Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Happy Mardi Gras!

To all the readers of The Jazz Clarinet, Happy Mardi Gras! My band will be performing at BLU Jazz + in Akron, Ohio. This year will be an extra special celebration of the music of Pete Fountain. Wishing everyone a happy and healthy celebration!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Two Sides of Bill Smith * CRI * 1974

Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra
William O. Smith, clarinet
Orchestra U.S.A.; Gunther Schuller, conductor

William O. Smith, clarinet
Robert Suderburg, piano 

Variants for solo clarinet
William O. Smith, clarinet

I first heard this recording on LP, nearly twenty five years ago, while an undergraduate clarinet performance major at the Hartt School of Music. Our 20th century form and analysis professor, Dr. David Macbride, had given us the assignment of presenting the class with recorded examples of extended techniques on our major instrument. I presented two clarinetists: Artie Shaw and this album by William O. Smith. Shaw's Concerto for Clarinet served as a primer for how jazz timbral language had broadened our understanding of the expressive sonorities possible on the clarinet, outside of the classical canon. William O. Smith took matters even further, showing how a clarinetist equally comfortable in jazz and classical realms could expand both genres exponentially.

I'm not going to do a full analysis of this album, which would look and read more like a graduate thesis than a blog post. Suffice it to say there is actually enough material here for a graduate thesis, and a good one at that. There have been many attempts at concerti for jazz soloists and orchestra, and many clarinet concerti have been written with jazz clarinetists in mind. But this has to be one of the finest. Applying his extensive knowledge of jazz, modern classical methods (such as serialism) and an inside knowledge of extended clarinet techniques (many of which he discovered and charted), the concerto on Side 1 is a unique tour de force. I know of no other wind player who has done anything quite like it for their instrument--expanding our knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument while mastering multiple genres, seamlessly fused together in a thrilling and meaningful musical expression.

It helps tremendously that the orchestra was sympathetic, could swing and articulate like a jazz band, and was lead by a champion of  this music. Indeed, the conductor, Gunther Schuller, coined the term "Third Stream" to describe a potential fusion between European concert music and jazz, so successfully accomplished here. Beyond that, the music itself is fully effective: the liner notes to the album point out the following:

A twelve-tone row is the basis for both the orchestral material and the improvised clarinet part. Although the listener is not expected to follow the various permutations of the row, it is hoped that he will feel a psychological cohesion. The row itself utilizes only two basic intervals, the major 2nd and the minor 3rd, and is simply the transposition of a four note figure which happens to be the first four notes of I Got Rhythm. The simplicity of the the row lends itself to spontaneous improvisation. The four movements correspond roughly to traditional concerto form. In style, the jazz idiom is consistently employed. 

Here serialism isn't presented as dry or melodically meaningless. Upon listening, the reasons for using twelve tone method seems to be manifold, but include a chance to focus more on timbral issues, and tone color. There is an expansive, lyrical quality to it rather than restrictive (the technique can be used either way), and the connection to jazz history really works.

Side 2 features a more intimate chamber setting, and for those interested in Smith's jaw dropping, abstracted use of extended techniques (including multiphonics, extreme altissimo, and even mutes, if my memory of the score to Variants is accurate after 25 years) this will keep you interested. When I was in music school, it was common for clarinetists to program William O. Smith's Five Pieces for Clarinet Solo on recitals. Those are great pieces, and a worthy addition to the unaccompanied clarinet repertoire, but I always thought the more challenging and intriguing pieces of his for solo clarinet were the Variants. They are certainly more demanding on both the clarinetist and the audience, and are also the fruits of Smith's extensive research in the area of extended techniques. Combined with this recording of the composer himself, the Variants represent a real watershed moment in the history of the clarinet.

This album is off the charts, should be in every clarinetist's library, and ought to be more widely available. Buy one of the vinyl copies still to be found before they're all gone.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

Chris Barber & Hugh Laurie * Abbey Road Studios * 2013

Here's a fascinating YouTube video by Rick Walker featuring famous actor and not-so-closeted bluesman Hugh Laurie with one of his heroes, trad jazz trombone icon Chris Barber. Though short, this brief presentation and interview can help fill in the gaps of our understanding of 20th century music, and the significant role trad jazz and New Orleans style played in the various waves of British rock and pop music.

I'm greatly heartened that Laurie would take the time to honor Barber and the music. I've argued for years that soulfulness and melody will never go out of style: he and Chris Barber have offered further proof!  

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1958 Selmer Centered Tone Clarinet in A

Several years ago, while playing gypsy jazz in many keys particularly well suited to guitarists, but more rarely used in the jazz clarinet repertoire--keys like D major and A major at concert pitch--I began experimenting with the use of a clarinet in the key of A for certain numbers. At first, my matched pair of 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform-Boehms yielded good results. Eventually, though, I found myself wanting to use my regular gigging horn, a 1955 Selmer Centered Tone, and switching between the Selmer Bb and the Wurlitzer A was proving too awkward. The breathing, mouthpiece, reeds, and voicings demanded of Wurlitzers are very different from those of a Selmer, making for an uncomfortable evening if attempting them both. Beyond that, to really get the most out of either a Selmer or a Wurlitzer, I've always found it best to be committed, daily, to one or the other. To command all of the colors or power of either, it usually takes me a couple of weeks serious practice, at least, after having been away from a certain model. So in a sense, for me at least, it's all or nothing when playing these instruments.

With that in mind, I picked up this 1958 Centered Tone, Model 806 (seven rings, with articulated G# and left hand Ab/Eb key, serial number R-1***). It's a beautiful horn, with a huge, rich sound; possibly the most purely beautiful tone of any clarinet I've played.    

1958 Selmer Centered Tone Model 806 in A

The chalumeau is so big it has what I call the "crackle" or "crunch" sound you can get on a bass clarinet, opening up interesting timbral possiblities. Like all Centered Tones, you can really lay into the chalumeau without going terribly flat--in stark contrast to more contemporary model clarinets of nearly all manufacturers, with the popular small, reverse-conical or polycylindrical bores. This is one of the major reasons the CT is regarded as a great jazz clarinet--models designed for the classical market seem to miss the importance of being able to really crank in the chalumeau, with a variety of timbres.

The clarion register on this Centered Tone is mellow and rich, and the altissimo is the famed Selmer altissimo, as usual--simply the best ever made, in my opinion. 

When this R-series A first arrived in my hands, its silver keywork was in disrepair, needing quite a bit of work. While the basic tone quality was remarkable; obviously a fine instrument under all the problems, I couldn't quite get all of the subtlety needed from it. My decision then was to put it away and play all of the gypsy rep on the Bb in keys like E, B, etc. In retrospect, this was the right decision. With a couple of studio sessions coming up, though, it seemed the right time to get this gem of a horn refurbished and ready to capture on record. This CT came back from my tech on Friday...he did an outstanding job, and it's as ready to go as it could have been in 1958. Stay tuned! I'm looking forward to performing and recording this classic Selmer Centered Tone.     

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Musical Proverb of the Day

All jazz is local.

Whether some world famous jazz musician is visiting your city, playing to a packed theater with three balconies of adoring fans, or you're in some tavern with a band squeezed into a corner and competing with the television set over the bar, all jazz happens in real time with real people in the audience. It's the art of interaction; of the musicians giving something to you and you reciprocating in that place, at that time. It's the art of being present and joyous. It's the art the art that breaks down emotional barriers and allows for everything to come out. It's freedom in honesty, but it can't happen in a room by yourself. It can't happen over the internet via live streaming. It's the real breath of a person through a mouthpiece, the real strike of a hand on a drum skin, the real pull on a bass, the real bodies swaying to that beat, the real eruptions of enthusiasm or, equally important, the hush of reflection that settles over a crowd. There is no substitute for reality, and being who and where you really are. Jazz emphasizes that, and affirms the goodness of reality and existence, even in the midst of great troubles. So if you have some famous cat rolling into town tonight, go hear them: they are jazz for you tonight. But if not, don't be afraid to be a part of what jazz is: the real time sharing of something, of influencing the direction and sound of a band by your very presence. 

All jazz is local.   

Thursday, February 16, 2017

When the Jazz Wars Went Global * Ken Colyer & The First Traditional Jazz Band

Below is a short but fascinating YouTube video detailing the outbreak of one theater of the jazz wars: Great Britain in the late 1940s. Around that time, trumpeter Ken Colyer espoused the idea that real, traditional New Orleans Jazz had never left the city of its birth and that those who had moved to Chicago in the 1920s (King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, et al) represented an innovation. Following the light of his hero, Bunk Johnson, and determined to prove his thesis, he joined the Merchant Navy and worked his way to New Orleans where he sat in with many bands, including George Lewis's.

The result, both before and after his trip, was a split within the British jazz scene between New Orleans Revivalists and New Orleans Traditionalists. However hair splitting that might sound (it actually isn't), the creative tension and dedication of the musicians involved produced decades worth of extraordinary jazz.

Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine, and other seminal figures make appearances in this video--it's a great introduction to the vitality of the professional jazz scene and what players were willing to do for their art in the UK of the '40s and '50s.


Sidney Bechet & Albert Nicholas with Jelly Roll Morton * September 14, 1939 * Bluebird * NYC

Oh, Didn't He Ramble
High Society
I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say
Winin' Boy Blues

Stanley De Paris, trumpet
Claude Jones, trombone, speech
Albert Nicholas, clarinet
Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone
Happy Cauldwell, tenor saxophone
Jelly Roll Morton,  piano
Laurence Lucie, guitar
Wellman Braud, bass
Zutty Singleton, drums

Sidney Bechet plus Jelly Roll Morton equals a winning equation, no matter how you calculate it, and no matter how much tension there may have been in the studio at the time. These four tracks from September 14, 1939 serve as a quick proof. Opening up with a quote from "Flee as a Bird" for a solemn preamble, then the mock-solemn intonation...

Ashes to ashes, 
dust to dust,
if the women don't get ya
the liquor must...

...the band bursts into "Oh Didn't He Ramble", confidently swinging with a unanimous groove, each voice knowing exactly where to place himself. Bechet's soprano is comfortable, diving and singing, Stanley De Paris's trumpet well balanced (though apparently he and Bechet were not happy to find each other on the same date), and Albert Nicholas played the right supporting role along with the rest of the band before they break off for a dirge fade out.

The version of "High Society" they cut that day is of interest mostly for the rarity of hearing both Bechet (on soprano) and Albert Nicholas (on clarinet) play the "test solo." I'll let others come to their own conclusions as to who won this duel, but I think Albert delivers it more confidently and cleanly. His swagger for the last choruses of the tune seem to indicate pride in the accomplishment, and I can't help but wonder what Bechet thought of the resulting disc (it obviously didn't hurt his relationship with Nicholas, who he was to record with again, with great results).

The soprano soloing on "I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say" and "Winin' Boy Blues" are vintage Bechet and we are left, once again, wondering what would have happened if the association between Morton and the great soloist could have continued longer. But it wasn't to happen. Bechet had begun an engagement in Fonda, in upstate New York along the Mohawk River, and wasn't to make the return to New York City for the next session (Chilton, 123).

Just as so many of Jelly Roll's recordings sound like vignettes, so Bechet's time in the recording studio with him was just another vignette in the life of a great soloist. He would have one more recording session in 1939 as a sideman with The Haitian Orchestra, then turn his sites to leading his own band again. Perhaps the frustrations in the studio during 1939 made him realize it was time to take matters into his own hands as a leader, but whatever the impetus, 1940 would be a banner year for Bechet's legacy, and this date with Jelly Roll just a harbinger of things to come.

Further Reading:

Chilton, John. Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. OUP, 1987.

Zammarchi, Fabrice. "Sidney Bechet". Notes to Sidney Bechet: The Complete American Masters, 1931-1953. Universal Music Classics & Jazz, France, 2011.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Nat Gonella's Georgia Jazz Band * Runnin' Wild * 1955

All of Me
Ain't Misbehavin'
Runnin' Wild
Satchmo Blues
St. James Infirmary
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
On a Slow Boat to China

Nat Gonella, trumpet + vocals
Archie Semple, clarinet
Roy Crimmins, trombone
Fred Hunt, piano
Bill Reid, bass
Johnny Richardson, drums

In many ways, it's difficult to imagine this was recorded in 1955. Jazz in the USA had moved far in the direction of bop and other modern styles, and the various revival bands in America often sounded either too polished on the one hand or too broadly nostalgic on the other. A useful parallel is 1955's Louis Armstrong plays W.C. Handy, which, while enjoyable in many ways, gives us such broad and grandiose versions of the tunes that it can feel as though we're listening to a tribute to a bygone era rather than experiencing living music.

By contrast, Nat Gonella--a seminal figure in the British Trad Jazz scene, admittedly decisively influenced by Armstrong in his style both as a brass player and vocalist--produced a live set here that, if we set aside our preconceptions, rivals the greats of the previous generation.

I've listened to this album repeatedly for the last couple of years, ever since stumbling upon it in an Intense Media 10 disc box set filled with gems of the European Trad Jazz scene of the '50 and '60s. At first, I wasn't sure what to think of it. I'd never heard Gonella, and the immediate comparison to Armstrong was obvious. As a general rule, we're taught to be wary of imitators, and there are many good reasons for this (some of them social, racial,  economic, etc--and all of them compelling). But I found this disc impossible to ignore for long. The performances are too satisfying to leave behind. Gonella's vocal takes on tunes such as "All of Me" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" are simply among my favorites. However much they might owe to Satch, they aren't copies, but real expression. Likewise, the unflagging energy of the band--the real thing, emotionally--can be difficult to find in any era. Because this is a live date (or a series of them compiled), the band isn't as stiflingly precise as studio dates can get. There is a certain natural raggedness to the group, and the balance of the microphones isn't perfect--the wind instruments tend to overpower the rhythm section. But I wouldn't trade that for the spiritual and emotional impact of this record. It has an elusive quality not even found on many live albums: the feel of a real live gig, unpretentious and un-self-conscious.

Archie Semple's clarinet playing seems the perfect compliment to Gonella's trumpet and vocal, in that his family resemblance to Edmond Hall (undoubtedly his template) is undeniable. But like Gonella, his ideas within the style are legitimate, original, and ring emotionally true. Roy Cummins's trombone, like so many of the British Trad trombonists of that era, is full, crisp and lush simultaneously. It's gotten so that I almost prefer the sound of British Trad brass to Americans at times (and for any American jazz musician, this is not easy to admit).      

For someone raised with the preconceptions of jazz history as taught here in America, all of this raises some interesting questions: if the mainstream of jazz education and criticism will accept generation after generation of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane imitators of various levels of worthiness; if such offerings can be praised as excellent examples of legitimate jazz, why shouldn't the same level of respect be given to those who have worked in the styles developed by earlier jazz giants? If Mozart isn't derided for following in the footsteps of Haydn, Mahler isn't condemned for his learning from Wagner, or Ravel for his debt to Satie and Debussy, why should Gonella and Semple be ignored in America because they learned their art from the likes of Armstrong and Hall? Their work alone is proof that they are not merely derivative, but instead expanded the great music we have by plowing forward in the style after it had been neglected, in many ways, in its homeland.

In general, the British Trad scene of the '50s and '60s demonstrated far less of the crippling anxiety of influence and cultural baggage than Americans carried with them. This is music of vitality, and sounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday. The box I found it in, for a ridiculously low price, is highly recommended, including albums by Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer,  Terry Lightfoot, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, and others.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Eiji Kitamura * Seven Stars * Concord Jazz CJ 217 * 1981

Old Lads (Eiji Kitamura, Kazuo Yashiro)
The World is Waiting for the Sunrise
Satin Doll
Someone to Watch Over Me
I Wanna Go Home

Eiji Kitamura, clarinet
Teddy Wilson, piano
Cal Tjader, vibes ("Avalon", "Old Lads", "Satin Doll")
Ernestine Anderson, vocal (on "Someone to Watch Over Me")
Eddie Duran, guitar
Bob Maize, bass
Jake Hanna, drums

Coast Records, San Francisco, August 1981 (Released 1983)

1981 was a surprisingly good year for jazz clarinet, as it saw the release of one of Pete Fountain's best small combo recordings, Pete Fountain & Friends (Capitol Records), while Japanese clarinetist Eiji Kitamura recorded Seven Stars for Concord Jazz. Of historic significance, Kitamura's album was to be Teddy Wilson's last in arguably his finest setting: small combo work with a strong clarinet soloist.

Japanese audiences will already be familiar with Eiji Kitamura's playing, as he has had a prolific career spanning several decades, many albums, and television. For those unfamiliar with his work, though, this album serves as an impressive introduction. His playing is firmly in the Goodman-Fountain continuum, but unlike so many Goodman imitators, he is his own man. He has the blistering technique required of the style, and flashes it throughout the album, perhaps most on "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise." His tone is nicely balanced, with the biting quality needed for swing, but with it's own flavor of dusky depth in the chalumeau. He certainly has command of his style and the tunes, and while he is not a revolutionary, Kitamura is without question a confident master of swing clarinet. I was particularly grateful to hear his own tune, "Old Lads", blending so well with the rest of the set list and reminiscent of such tunes as Artie Shaw's "When the Quail Come Back From San Quentin." Kitamura's take on "Satin Doll" is one of the nicest by a jazz clarinetist on record. In it he goes from laid back to outspoken, from double time bop licks back to confident, well placed statements of melody. Likewise, his ideas on tunes like "Stardust" are never derivative,  and always interesting and original.

Teddy Wilson's playing seems to have been the perfect match for jazz clarinet. Light, yet colorful, never so dense that the texture gets weighed down; he never lost his inimitable ability to both support and step out, weaving his perfect counterpoint to the clarinet. Though he recorded with giants of the saxophone no less prestigious than Lester Young and Benny Carter, his playing never seemed as perfectly balanced, ensemble-wise as when playing with Benny Goodman, Edmond Hall, Dave Shepherd, or in this case Eiji Kitamura.

This isn't a nostalgic album. Each of the musicians approach the well known standards with vitality and a matter-of-factness that indicates their continued dedication to the music as a way of life. There is nothing earth shattering or ground breaking about the album, except perhaps the new ways in which they discover together the endless variations and potential of swing. Having said that, it's one of those albums every fan of jazz clarinet will want to know, of an excellent clarinetist deserving of greater international attention.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Some Thoughts on Unmixed Sound

Here are some thoughts of mine on music that popped up in my Facebook memory feed today. I thought they might just as well be shared here, as they have implications for jazz performance. I've noticed musicians like Paquito D'Rivera suggesting similar things over the last couple of years as well.


What would happen to our musical culture if there was a five year ban imposed upon light shows, auto tune, click tracks, concert mixing boards, and outrageous levels of artificial amplification?

The American public knows the difference between fresh food and frozen. Knows the difference between Madden and real football. Knows the difference between a real body and an airbrushed photo of a woman who had ten plastic surgeries. But most folks really have no knowledge of the difference between mixed and unmixed sound--or music done with or without producers making it sound acceptable.
Isn't it time musicians began promoting real, honest sound--coming from the actual breath or touch of the musicians?
Let's face it, folks...the real musicians in the industry are taking a pounding, economically. We're basically at the point where we have nothing to lose by being honest. So why not promote honest, real, intimate music making?
(And it's not just the pop industry that I'm talking about....) 

Sing for the Korg and only the Korg will love you.

There's a difference between Time and Pulse.
A click track will tell you one, but can't resuscitate the other.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sidney Bechet and the Port of Harlem Seven * June 8, 1939 * Blue Note Records * NYC

Blues for Tommy Ladnier
Pounding Heart Blues

Frankie Newton, trumpet
J. C.  Higgenbotham, trombone
Sidney Bechet, soprano sax & clarinet
Meade Lux Lewis, piano
Teddy Bunn, guitar
Johnny Williams, bass
Sid Catlett, drums

On June 4, 1939, Sidney Bechet's collaborator Tommy Ladnier died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 39. Like Bechet, Ladnier was a Louisiana native, against the playing of "commercial" music, known to leave better paying gigs to play the music he loved, and was attracted to the more colorblind European scene. The French critic and jazz impressario, Hugues PanassiĆ©, when on a mission to record real jazz in the United States, made a point of hunting him down in Newburgh, New York to arrange a recording session with Sidney Bechet the year before. Four days after Ladnier's death, Bechet went into the studio and cut the very first of the Blue Note records which have become such a significant part of his legacy. The Port of Harlem Seven would only have this one recording session together, but it was to be meaningful.

The first tune cut on the session was, appropriately, "Blues for Tommy Ladnier." Frankie Newton's trumpet is mellow and balanced, his solo reflectively sympathetic without becoming sentimental. Bechet too, offers his eulogy, with each band member commenting in turn before bursting into an out chorus. It's then that Newton finally allows some high notes to sound and Bechet's soprano shouts back in concurrence. The feeling isn't so much of a dirge, but of a warm, heartfelt glimpse into their appreciation of the man who had just left them.

So much has been written about Bechet's recording of "Summertime" that there is little to add. It's impossible to praise this moment in jazz history too much. Here is Bechet at zenith, his five heartbreaking choruses taking us deeper and deeper into a southern sunset, and probing the themes associated with the song: birth, death, resurrection, suffering, redemption. It's one of a handful of the most important recordings of the twentieth century, a meditation that unites thought, feeling, meaning, and soul as one.

The last of that day's recorded triptych was "Pounding Heart Blues", a traditional tune perhaps hinting, too, at Ladnier's death. The mood is solemn, respectful, reflective, bringing to a close this important moment in recorded history.

Tommy Ladnier playing was so soulful, he was nicknamed "The Praying Cornet" during his lifetime. On this session, Bechet would leave us one of his most heartfelt performances, bookended with emotionally solemn, yet warm hearted remembrances.

The Port of Harlem Seven were never to record under that name again, but they made their permanent mark on jazz history that day.

You have a problem: 
You want to drink beer, watch the Cavs game, and hear live jazz, simultaneously.

We have a solution: 
Come to Christopher's Pub. TONIGHT at 8.

Q: What's the biggest difference between drinking a beer in a 1920s speakeasy and going to hear us tonight at Christopher's Pub?

A: The feds won't bust in and arrest you.

Conclusion: It's good to live in 2017. Come celebrate the end of Prohibition with us tonight.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Sidney Bechet with Tommy Ladnier & His Orchestra * November 28, 1938 * New York City * Bluebird Records

Really The Blues
When You and I Were Young, Maggie
Weary Blues

Tommy Ladnier, trumpet
Sidney Bechet, soprano sax & clarinet
Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet & tenor sax
Cliff Jackson, piano
Teddy Bunn, guitar
Elmer James, bass
Manzie Johnson, drums

Just a few weeks after his recording debut as a bandleader, Sidney Bechet returned to the studio with his old friend, Louisiana born trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, to cut some sides for RCA Bluebird label.

According to John Chilton (pg 119) this band was hand picked by Hughes PanassiĆ© , the French impressario and critic, who wanted to record top notch American jazz musicians. He hunted down Tommy Ladnier, who was then gigging halfway up the Hudson River in Newburgh, New York. Sidney Bechet had to be given permission to record with the group by Irving Mills, and only on the condition he wouldn't be billed as the leader. The resulting records were worth the humility, as they are some of the finest trad jazz sides ever cut.  

The enthusiasm is there right from the beginning of "Ja-Da." Cliff Jackson's left hand is strong hinting at the boogie woogie craze about to blow, and the band seems comfortable and happy to be together throughout the first choruses. Bechet embellishes the head on soprano saxophone, but takes his solo chorus on clarinet. There is an important lesson here for historians and others who would try to understand Bechet's musical mind, and a potential misconception to correct. I can't remember where I  first read the rumor that Sidney Bechet had abandoned clarinet for the soprano saxophone rather early on, and that he took the clarinet out in later life only because trumpet players like Wild Bill Davison or Bunk Johnson didn't think the soprano appropriate for a traditional New Orleans style front line. I'm not sure about Bunk or Wild Bill's opinions, but whatever they were, and however Bechet might have focused on soprano in the later years of his career, there is a tremendous amount of clarinet and soprano doubling that he does all throughout the '20s, '30s and '40s. Working with trumpet players as diverse as Charlie Shavers, Tommy Ladnier, Louis Armstrong, Mugsy Spanier, and even as a bandleader himself without a trumpet, Bechet routinely recorded clarinet numbers or switched off within the same tune. So for a significant part of his career, the clarinet remained a nearly equal voice with soprano sax, independent of the band in question. Because of that, I think it's probably safe to say the appearance of clarinet on any sides was most likely a decision made by Bechet himself rather than anyone else. Besides, does anyone think the psychology of Sidney Bechet was typically acquiescent to the demands of the trumpet players he worked with? He wasn't known for being obsequious.  

To get back to the recordings, though, "Really the Blues" is a classic blues drag written by Mezz Mezzrow, the feisty clarinetist whose later autobiography (bearing the same name of the tune) was to make an early case against commercialism and big band era arrangements while forcefully arguing in favor of black musicians and bands. On the head of this tune, as the two clarinetists are playing together, it's Mezz who takes the lead line, but when the solos come, we hear Bechet's soprano sax tell the story, delivering vintage soul, the band murmuring assents throughout. The tune itself is excellent, and as one of the first collaborations between Mezz and Bechet, it is important historically.

"When You and I Were Young, Maggie" is a light, toe tapping number featuring Ladnier's trumpet lead, a competent chorus by Mezzrow on tenor, and some ebullient clarinet work by Bechet to round out the cut.

The last track from this session, "Weary Blues" is one of the best known in Bechet's clarinet catalog. From the outset, Sidney's musical voice is dominant throughout, with Mezzrow shadowing in harmony, and Ladnier holding the mellow line as usual. Bechet's clarinet solo opens with growling zest, then gets to wailing with expertly controlled pitch bends--each idea unfolding naturally. The whole session had the relaxed, joyous feel of musicians who understood each other and wanted to work together.  

Stylistically, though one could glean this from any number of recordings by Bechet prior to this, these are excellent examples of Bechet's unique soloing style, which was so much more than variations on a theme. His use of rhythm, meter, playing over the bar, linking his phrases organically rather than through pattern repetition, tend to be underappreciated, generally speaking, by many in the jazz education field. The music, so far beyond conventional analysis, isn't easily taught because it was so connected to Bechet's individual soul. But if our goal is lyricism and originality, if a player wants to learn how to please and surprise an audience simultaneously and consistently throughout a solo performance, recordings like these will always be a template and guide.

Further reading:

Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. John Chilton, OUP, NY (1987)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Some Reflections on New Orleans Jazz from Robert Monie

Over on the Clarinet BBoard there was a question recently concerning New Orleans Style, with a debate ensuing as to whether written arrangements would be appropriate for beginners. I vociferously objected, and tried to supply some quick reasons for opposing them. Those comments are there for anyone who cares to read them. After I'd bowed out of the debate, though, Bob Monie, a clarinetist from New Orleans, wrote what I felt to be one of the most moving and insightful understandings of New Orleans Jazz that I've encountered. It was so meaningful that I asked permission to reprint it here, which he has graciously given, and which can be read below:   

"I live around the corner from where the Colored Waif's Home once stood (today 800 Rosedale Dr.) where Louis Armstrong learned to play the cornet. That's just a few yards from the Holt Cemetery and Buddy Bolden Place, where Buddy Bolden is buried. I went to high school 2 blocks from Pete Fountain's high school (Warren Easton), where he was surrounded by classical players who tried to teach him solfeggio and sight reading, but he always preferred not to bother with it. At Fountain's funeral in St. Louis Cathedral, Larry Welk, Lawrence Welk's son, humorously recalled that his father hoped Pete would eventually just "pick up" the art of reading music so he could read the stuff the sax section was playing, but he never did. Pete was a fine jazz tenor sax player himself, but always by played ear. That was his choice and what came natural to him. It served his musical purposes and made him the most famous and sought after jazz clarinetist in the trad jazz/swing idiom for several decades. 
"Even with this background, immersed in New Orleans jazz, I find I know very little about it and always have to make an effort to keep up. A few weeks ago I took a bus tour with local historian John McCuster (author of the well-researched jazz history study, "Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz" University of Mississippi Press, 2012). McCuster took us to historical jazz sites that the New Orleans Preservation Center is trying to maintain and memorialize with appropriate research, plaques, and monuments. I saw Buddy Bolden's house and learned that clarinetist Larry Shields lived almost next door. Shields used to play clarinet on his front porch for Bolden to critique. But of course, under segregation laws, the two of them could not appear on the same stage as performers because they were black and white. We went to the vacant lot where Sydney Bechet's house once stood and learned that when Kid Ory passed there he heard some wailing clarinet coming from inside and introduced himself to the then bashful Bechet.  
"Born and raised in New Orleans, I still didn't know any of this. In the 60s, I preferred DeFranco, Tony Scott, and local avant guarde player Al Batiste as jazz clarinetists to the more traditional players, including Pete Fountain, that I had heard at home everywhere in the city since a babe. I went through several periods of rediscovering the New Orleans jazz style more than once. going back and forth between the classical styles of Harold Wright, Cahuzac, Mitchell Lurie, Karl Leister, Sabine Meyer, etc. and the jazz styles. Each time, the New Orleans tradition sounded (and sounds) different to me. It is anything but a museum piece to be reconstructed; it is a way of playing that, in players with a mind fresh and young enough to hear, is still creative, warm, and even unpredictable-- potentially more interesting that the nostalgic note-for-note re-creations of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw one hears every day. 
"Where to hear today's New Orleans jazz? One place, according to McCuster, the jazz tour guide, (and I concur) is on Frenchman street, at the back of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Step into the Spotted Cat Music Club at 627 Frenchman, for instance, and see if the Jazz Vipers, or the Cotton Mouth Kings, or the New Orleans Moonshiners, or Evan Christopher is playing. This is a kind of music that has survived the swing era, be-bop, hard bop, free jazz, rock, hip hop, heavy metal, new age, ticky-tacky, and more. It is based on honest feeling, sometimes even prayerful expression, grief, sadness, and joy, tragedy, and sorrow, the longings of the human heart, the feet laughing to a beat and the ear loving a good song.  
"Steve, visit Frenchman street and listen to New Orleans jazz today. Find out how they do it. Some of the young players there aren't even from the US but they've got the jazz spirit. Doesn't matter if it's written or paper or, in the famous bass clarinetist's words, heard as an "ear spasm"; it's a style you can learn. But you've got to be there when its happening to get it."
There is a lot to learn, and many implications to be followed in the paragraphs above, but particularly moving for me was a line towards the end: "It is based on honest feeling, sometimes even prayerful expression, grief, sadness, and joy, tragedy, and sorrow, the longings of the human heart, the feet laughing to a beat and the ear loving a good song." Thank you, Bob, for expressing this so well in words. I wanted it to be a permanent part of 'the record' here at The Jazz Clarinet.

November 6, 1938 * Sidney Bechet's First Recording Session as a Bandleader

What a Dream
Hold Tight
Jungle Drums
Chant in the Night

Sidney Bechet, soprano sax & clarinet
Ernie Caceres, baritone sax
Dave Bowman,  piano
Leonard Ware, guitar
Henry Turner, bass
Zutty Singleton, drums
Eddie Robinson & Willie Spottswood, vocals

November 6, 1938, New York City

At the spry age of 41, Sidney Bechet finally had the opportunity to record as a band leader. It had been a long six years since his last collaborative session with Tommy Ladnier and their New Orleans Feetwarmers--a session which produced several classic sides. This one would be different in many ways.

Eschewing the standard instrumentation (which is, anyhow, not so standard as some jazz histories would have us believe), the somewhat misleadingly named Sidney Bechet and His Orchestra was actually a sextet consisting of Bechet on clarinet and soprano sax, Ernie Caceres on baritone sax, Dave Bowman on piano, Leonard Ware on guitar, Henry Turner on bass, Zutty Singleton on drums, and a pair of vocalists (Eddie Robinson and Willie Spottswood, 'The Two Fishmongers') featured on "Hold Tight."

The band recorded four tunes that day, all of them originals. Three of them, "What a Dream", "Chant in the Night" and "Jungle Drums", were composed by Bechet. The vocal number "Hold Tight" was composed by Robinson, Spottswood, Ware, Jerry Brandow, and Lenny Kent.

In his biography of Sidney Bechet, John Chilton suggests this session, while bold, is one of Bechet's weaker one, suffering from lack of rehearsal and less than stellar song material (pg 111-112). I couldn't disagree more, and wish this band hand recorded twenty more sides of the same quality. While Caceres isn't balanced, volume-wise in the recording with Bechet (which might just have been an honest difference between the bari player and the muscular sound of Bechet, accurately captured) the timbre and counterpoint the two create is exciting, intriguing, and unique. Chilton wanted a more standard type of climax to the tunes, and perhaps wishes for more melodic content on a number like "Jungle Drums", but here, perhaps, we have the difference between brass criticism and woodwind writing (Chilton himself, who passed away last year, was a trumpet player). A careful review of combo jazz tunes by clarinetists reveals a predisposition for motivic, linear melodies, repetitious in an almost  minimalist fashion. "Seven Come Eleven", "AC/DC Current", "Benny's Bugle" by Benny Goodman; "When the Quail Come Back to San Quentin", "Summit Ridge Drive", "Dr. Livingston, I Presume" by Artie Shaw; and "Jungle Drums" by Sidney Bechet are all cut from a similar cloth.  It's perhaps not a coincidence that John Adams, one of the more revered minimalist composers of the last forty years, was a clarinetist.

That aside "What a Dream" is a beautiful tune, and Bechet's soprano soloing matches it. His clarinet on "Hold Tight" is vintage, excellent, and you can't go wrong with his playing on the other tunes. As with so many of Bechet's early projects (including the first incarnation of The New Orleans Feetwarmers and the Clarence Williams Blue 5), we are left simultaneously wishing we had more, and grateful for what he left us.

Further reading:

Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. John Chilton, OUP, NY (1987)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

CD Review: The Artistry of Artie Shaw * Hep Records CD 78 * 2004

I can't say how many times I ignored this CD when seeing it in the rack at Half Price Books, walking distance from my house in Cleveland. The cover is bland: it just looked like another budget priced compilation of dubious transfer quality. For some reason though, this afternoon it finally occurred to me not to judge this disc by its cover, and I checked the titles. I was shocked to find the entirety of Modern Music for Clarinet -- the (mostly) classical album Shaw had recorded for Columbia in March of 1949. Prior to this, I'd only heard the rare LP version, which can be very difficult and expensive to obtain.

Modern Music for Clarinet is an interesting album in many ways. It gives us a rare glimpse into Artie's classical aspirations, and what sort of repertoire interested him. Poulenc, Ravel, Gould, Kabalevsky, Milhaud, Shostakovich, Shulman, Gershwin, Porter, and Debussy all make their appearances. But even the most devoted of Shaw fans, if they've got a working knowledge of this repertoire, can't help but admit Shaw sounds a little out of his element on the record. His phrasing can be pretty stiff and tentative, his intonation rougher than usual in spots, and he even has a difficult time finding the tonal nuance to match the musical content of several pieces. This is unlike the Shaw we all know from jazz recordings, where he had layer upon layer of timbral ideas, and it really speaks to the difference between the two disciplines of jazz and classical playing. A helpful contrast is Reginald Kell's "Quiet Music" of light contemporary classics, which were recorded around the same time. Unlike Shaw, Kell is in his comfort zone, and phrases boldly, with surety of style. Another comparison, from decades later, can be heard when Columbia recycled the arrangement of Ravel's Piece En Forme de Habanera for a 1986 album featuring a young Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone. That album--Romances for Saxophone -- remains one of my favorite of its kind, and on it Marsalis is clearly more at ease with Ravel's lines and style.  

Having said that, one of the most interesting tracks on the album, for me, is a chamber orchestra version of Gershwin's "The Man I Love." Artie's solo here seems a bit self consciously angular and modern, perhaps an attempt to match the modernist theme of the album overall, but I find it intriguing and compelling -- a rare instance of Shaw reaching for something outside of his usual romantic lyricism on a recording. For those of us intrigued with Shaw's musical mind, these pieces, and moments, are invaluable.  

The rest of the CD (both before and after the numbers from Modern Music for Clarinet) is  dedicated some of the more rare recordings by Shaw's last Gramercy 5s, though I'm pretty sure all of these have also been released on Jasmine's box set of the complete Gramercy 5 recordings. 

The transfers themselves, done by John R.T. Davies, Hans Eekhoff, and Bill O'Donnell are very crisp, with little if any added reverb or extraneous sound. Unfortunately, they tend to sound a little shrill, too, and Shaw's clarinet distorts at times in ways that my old LP of Modern Music for Clarinet doesn't. Audiophiles and collectors will probably want to hunt down one of those rare LPs, but for those who have never heard Artie's classical musings before, this CD fills a real, interesting gap. This is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the breadth of Shaw's musical interests.


Friday, February 3, 2017

Happy Birthday Lillian Hardin Armstrong * February 3, 1898

On this day in 1898 one of the most important figures in jazz history was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Among other things, Lil was responsible for organizing the recording sessions for Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens. It's impossible to exaggerate her importance to those sessions: She had the idea for the group, put the band together, arranged for the studio time, and even composed some of the tunes. Without her, the project (clearly among the most important in the history of jazz) simply never would have happened.

Among the tunes she composed was one forever associated with the clarinet of Johnny Dodds, "Lonesome Blues." For many clarinetists and jazz fans, this tune was their first exposure to New Orleans style clarinet, and remains associated permanently with Dodds's style.

She died in 1971, shortly after the death of Louis Armstrong. Though they had divorced decades earlier, she continued following Louis's career, and collapsed while performing at a memorial concert for him seven weeks later. Chicago's Armstrong Park (so named in 2004) isn't named after Louis, but Lil: one of the most influential forces of early jazz.  

For more information, check out All About Jazz's Lil Hardin Armstrong page and her Wikipedia article. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Jazz Clarinet Named One of the Web's Top Jazz Blogs

Thank you to the folks at Feedspot, for naming The Jazz Clarinet to their list of the Top 50 Jazz Blogs & Websites for Jazz Musicians, Teachers, and Students! It's gratifying to be recognized alongside so many other writers, united in our love of this great music.

 A special thanks also to all the folks who visit this blog thousands of times each month, and for your continued enthusiasm over the years.  

Keep swinging!

Eric Seddon