Saturday, April 4, 2020

Bill Smith * Concerto for Clarinet and Combo * Shelly Manne & His Men Vol 6 * Contemporary Records * 1957

The amount of great music for clarinet by the late Bill Smith seems pretty immense, if hidden all over the internet. I just stumbled across this Concerto for Clarinet & Combo this morning. It features some really exciting and beautiful music, well worth listening to and performing.


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Bill Smith * Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith * Fantasy Records * OJC-236 (F-3319) * March 20, 1961

Side A

1. The Unihorn
2. Bach An' All
3. Siren Song
4. Pan's Pipes
5. By Jupiter

Side B

1. Baggin' The Dragon
2. Apollo's Axe
3. The Sailor And The Mermaid
4. Nep-Tune
5. Pan Dance

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

I've been avoiding a review of this masterpiece for years. In the early days of this blog, a hastily written summary of mine appeared, taken down almost immediately, as the quick write up really didn't do the album justice. In light of the passing of Bill Smith this past February 29th, however, it's time I made some attempt to describe what is one of the great treasures of jazz clarinet history.  

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.

By the end of the solo, Smith has casually and lyrically carried the line to the 'top' of the natural range of the clarinet (the same double high C that Artie Shaw ended his Concerto on so dramatically). Smith smashes this ceiling, however, on the very last note of 'Pan's Pipes', where he uses a mute to achieve an E four notes above it. This is one of the most breathtaking moments on the album--he hits the note softly and clearly, and sings it like the harmonic on a violin.  

Smith generally takes a joking and whimsical tone with his half of the album's liner notes, but he also points out some important aspects of the music, mentioning the use of multiphonics in 'Siren Song', piano harmonics employed in 'Apollo's Axe', and timpani sticks used on the strings of the piano for 'Baggin' the Dragon' (the miniature masterpiece that opens the original  B side of the album). He continues:

"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." 

Each tune tells a story, each is filled with meaningful playing from the members of the quartet. I personally think this album features some of Brubeck's most inspired playing. Bill Smith was more of a musical alpha-dog than Paul Desmond, so the dynamic was different in the quartet. Where Desmond might be called the perfectly cool compliment to Brubeck's fire, Smith tends to actively lead, drive, and push the music, which creates exciting results. Dave's solo's on 'The Unihorn' and 'Baggin' the Dragon' stand out as some of his finest on record, and Joe Morello responds intensely at times to Smith's lead. 

Dave Brubeck's liner notes emphasize the pure acoustic aspect of the recording. "Nothing in the album was electronically "gimmicked" for special effect. What was performed in the studio was produced by extending the natural capacities of the instruments." 

He concludes with a quote from Smith...
"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."
...and an assessment:

I think on this album Bill Smith opens some new swinging doors.  

I wish there were ten more albums like this, but must be satisfied that Near-Myth exists at all. I've always thought the cartoon cover art by Arnold Roth was a weakness, as there is nothing cartoonish or goofy about the music...but after all these years, I've made peace with the concept. Smith's own titles and descriptions are offhand, tongue-in-cheek, evasive at times. The album cover simply allows it to fly under the radar, perhaps so it won't be recognized as consciously great art. But great art it is, and deserving of much wider recognition and study in jazz history.

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! ]