He said I was his 111th interview (that makes me eleventy-first!) Great time chatting about our instrument in jazz.
Saturday, November 28, 2020
Friday, November 20, 2020
To all readers of The Jazz Clarinet, especially young professionals out of work due to the pandemic: I'm thrilled to announce the opening of the ICCC Jazz Clarinet Competition. This is a competition designed to give young pro jazz clarinetists a chance to show their skills and advance their careers despite this difficult set of circumstances we're in. There are some great prizes and major backers. I'm on the panel of judges, and honored to have one of my compositions presented as an option for contestants. The tune is called 'Euclid Avenue Jump' and gives players a chance to really show some technique and soul in a fast jump blues.
Saturday, May 2, 2020
In a JazzTimes article originating in 1997, but updated only a few weeks ago, thirteen critics were invited to sound off on which among the jazz greats were overrated and which were more underappreciated. Of note were the absence of clarinetists in the overrated category, but several clarinet greats mentioned as deserving wider acclaim.
Writing of the great Pete Fountain, who was still active as of the original 1997 publication, Doug Ramsey said:
"He underrates himself. His ear for harmony and mastery of time are among the best-kept secrets in jazz because all these years he has chosen to stick with the repertoire and sidemen that make him comfortable. I’d like to kidnap Fountain and lock him in a recording studio with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Victor Lewis. He would surprise himself."
Then came Neil Tesser, writing of Buddy DeFranco:
"Probably because he came along just as the clarinet was fading as a jazz staple, DeFranco gets overlooked when the discussion turns to either (a) his instrument or (b) his metier, bebop—an idiom not known for producing great clarinet players. But he just might be the finest improvising clarinetist in jazz history, blessed with great harmonic knowledge, technical wizardry, and a meaty and expressive tone."Jack Sohmer added praise of Albert Nicholas...
"A paragon of the Creole style of clarinet playing, Nicholas worked and recorded with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Luis Russell from the mid-1920s through the ’30s. His crystalline tone, impeccable technique, and command of the blues finally came to widespread attention during the New Orleans revival movement of the mid-’40s. Had he not spent his last 20 years in Europe, where he was almost as famous as Sidney Bechet, he would undoubtedly have been better known in America."
...and Pee Wee Russell:
"A genius to those who value originality, Russell had always been a controversial clarinetist. He was uniformly respected by Louis, Bix, Teagarden, Freeman and the Condon gang, but he was also derided by others who failed to understand his obstinate nonconformity. His highly personal sound, replete with growling rasps and wistful mutterings, coupled with his advanced harmonic sense and angular phrasing, combined to form a style unique in jazz history."
It's great to see these great clarinetists get some attention. Let's hope the reevaluation of jazz history continues in this century, giving more weight to the practitioners of this great jazz instrument!
Saturday, April 4, 2020
Bill Smith * Concerto for Clarinet and Combo * Shelly Manne & His Men Vol 6 * Contemporary Records * 1957
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
2. Bach An' All
3. Siren Song
4. Pan's Pipes
5. By Jupiter
1. Baggin' The Dragon
2. Apollo's Axe
3. The Sailor And The Mermaid
5. Pan Dance
On March 20, 1961, Bill Smith went into the studio to record his third album with Dave Brubeck. It was unprecedented in that all three discs featured set lists entirely composed by Smith--not a single Brubeck original or standard among them. Near-Myth can be seen as a culmination of his collaborations with Brubeck. Like The Riddle, Smith utilizes the technique of thematic transformation, reiterating the opening motif from 'The Unihorn' in different settings and guises throughout. Unlike the earlier album, however, this isn't one piece--the thematic usage therefore lends coherence to ten nearly perfect jazz clarinet tunes, united in a song cycle, with a quartet performance for the ages (with Brubeck's piano joined by Gene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums).
|Near-Myth/Brubeck Smith LP|
Eric Seddon Collection
Buddy DeFranco once said somewhere that he considered Artie Shaw's famous 'Stardust' solo to be the greatest jazz solo ever played. I'm not sure he fully believed that; perhaps he just wanted to emphasize the beauty and power of that chorus, and the effect it had on him. I've always been glad he said it though--it gives us all permission to gush a bit. In a similar way, I find it hard to be objective about Bill Smith's opening solo on 'The Unihorn.' To me it seems the greatest modern jazz solo ever taken on a clarinet. Within a couple of choruses, he's unraveled musical ideas filled with such beauty, intelligence, meaning, and so idiomatic to the clarinet that they wouldn't have the same power on any other instrument. His playing is modern with such a strong and original musical identity that it's not beholden to other modern jazz influences--and that is rare for clarinetists.
"To add to the musical unity of the album, the opening 4-note figure is utilized in several of the numbers. There are further interrelationships, such as the use of the Siren Song at the conclusion of the Sailor and the Mermaid, the anticipation of the opening three notes of the Siren Song in the ending of Bach an' All, and the derivation of the three measure dum pattern on Bach an' All from the closing piano, clarinet, and bass of Unihorn."
"Jazz forms are usually stereotyped, like a housing project with houses all alike. We want to change the number of rooms and the size and placement of the windows and doors."
I think on this album Bill Smith opens some new swinging doors.
For me, Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith one of a handful of the finest records ever made by a jazz clarinetist. There are few that even come close.
|Near-Myth back cover|
Eric Seddon collection
[ Footnote: Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith was recorded only four days after Pete Fountain's brilliant Santa Monica concert. What a week in jazz clarinet history that was! ]
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
I learned just yesterday, via the NY Times obituary, that one of the greatest of all clarinetists, William O. Smith (better know to jazz audiences as Bill Smith) passed away last February 29th. He was 93 years old, and lived a life wherein he contributed not only some of the finest jazz of the past century, but expanded our understanding of the clarinet, continuously, for decades. The obituaries will detail his remarkable and unique career - the talented composer who won the Prix de Paris, the Prix de Rome, and who studied with Darius Milhaud and Roger Sessions - the modern jazz master who recorded three albums of his own music with Dave Brubeck at the height of his popularity, but who preferred an academic career to a life of touring and recording. I'm sure there is much more to tell of those facets of his life and work, but his music effected me so deeply, I can't help but share one little story, of how I first heard Smith's music.
I was a teenager in the 1980s, immersed in clarinet playing and specifically jazz, when I happened to meet a monk from Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. My brother and I used to spend time volunteering there--we'd clean the guesthouse before retreats. One of the monks was named Br Roy Parker, and though a soft spoken man, known for the masterful calligraphy he drew, he was in fact a huge fan of jazz, and while working in his shop would often listen to Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and the like. He soon learned of my love of Goodman, Shaw, and others, and we'd talk jazz regularly. One Sunday afternoon when I was there to clean, Br. Roy announced that he was switching over his whole collection of cassette tapes to the newly introduced CD format -- and he gave me first pick of anything in his shop that I wanted. I don't remember all the tapes I took home that day -- but I remember the most important: Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith.
I had never heard of Bill Smith before, but that album opened new vistas for me as a clarinetist. In contrast to other modern jazz clarinetists, he seemed to come at modern jazz from a the point of view of a clarinetist, rather than through the saxophone. To put it another way, while it was clear he had listened to Charlie Parker, and gained language through that listening, it never seemed he was translating Bird to clarinet. To listen to Smith was to hear a musical personality of such depth, any influences were subservient to his own musical thought. For me personally, his art remains the most fascinating and satisfying of modern jazz clarinet.
His solo from 'The Unihorn' on Near-Myth was the first I ever sat down and transcribed by hand. Years later, I purchased the LP version simply to read the liner notes - it now hangs on my studio wall.
|Near-Myth on my Studio Wall|
A few years later, as an undergraduate clarinet major at the Hartt School of Music, I was given an assignment by the late Dr. David Macbride: to find a recording of a clarinetist using 'extended techniques' and play it for his 20th century music theory class. While rifling through the stacks of the Hartt Music Library, I stumbled across my first exposure to William O. Smith: Bill's classical side. Here I found him performing his own Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra, and a cavalcade of extended techniques in his brilliant Variants for clarinet solo. I've published a review of this album here.
I've made several attempts to get in contact with Bill Smith over the years, but unfortunately failed each time. I'd hoped to get copies of his lead sheets and other works that might not be readily available in print and tried in vain to get a hold of his published jazz clarinet method. If any of you readers know how to procure these things, please don't hesitate to contact me -- I'd appreciate it.
Tuesday, March 17, 2020
I'm a huge fan of Gershwin's opera Porgy & Bess -- such a huge fan that I generally don't even like tunes being excerpted by jazz musicians (there are exceptions, like Sidney Bechet's or Pete Fountain's renditions of "Summertime", but I'm really picky). The biggest exception for me is the album that Miles Davis recorded in 1958, featuring his ground breaking trumpet interpretations over Gil Evans's arrangements. The record is like a modern jazz opera in itself, equally satisfying as the original (at least to me). As a wind player, considering what Miles does on his horn, it's also endlessly inspiring.
This musical prayer to the Physician of Souls is a high point for me, though the whole album is worth countless listenings. Stay safe everyone, and God Bless you.
To everyone out there who reads The Jazz Clarinet -- I'm praying for all of you, every day during this COVID-19 pandemic. We're all in this together: stay safe, love each other, and listen to some great music when you can. Heres's some Jelly Roll Morton for medicinal purposes.
Saturday, March 7, 2020
|Detail of the Boosey & Hawkes Case from the Benade Collection|
|Reginald Kell's Boosey & Hawkes Series 2000 Bb Clarinet:|
The Benade Collection
|Reginald Kell's Boosey & Hawkes Series 2000 Bb Clarinet:|
The Benade Collection
|Detail of the Bell from Reginald Kell's Boosey & Hawkes |
Series 2000 Bb Clarinet: The Benade Collection
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
#32 - Paul Desmond with Dave Brubeck - Audrey - 1955
The opening number of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's first album - Brubeck Time - is immediately gripping in its understated beauty, inspired by actress Audrey Hepburn. Extra points for anyone who can catch the Mahler quote in Brubeck's intro.
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
I've always loved the way Peggy Lee got a band to eat out of her hand...how she holds them back till they burst...how they jump when she whispers...no whispering here, but you get the idea.
Friday, February 14, 2020
#30 - Artie Shaw - My Funny Valentine
Hey, it's February 14th, so why not? This version also happens to be one of the great, final recording of Artie Shaw and his Gramercy 5
Thursday, February 13, 2020
#29 - Jelly Roll Morton - The Chant (1926)
This band, people...this band...listen to how organically and easily they hit everything together, and the perfect delineations of the colors of the instruments...it's beautiful...no sacrifice of soul for balance, or balance for soul...incredible...
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
The Pat Metheny Group played a inordinately large role in my life as a listening musician from the time I was in High School onward. In 1996, they released an album called Quartet which still stands as a beautiful anomaly in their output, being largely unplugged. The music is intimate, relaxed, often whimsical, always highly imaginative.
"When We Were Free" is a gem: a beautiful, simple jazz waltz with a melody you somehow feel you've always known. For me, it's also one of the defining moments in Lyle Mays's career; at least it's a gift that I've mulled over since first hearing it. His chorus begins at around the 3:14 mark. His basic idea for the solo seems so simple, but so original. By the 4:25 mark the whole solo comes to fruition beautifully. Mays's whole approach here made me rethink the idea of a solo, and what one could do with patience and careful discernment.
R.I.P. Lyle Mays (1953-2020). Thank you for all the beautiful music. And thank you for what it taught those of us blessed to listen.
Monday, February 10, 2020
An epic performance of 'Hindustan', nearly 12 minutes long, and most of it a duo between Jack Sperling's brilliant drums and Pete Fountain's clarinet. Towards the middle, the whole band joins in for awhile, but then it's back to Pete and Jack. Pete's melodic invention seems endless, as does Jack's rhythmic and tibral brilliance. Only in the very last chorus does Pete really give us anything like the full melody line to the tune. Sheer brilliance.
Sunday, February 9, 2020
Unlikely we'll ever hear anything like this again. Bands don't use the same instruments they made back then, so the fundamental sound of a jazz band is different now, and they don't play five shows per day, six or seven days a week to packed, crazed audiences. The men who played in Goodman's band and others like it back then had the opportunity ( and the pressure) to reach a level of tightness and unity that we can only marvel at now.
Saturday, February 8, 2020
Rip your head off groove! Serious soul!
#24 - Doug Richford with Bob Wallis - 'Alla Turca' - 1960
You have to suffer through the clunked-Mozart piano intro, but that's a small price to pay for admission to one of the fiercest, most intense trad-clarinet solos on record (by Doug Richford). Listen to that growling, that howling, and the snarling brass in the background!
Tuesday, February 4, 2020
Before the bebop crowd made it a test tune of virtuosity in 12 keys, "Cherokee" was the epic theme song for the Charlie Barnet Band. Charlie's soloing isn't flashy, nor was it intended to be, but his proclamation of the melody is unique, effective, and over the wah-wah pattern of the trombones, creates one of the truly great moments in jazz history.
I first heard this as a kid on a cassette tape that fell into my hands somehow. It was stolen, along with my first Sony Walkman on an 8th grade field trip. I wasn't too torn up about losing the Walkman, but wished the kid who took it had at least left behind the tape. It was years before I could find another copy!
Monday, February 3, 2020
Saturday, February 1, 2020
There are several versions of Acker playing "In a Persian Market", all of them worth checking out. This one (from the movie It's Trad, Dad) is among my favorites, if only because we get a closeup of Acker's technique and a chance to see the stump of a finger he managed to play with on his left hand. Other than Pete Fountain, very few Trad clarinetists have had the ability to 'lift' a band the way Acker could, with a type of soaring power. While his technique wasn't as fluid as Fountain's, he had the ability to turn even novelty tunes into uplifting achievements -- a quality all but entirely lacking in modern jazz. There's a sense of fun, humor, and joy here at an unusually high level.
Thursday, January 30, 2020
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
I hate it when a recording is so stiff you can hear how many music stands are in the studio. None of that junk here. Every music stand probably banned within a five mile radius.
Friday, January 24, 2020
Thursday, January 23, 2020
#17 - Eric Dolphy - God Bless the Child (Live) - 1961
Seems an appropriate meditation as the March for Life is kicking off in D.C.
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
#16 - John Coltrane with Duke Ellington - In a Sentimental Mood
How to play a ballad.
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
#15 - Wynton Marsalis Live at the Village Vanguard 1994/94 - In the Sweet Embrace of Life
Haven't heard this before? Got an hour? Check it out...
Monday, January 20, 2020
#14 - George Lewis & Alton Purnell - Take My Hand, Precious Lord
For Martin Luther King Jr Day 2020: his favorite hymn played by one of the most influential New Orleans clarinetists of the last century. Alton Purnell's piano and vocal are the perfect pairing with the warmth and soul of Lewis.
Saturday, January 18, 2020
#13 - Bill Smith with Dave Brubeck - Baggin' the Dragon - 1961
The most underrated jazz album ever? I dunno. Too many fit that category. But 1961's Near Myth/Brubeck-Smith has to be in the running. It's an entire album of Bill Smith compositions with Smith taking the clarinet lead in Brubeck's Quartet. The quartet never sounded better...
Friday, January 17, 2020
Here's an interesting bit of Trad Jazz from the album Bright Moments. It features Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing Fats Waller's "The Jitterbug Waltz" live in 1973. Almost as interesting as the playing, which is very good, is Kirk's introduction to the number and the importance of jazz history.
#12 - Woody Herman with Eddie Condon - Blues 'Round My Head - Live at City Hall in NY - January 27, 1945
These choruses, sung and played on clarinet by Woody Herman, are barely over two minutes worth of music, but enough to show the brilliance of a man better known for his band leadership than his solo playing. A must listen for anyone.