduction to Buddy's playing.

The album opens up with "Buddy's Blues", representing an entirely different approach to clarinet blues than one might hear with Goodman, Shaw, or Fountain. DeFranco was by this point a fully formed bop musician, and his soloing is unique among clarinetists to this point. Listen carefully to his finger technique: he has a 'hard' approach to fingers that is reminiscent of Leon Russianoff's classical method, but put to distinctly jazz usage in his "falls" at the ends of blues phrases. Because Buddy opted for a more locked-in tone, without as much use of scoops and pitch bend, he found different ways of expanding jazz timbral vocabulary with his finger technique--the blues "falls" are one example.

Buddy's precision is well known, as are his Hanon exercises transcribed for clarinet. But too often overlooked is the fact that all of this technique and precision was consciously developed to serve a distinctly musical purpose. Listening carefully to his lines on every tune of Mr. Clarinet  I'm particularly impressed with the naturally nuanced quality of it all--that each line seems to contribute towards the organic flow of a greater whole.

Also unique, though not without precedent, is his use of that reedy, almost classical sound with a distinctively tasteful vibrato. Johnny Mince, too often neglected in jazz clarinet histories, was an acknowledged influence on Buddy, and it shows well here, transformed though the influence be in Buddy's own voice.

Buddy DeFranco remains one of the few truly great masters of the jazz clarinet--one who had both a unique and comprehensive approach to the horn, developing it to mastery. Mr. Clarinet is a great starting point for anyone wanting to check out his art.

Five Good Reeds.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: Pete Fountain * I Love Paris * Coral Records (CRL 757378) * 1963

Side A

I Love Paris
Comme Ci, Comme Ca
Frere Jazz
Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)
La Vie en Rose
April in Paris

Side B

C'est Magnifique
Two Loves Have I (J'ai Deux Amours)
C'est Si Bon (It's So Good)
The Song from Moulin Rouge (Where Is Your Heart)
Tout de Suite
My Man (Mon Homme)

Pete Fountain, Clarinet
with Charles 'Bud' Dant and His Orchestra

Can a real jazz musician record an "easy listening" album? Louis Armstrong did, so the answer must be yes. With this irrelevant question out of the way, once and for all, let's get on with the music.

There are quite a few high quality easy listening clarinet albums out there, not all of them from jazz musicians. Both Reginald Kell and Artie Shaw dabbled in the "light classical" genre beginning in the 1940s. The best results of these can be found on Reginal Kell and his Quiet Music, fortunately still available on CD, and Modern Music for Clarinet, a rare Columbia LP of Shaw's. The Shaw disc tends to sell for rather high prices these days, owing to both its rarity and the rumor that the cover art might be an example of early Warhol. It's also one of the more interesting in the genre, for its blending of both jazz and classical repertoire.

Yet even with these efforts in mind, my favorite in the Jazz Clarinet Easy Listening category is Pete Fountain's I Love Paris. This is music with absolutely no pretense: no throwing in Debussy's "Petite Piece" to "legitimize" the album, no busting out a virtuosic Django Reinhardt number to save face... this is straight up "turn-on-the-A/C-and-mix-your-martini-after-a-hard-day-at-the-office-to-unwind-with-the-missus" bourgeois relaxation. This is Rob and Laura Petrie chilling to some "jazz." This is suburban America trying to unwind (and that's no easy task--trust me, suburban America can be a bizarro world of reality denial).

The arrangements by Bud Dant are brilliant--lush strings, but spare in their lines, uncluttered. So many jazz "with strings" albums are ruined by arrangers bent on proving they can make a Hoagy Carmichael tune sound like Schoenberg. Bud Dant is much better than that.

Pete's playing is great--probably better than on any of his many Easy Listening projects. His tone takes over and he sells every tune well. I'm not a big fan of tunes like "La Vie en Rose" or "Autumn Leaves", but Pete's playing of them, his use of subtone, and his spare but tasteful solos transform them. He has a lightness of touch and intimacy that keeps these songs from slobbering over-emotion.

If you ask me in the winter time how many reeds I rate this, I'll probably answer "three." But as soon as the A/C has to be turned on, and summer heat rolls in, this album is Five Good Reeds. It's just the best in the genre for me.

If you're lucky enough to get an LP in good condition, be sure to check the right hand corner of the cover: just above the blue I LOVE PARIS lettering, it should be marked STEREO in white block letters. If it's unmarked, it's likely one of the mono versions. I highly recommend the STEREO version: one of the great joys of this album is to hear the ride cymbal and trombones on the left channel answered by the accordion and bongos [sic] on the right! So don't gyp yourself! Turn that A/C on full blast, in stereo!

Autographed Portrait of Pete (Eric Seddon Collection)


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

CD Review: Benny Goodman * The Complete 1937 Madhattan Room Broadcasts

Once upon a time, there was a six disc box set of Benny Goodman's 1937 broadcasts from the Madhattan Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City, available at your local Borders Books & Music. Now Borders is defunct, and the old boxes (put out by Viper's Nest Records in 1995) have been scattered to the winds--the only way to get your hands on them is to piece the set together one volume at a time. For those willing to hunt through Amazon or eBay, though, it's worth it.

These recordings give a rare glimpse of Benny's greatest band after hours. Unlike the prime time "Camel Caravan" broadcasts, with their carefully timed numbers, commercial plugs, and shtick (entertaining though much of it was), these broadcasts were unsponsored ("sustaining" radio) and the arrangements didn't need to be clipped for commercials. They routinely broadcast around midnight and give the feel of the band stretching out and winding down for the night. It can be difficult for contemporary musicians to imagine, especially in this day and age when gigs barely exist, but bands like Goodman and Shaw routinely worked six or seven days a week, with five to seven shows per day. To reach the midnight hour, with one last whirl through the arrangement book, was a nightly achievement.

This set documents twelve complete half-hour broadcasts that ran from October 13, 1937 through December--the lead up to the 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy, and Martha Tilton are all here, with the usual high quality results.

Of particular interest are the many charts played over the airwaves that never made it into the recording studio. A partial list:

Whispers in the Dark
I'd Like to See Some Mo' of Samoa
Roses in December (Trio Version)
So Many Memories
Moonlight on the Highway
Stardust on the Moon
Am I Blue?
In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree
Everybody Loves My Baby
In the Still of the Night
All of Me

But for me the star of the show is the relaxed, after hours vibe. Unlike the heady, raucous BG-mania that rocks so many live recordings of the band in this era, there is minimal crowd noise. There are some special moments of audience involvement too, that wouldn't likely have happened on a Camel Caravan Broadcast. During the October 23 broadcast, for instance, there were a bunch of college students on the dance floor during a trio version of "Where or When." The young men began spontaneously singing the words to their dates. Benny kept playing the melody along with them, the chorus swelling slightly, until we can hear the young ladies gently joining in by the end, an octave higher. The tenderness, spontaneity, and warm enthusiasm of the applause that bursts out afterwards is for me the epitome of what this music is about, and why it is so important to preserve.

Because of the relaxed nature of these air checks, there are several fade outs of closing numbers, and a good deal of repeated material (a forty second "Let's Dance", for example, leads off most broadcasts). While the band lacks the pinpoint precision and some of the killer attitude that it displays on other live sets of this era, these stand out for their contrast. The liner notes by David Weiner are informative and detailed. As of this writing, these might very well be out of print. Get 'em while you can.  Four Good Reeds.    

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Pete Fountain's French Quarter * Coral Records (CRL 757359) * 1961

Side A

Dear Old Southland
Oh, Didn't He Ramble
Bye Bye Blackbird
Lazy Bones
Someday, Sweetheart

Side B

Is It True What They Say About Dixie?
Shrimp Boats
That Da Da Strain
Theme from the French Quarter
Birth of the Blues

Pete Fountain * Clarinet
Godfrey Hirsch * Vibes
Stan Wrightsman * Piano
Morty Corb * Bass
Jack Sperling * Drums

Rumor has it that the clarinet was an important early jazz instrument which rose to dominance in the Swing Era and has been in decline ever since the late 1940s. Without putting too fine a point on it, the more one knows about jazz history, the more bogus this rumor becomes. In actuality, the clarinet's fortunes in jazz have remained far more healthy than most instruments, both in a serious artistic sense and in a broader sense of cultural impact.

Consider for a moment the accomplishment of clarinetists on the scene during the 1950s and 60s (the era that supposedly witnessed the loss of the clarinet's stature). Though they are hardly remembered now, four LPs of Artie Shaw's final Gramercy 5 recordings were released on Clef Records in the 1950s. That they went virtually unnoticed by critics, dropped out of print, and weren't recognized as masterpieces until the early 1990s is not Artie's fault. Like William Butler Yeats, Shaw proved himself to be that rarest of artists: the romantic who could translate his art seamlessly into a modernist romanticism, without losing his essence or pandering to mere stylistic trends.

Shaw's accomplishment was enough to prove the clarinet an exceptional vehicle for modern jazz expression, but if any doubt remained, Buddy DeFranco's virtuosic bop should have erased it. In addition to these, Bill Smith's and Tony Scott's work from the period seems to evade historical surveys, yet remains there for anyone to listen to.

A healthy culture depends upon more than innovators, however: it needs a firm foundation to stand on. During the '50s and '60s there were many other excellent jazz clarinetists keeping earlier playing styles alive: Benny Goodman, Barney Bigard, Jimmy Hamilton, and Edmond Hall were still performing regularly. In terms of traditional New Orleans jazz, Albert Nicolas, George Lewis, Willie Humphrey, and Raymond Burke were active. In retrospect, there are few instruments in the jazz of the era which could boast such a list of players.

To this milieu we should add another very important figure who emerged in the late 1950s: Pete Fountain. Not only did he demonstrate, on a nightly basis, a rare command of the clarinet, Pete was for decades one of the most visible and prominent symbols of jazz to the larger American public. More importantly than this, and of considerable frustration to the collector of great jazz clarinet recordings, he also might be the record holder for having the largest number of excellent jazz clarinet albums to have fallen out of print. One of them, released in 1961 by Coral Records, is the subject of this review.

Pete Fountain's French Quarter was made shortly after Pete moved from the Bateau Lounge to his own club: "Pete Fountain's French Quarter Inn" on Bourbon Street. The instrumentation for the album takes it's cue from the classic Goodman quartet of the 30s and the last Gramercy 5: the sidemen are Godfrey Hirsch on vibes, Stan Wrightsman on piano, Morty Corb on bass, and Jack Sperling on drums.

From the outset, this album grips and never lets go. Gershwin's "Summertime" is the lead number: a war horse among standards, but rarely done well enough to be considered a permanent part of the song's legacy, as it is here. Even considering Sidney Bechet's version on soprano sax and the Artie Shaw Orchestra's reading of Eddie Sauter's arrangement, Pete's remains my favorite jazz rendition of the tune. That it was recorded in 1961 adds to the historical significance, setting up a useful comparison with John Coltrane's version, released the same year on  his classic My Favorite Things album. Trane's art was reaching it's zenith around this time, and the string of albums before and after 1961 are deservedly famous. But of the two versions of "Summertime", Pete's is arguably more profound.

The poetic heart of "Summertime" is paradoxical: it's a lullaby sung to a baby, filled with reassurance and love, but surrounded in it's original operatic context by poverty and violence. Redemptive suffering is inherent to the tune, and any good interpretation of it has to touch, on some level, this spiritual aspect--it comforts and unsettles, simultaneously.

Trane uses the song as a howling modal cry--an obvious, confrontationally ironic reading akin to dramatically yelling at a baby--a lullaby sung by an angry madman. This reading isn't to be flippantly rejected, as it does say something disturbingly important. There is a sad truth to Trane's symbolism in our cultural history: monumental decisions were made in that era to legally devalue babies and their human right to live. Yet even with this firmly considered, there is always a musical price to pay for such confrontational, repurposed interpretation, and Trane's execution of the tune sounds more of an extra-musical "statement" than an investigation of inherent musical depth.

The original operatic version of "Summertime" features many emotional subtleties difficult to explain, or to translate into other orchestrations. For example, how can the effect of the "cold" violin counterpoint to the vocal line be reproduced except by playing it as Gershwin scored it? This is where Pete Fountain's version meets the challenge. Pete opens the album with Jack Sperling's bitter drum hits, which are like firm punches to the gut--ringing harbingers of danger. Sperling uses sticks (rare on jazz clarinet albums before this) and the simmering tension threatens to boil over at any moment. When Pete comes in, his tone is cool: he states the melody plainly, almost without adornment, drawing and maintaining a struggle between his mood and Sperling's dire portents. It's a real lullaby, and has real hope, but takes note of the danger. Pete's solo, seemingly simple, almost sounds like a parental attempt to ward off that danger. This is the very paradox the original tune sets up lyrically, and the tension of swing itself as hinted at when Artie Shaw suggested "maybe what we're talking about is life verses death."

The star of the first tune is undoubtedly Sperling--his rhythmic variations continue relentlessly as Fountain holds the lyrical line. Simple in conceptual brilliance, executed to perfection, this lead number grips the listener and delivers the promised result. What follows is assuredly less intense, and more conducive to a great nightclub act, but the basic mood, emphasizing the serious jazz nature of the disc, has been set. Tune after tune of balanced, relaxed fusing of cool west coast jazz with an earlier New Orleans style inherited from Irving Fazola rounds out the album. Classic interpretations are offered of "Dear Old Southland," "Oh, Didn't He Ramble," "Shrimp Boats" and others.

I find it both difficult and frustrating to think this masterpiece of jazz clarinet has been out of print for decades. There are still some LPs available for purchase on the web, and I recommend those interested in jazz clarinet get their hands on a copy. Many of Pete Fountain's serious jazz albums have suffered the fate of Pete Fountain's French Quarter. Hopefully this situation is temporary, and they will all be made available for download soon. This album gets an obvious Five Good Reeds.

Autograph from a copy of Pete Fountain's Autobiography
(Eric Seddon Collection)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bill Smith with the Dave Brubeck Quartet * The Riddle * Columbia (CL 1454) * 1960

Side A

Hey, Ho, Nobody at Home
The Twig
Blue Ground

Side B

Swingin' Round
Quiet Mood
The Riddle
Yet We Shall Be Merry

Bill Smith, clarinet
Dave Brubeck, piano
Gene Wright, bass
Joe Morello, drums

What constitutes successful long form jazz? The answer might mean anything from a suite of tunes related by extra-musical titles, to a highly integrated work that stretches for an hour or more, with interdependent thematic, harmonic, and metric schemes. Over the course of jazz history, the elusive concept of a self-consistent long form has proven an irresistible challenge, enticing musicians as varied as Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Eddie Sauter, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, and many others. The results have sometimes been hailed as masterpieces, other times derided as hubris.

Initially the Big Bands took the decisive lead in producing meaningful long form jazz. Jimmy Mundy's 1937 arrangement of "Sing Sing Sing" for the Benny Goodman Band still stands as a model of success. In it, whether deliberately or not, Mundy gave solutions for two great quandaries: how to integrate solos into the form in a meaningful sense beyond mere variations, while hinting as to the type of thematic material needed to sustain the form.  Thematically, Mundy used two highly motivic tunes--interpolating "Christopher Columbus" into the original, to expand and sustain interest, while the solos functioned dynamically within the form.

The shift to more motivic melodic material was to become important, proving pivotal in allowing smaller groups to take the lead. Rather than sprawling melodies, demanding intricate pre-written arrangements to be expanded well, such as Ralph Burns's Summer Sequence (recorded by Woody Herman), small groups could create loosely understood head arrangements, using highly flexible motives as the building blocks for longer, integrated "movements." The beginnings of this are seen in Sonny Rollins's Freedom Suite. John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which can be heard as a fusion of Dave Brubeck's "Calcutta Blues" with the Freedom Suite, showed further possibilities for this motivic style. Miles Davis's In a Silent Way shifted the emphasis again, demonstrating how groove itself could play a larger formal role. Two decades later found Wynton Marsalis experimenting with the suite style of Duke Ellington, refining and expanding it until In This House, On This Morning, which, while a septet piece, is symphonic in scope, with all thematic materials related to the opening. All of these ideas, modified through various developments in the jazz and classical avant garde, combined in Pat Metheny's The Way Up.

The current of history isn't a straight line, however--no brief timeline or "history of heroes" can adequately outline the true means by which an art as complex and multifaceted as jazz is developed. Sometimes there are highly significant advances made which are overlooked for decades. Bill Smith's The Riddle, the first of three studio albums devoted to his tunes, recorded in rapid succession with Dave Brubeck, represents just such a moment.

Bill Smith has lead a double life, musically, since the outset of his career. Straddling, with exceptional success, the worlds of classical and jazz music, he has substantially contributed to both artforms without gimmickry. His investigations of clarinet multiphonics in the 1950s, for example, have proven a permanent addition to our knowledge of the instrument, while his jazz has provided not just a path forward for clarinetists, but of formal compositional significance to all jazz musicians regardless of instrument.1960's The Riddle is exceptional in this regard.

Smith's goals with the album were clear from the outset:

My main interest in the album was to make 3/4s of an hour of well integrated jazz, unified by relating each tune to the English folk song, "Heigh, Ho, Anybody Home." [sic] In some of the tunes, the relationship is quite apparent as in "Hey, ho, Nobody at Home" or "Blue Ground, Swingin' 'Round" where it is used in the bass or where it is treated as a round. The relationship to the original in the others is more subtle (like a cousin whose only family resemblance is the eyes or a dimple or some other detail). "The Twig" is an out-growth of the last two measures of the original. "Offshoot" uses the tune in major considerably altered and expanded. "Quiet Mood" takes the second two-measure segment of the original and uses it as a point of departure. "The Riddle" [title tune] contains the original melodic shape but is played in shorted note values, while in "Yet We Shall Be Merry," the main tones of the original are lengthened and combined with a new thematic idea. [From the original album liner notes.]
The Riddle is poetically unique in both an aural and verbal sense. Aurally speaking, the original folk song "Hey Ho Nobody's Home" is usually sung as a round, with a melody bearing strong resemblance (call it a distant cousin) to the opening of "Sing Sing Sing". Whether Smith intended to highlight this connection to Benny (his boyhood hero), enjoyed it coincidentally, or couldn't have cared less is perhaps an added riddle. For me, this melodic similarity serves the overall aural poetic of jazz clarinet history, tying Smith to Goodman subtly. 
The lyrics to the original folk song, only partially referenced through the title of the last track--"Yet We Shall Be Merry"-- are poetically linked to the project as well:
Hey, Ho, Nobody at home,  
Meat nor drink nor money have I none,  
Yet we shall be merry, very merry,  
Hey, Ho, Nobody at home!

The lyric is a paradoxical knot, suggesting joy in either poverty or a bit of musical thievery, or both. This poetic is applied musically by Smith, taking this sparse communal round and making it the basis for a jazz album of original compositions.

Taken as a whole, Smith has given a blueprint for extended form jazz. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (also known for pinching folk songs) quietly revolutionized the symphony in a similar manner. Taking his cue from modal English folk song and fantasia, he developed a symphonic style that eschewed the obvious development of sonata form, in favor of a new style wherein thematic cells were used in different ways, blossoming throughout works in expanding, original manner (the best example, perhaps, being his Pastoral Symphony of 1922). By 1959, when the individual tunes for The Riddle were being written, modal jazz was in vogue, yet successful long form usage of it was still to come. Just as Vaughan Williams's accomplishment has been often overlooked for it's subtlety, so has Smith's.

In the liner notes, Dave Brubeck added some thoughts:

The idea of unity in an LP should intrigue jazzmen, and Bill has given us one solution to the problem by relating all the themes. This is the first riddle of the album: to discover the thematic relationship of each of the tunes. The second riddle is to detect which parts of the music are written, and which are improvised. Almost everyone who has heard this album (including Joe [Morello] and Gene [Wright], our own rhythm section) has had difficulty separating the composed from the improvised sections. I take this as a real compliment, because good jazz composition sounds as though it were really improvised and good improvisation should sound as though it was as well thought out as a composition.
Since The Riddle, thematic integration has become common and essential elements in long form jazz--Trane, Miles, Wynton, and Pat's albums all bear witness to this--but few have matched the unity, and continuously fresh feeling still evident in this album from 1960. There remains much to be said about Smith's unique and important mastery of the clarinet, along with his jazz application of that mastery. Those will certainly be discussed more fully in future reviews.

For the present, though it's ridiculous to rate anything this great, this album obviously gets The Jazz Clarinet's top rating of Five Good Reeds. The most frustrating riddle left is why this album hasn't been reissued, and why jazz history has neglected it for so long. Whatever the irrelevant answers to that quandary, those of us who have finally stumbled upon it will undoubtedly say "Yet We Shall Be Merry"!