Sidney Bechet/Muggsy Spanier Big Four: That's A Plenty

The pairing of Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier was the brainchild of Steve Smith, the president of the Hot Record Society. HRS was a conglomeration of record store, record label and publisher, and the original 124 sides they recorded are now treasured collector's items. By the time their co-led band recorded in 1940, Bechet had, like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, returned to the States after an extended stay in Europe. Spanier, meanwhile, had recorded a series of 16 sides with his "Ragtime Band", which despite the name, was quite progressive in its mix of Dixie and swing styles. In a way, the Bechet/Spanier group was a refinement of the Ragtime Band. By leaving out the piano and drums, which seemed to be the clunkiest parts of the Ragtime Band's rhythm section, the group had a streamlined rhythm team of guitar and bass, superbly manned by Carmen Mastren and Wellman Braud. While bassist Braud was from New Orleans, he was well-trained in swing during his tenure with Duke Ellington. Mastren was a superb guitarist who had worked with Spanier before as well as with Tommy Dorsey. The Big Four (as the Bechet/Spanier group was billed) recorded 8 sides in two sessions, and only "China Boy" and "That's A Plenty" could really be considered Dixie standards. On "That's A-Plenty", we hear a fascinating mix of current and old styles with Bechet and Spanier playing traditional Dixie horn roles over the smooth swing style of the rhythm section. Bechet starts off the side on clarinet and takes the first solo with Spanier offering simple counterpoint. Bechet is clearly inspired by the burning tempo and I suspect he would have played longer if not cut off by Spanier and restricted by the length of the recording (and this is on a 4-minute 12-inch 78!). After the interlude, Spanier quickly pops a mute on his horn and blows a fierce chorus. While we're wondering how Spanier managed to set that mute so quickly, Bechet does a quick change of his own and suddenly he's playing soprano sax in the background! Braud walks one before Bechet takes over. While his trademark vibrato is the same on both horns, his rhythmic feel is quite different with a choppy arpeggiated style on clarinet, and a broader, long-lined approach on soprano. As the side comes to a close, Spanier becomes more aggressive and the solo turns into a duet with both hornmen playing contrasting but driving lines.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: That's A Plenty

Benny Goodman was 19 years old when he recorded his dazzling solo version of "That's A Plenty". He was far from a newcomer to the recording studio, with a dozen-and-a-half documented trips since the winter of 1926. This recording was one of two clarinet solos recorded in June 1928, and while Goodman made several recordings in the interim, it would be over a year before he recorded under his own name again. Goodman's purposely-shrill high register and the busy rhythm of Mel Stitzel and Bob Conselman bring to mind the "hoochie-coochie" craze of the time. The rhythm seems to impede Goodman's swing and one gets the feeling that Goodman is just dying to burst out of this arrangement and just swing. Even at his young age, Goodman's astounding clarinet technique is evident as he solos effortlessly in every section of his instrument. The edges were still a little rough, but in 1928, Benny Goodman was already a force to be reckoned with.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman Sextet (with Charlie Christian): The Sheik Of Araby

This performance by the Benny Goodman Sextet was originally issued as “The Sheik”, as the original melody of “The Sheik Of Araby” is barely referenced by anyone in the group, but the chord sequence is clearly that of the old standard. Nick Fatool starts the proceedings with a tom-tom introduction, there is an original line played by clarinet, guitar and vibes, and then Goodman and Hampton engage in a fascinating duet where each plays the key notes of the original song, but never enough to be an actual reading of the tune. Hampton takes the next solo, and it starts with a phrase out of the key. However, he uses the old trick of repeating the phrase, as if to say “I meant to do that”. He keeps toying with notes outside of the key, but he never completely convinces us that he means it. There’s no doubt about Charlie Christian’s harmonic sense, though, and his brilliant, self-assured solo makes everything before sound hopelessly old-fashioned. Johnny Guarnieri provides a sparkling solo that reflects Count Basie and Basie’s root style of stride. The performance ends of a chorus of 4-bar exchanges between the four soloists, with each player listening intently and commenting on the phrases played by the preceding soloist.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Pete Fountain: Muskrat Ramble

What sort of people were spending their evenings out, back in the middle of the turbulent '60s, listening to Pete Fountain's dixieland band? Judging by this recording, they were a happy-go-lucky sort you wouldn't mind having for a next door neighbor. The Stones might be looking for "Satisfaction" back in '65, but these fans were just looking for a good time. And that war off in Southeast Asia? Who in French Quarter Inn crowd would have predicted that, just a few months later, Country Joe McDonald would borrow this same Kid Ory tune for his famous antiwar chant, which became so associated with the protest movement that some people simply called it the "Vietnam Song." No protests can be heard on this track, as Fountain tosses off his slick, likable clarinet phrases and engages in some quaint old school counterpoint. Call it an anachronism. Call it out-of-date. But you could draft a busload of Berklee students, and not find one who could pull this tune off with quite as much panache as Fountain and company. And, for the record, Fountain has one of the great clarinet sounds of the modern era.

August 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Lester Young: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

Although Lester Young will forever be associated with Kansas City jazz, he came from a Louisiana family and spent much of his childhood in New Orleans, a city he celebrates in this classic track from 1938. It is fascinating to speculate on how much hot music Young might have heard in the Crescent City, back in those days before the first jazz recordings. Some commentators have suggested that Young was inspired by Keppard, Oliver, Armstrong and a host of other jazz pioneers at this time. Yet, based on what we know of Prez's childhood and personality, it is hard to imagine him hanging out at Funky Butt Hall soaking up the sounds of early jazz. The future tenor star was put to work by his family at age five, and took on a host of menial jobs—polishing shoes, selling newspapers and distributing flyers—when he wasn't trying to run away from home (which he did "ten or twelve times" whenever his dad "would raise a belt to him," according to his brother Lee). By the early 1920s, Young had moved on as a member of the family band, but years later he would revisit his New Orleans roots as a sideman in King Oliver's ensemble of the early 1930s.

Can we detect the lingering influence of New Orleans style in Young's later sound? The clarinet, not the tenor saxophone, was the king of the reed instruments in early jazz, and here Young plays both—and in a manner which emphasizes the similarities rather than the differences between the two horns. I love Prez's clarinet work, which reminds us of his New Orleans origins, and wish more of it were available on record, but this is one of his finest tenor solos. Young's early role model, the taken-for-granted sax pioneer Frankie Trumbauer, recorded this same song a decade before Young, and it is interesting to compare their two versions. Young's less syncopated, more fluid phrasing points toward the future of jazz improvisation—but it is to his credit that this low-key revolutionary could do so on a track that also reminds us of the music's (and his own) earliest days.

August 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Kansas City Six: Way Down Yonder In New Orleans

Eddie Durham’s arrangement for this 1922 standard is such a perfect one for the swing era that it should be in every jazz education curriculum in the world. But the fairly simple arrangement is also a deceptive one: trumpet and clarinet play the head together over acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, but then tenor saxophone and electric guitar erupt in the solos. Doesn’t that make seven, not six? The answer, of course, is that Lester Young plays both sax and clarinet on the record, and it’s no surprise to hear that his clarinet is as distinctive as the tenor—breathy, soft, high, and endlessly lyrical. Interestingly, while Young’s originality continues to flourish in his tenor solo (who knew relaxed rhythms and slightly displaced harmonies could sound so daring?), Clayton’s relentless melodic imagination gives him quite a run for his money. Durham, here playing one of the first electric guitar solos on record, is no slouch on the harmonies, either. Nonetheless, there’s something special about hearing that one of the great instrumental masters had actually mastered two instruments.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments


George Lewis: La Marseillaise

People often talk about the "Spanish tinge" in New Orleans music, but what about the "French tinge"? After all this city—named for Philippe II, Duke of Orléans—was founded by the French and remained under their control far longer than than it was a Spanish territory. George Lewis (1900-1968) rectifies matters with his rendition of "La Marseillaise," a sweet and swinging trio performance from the New Orleans revival of the mid-1940s.

Lewis was a forgotten figure, a dock worker whose musical talents were virtually unknown outside of his home town. But the attention given to his friend Bunk Johnson, the darling of the revival movement, got Lewis a sideman gig and then his own record date. Lewis was unhappy with the results of a session with a larger band, and volunteered to record again—without pay—with this clarinet-banjo-bass trio. The resulting session is one of my most cherished moments from the New Orleans revival, and provides a rare chance to hear traditional clarinet without trumpet and trombone filling up the mix.

Lawrence Marrero and Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau (one of my favorite jazz names, that) are a delight to hear. Lewis, for his part, stays close to the melody here, ornamenting it and adding occasional fills. Eric Dolphy it's not, and no circular breathing is required. But this some of the most joyous music in the pantheon of jazz, rarely heard these days by fans who have little patience with New Orleans oldsters. Their loss. This is one more classic track that proves that, in this city, the least well-known names sometimes delivered the best music.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Johnny Dodds (with the New Orleans Wanderers): Perdido Street Blues

In the hierarchy of New Orleans jazz, the trumpet / cornet players are at the very top of the heap. They were often given nicknames like King (Joe Oliver, Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard) or Pops (Armstrong) or Papa (Mutt Carey) to emphasize their role as pater familias. In contrast, the most famous New Orleans drummer was known as "Baby" and the leading trombonist was called "Kid." And the clarinetist in the band? He certainly wasn't called King - or even Earl or Squire. Every traditional jazz band worth its sassafras needed one, but they usually got no nickname at all. Little wonder so many switched to sax when they got the chance.

Which brings us to the subject of Johnny Dodds. Here the great New Orleans clarinetist, best remembered as a sideman with Armstrong and Oliver, gets to step to the forefront at a recording session and makes the most of the opportunity. He contributes two majestic choruses that rank among the finest examples of traditional jazz clarinet playing you will ever hear - and shows that he doesn't need a famous brass player in tow to validate his artistry. George Mitchell plays better on his Jelly Roll Morton sides, and Ory's solo is sleep-inducing. But Dodds alone is enough to enshrine this track in the pantheon of New Orleans classics. The ensemble playing in the final seconds is picture perfect, and Dodds shines in the coda. Okay, you can hold off on the crown, but playing like this certainly deserves at least an earldom or principality.

August 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Harry Skoler: Piazzolla

Part of a sensitive, often poignant collection of ensemble and duo work featuring the all-too-often-ignored clarinet, this number could be the soundtrack for broken dreams. Without resorting to athletic displays of musical calisthenics, Harry Skoler uses his rich timbre to great effect, summoning bittersweet memories of intimate encounters from long ago. “Piazzolla” is more about the veneration than the virtuosity, as the individuals lose themselves in an evocative group improvisation.

Following Ed Saindon’s somber piano intro, the ensemble falls into a dusky tango with an intense broodiness suggesting the suppressed passion of tangoists in a clandestine embrace. Frequently the soloists seem to be carrying on a dialogue, but they never trip over each other’s phrasing, demonstrating a disciplined freedom and mutual respect.

Both the composition and the polished musicianship on this piece do sufficient justice to the legacy of Astor Piazzolla, Argentine’s innovative bandoneon player and composer. Hold your partner close for this dance.

July 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Artie Shaw: The Chaser

Shaw was a conflicted, restless perfectionist who did not equate fame and fortune with artistic achievement, but often sought public approval even if it meant compromises he'd rather not make. It's likely that Shaw felt that his brilliant last series of recordings in 1954 were as close as he'd ever come to perfection, and therefore chose to stop playing for good the following year. The tracks were recorded in New York with the newest incarnation of his Gramercy Five--actually a sextet. They were cut in the early morning hours after the band's regular gig at The Embers, and have a cohesive, polished chamber group sound while at the same time swinging with a fresh, uncluttered creativity.

"The Chaser" is an inspiring vehicle for some inventive soloing and group interaction. Shaw's insistently swirling phrases launch the piece, which quickly lead to the "I Got Rhythm" changes of the swing-era style, lighthearted theme. Jones' solo is emblematic of the tart and tidy efforts he continues to produce some 55 years later. Farlow's dense, boppish improv is repeatedly jump-started by jabbing background riffs from the band. Shaw follows with his uniquely piercing tone and seemingly effortless execution of intricate extended passages. Group riffs also support Roland's attractively rhythmic, effervescent solo, and also Potter's compelling, well-recorded statement. Shaw and the exuberant Kruger then engage one another in a discourse blessed with laudable continuity and agile responsiveness. Potter, Shaw, and Roland all get second go-rounds before the theme's spirited reappearance.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Daniels: Soul Eyes

Daniels' series of albums for GRP in the '80's and '90's, beginning with the aptly titled Breakthrough, made his reputation as one of the truly great jazz clarinetists of all time. While the content of these releases ran the gamut from bop to fusion, classical to swing, and pop to new age, there was almost always enough substance in Daniels' virtuoso playing alone for even the most discerning and unwavering jazz fan to enjoy.

Daniels' Nepenthe CD has a somewhat "contemporary jazz" gloss to much of it, but the clarinetist still delivers a memorable version of Mal Waldron's classic "Soul Eyes," one of those timeless ballads that—like "How Deep is the Ocean," "'Round Midnight," or "Angel Eyes"—jazz musicians never tire of interpreting, and audiences always love to hear. After a shimmering strum from Loeb's guitar, Daniels renders the theme primarily in the chalumeau register, playing with great tenderness and sensitivity, as well as with remarkable technique. Daniels further embellishes the theme as the tempo picks up, while also dramatically entering the upper register for the first time with breathtaking aplomb. His solo employs riffs, repeating circular phrases, bluesy inflections, and enlivening interval leaps, as he also maneuvers his tone from pure warmth to keening outcry. Daniels' replay of the theme is a slow motion gem, complete with an endearingly fluttering bird-like coda. This is simply a perfect track.

June 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Art Tatum: Deep Night

The final two Tatum Group Masterpieces sessions occurred in 1956, the year of Tatum's death, and were polar opposites. Ben Webster chose to play sparsely and with unadorned lyricism, his effectiveness centered around his unbeatably warm and beautiful tenor sound. On the other hand, Buddy DeFranco (despite nursing a bad cold) challenged Tatum at his own game--intricate thematic and harmonic embellishments and variations--a gutsy decision by one of the most virtuosic of all jazz clarinetists. Although no one could ever quite match Tatum, and the pianist rarely gave an inch, DeFranco in his bop-influenced style succeeds more than anyone might have imagined.

The sinuous melody and rich harmonies of "Deep Night" made it an apt choice for exploration by Tatum and DeFranco. Tatum's glittering intro is followed by DeFranco's ardent treatment of the theme, crisply supported by Red Callender and Bill Douglas. Tatum's comping is typically dominated by a steady flow of arpeggios rather than more selective chords, but manages to remain unobtrusive. The pianist's solo features blistering, mercurial runs and dexterous bass figures. DeFranco seems to pattern his own solo after Tatum's, and his daring, technically polished lines are absorbing enough so as not to be overwhelmed by the simultaneous improvisation that Tatum appears to be spinning. The most thrilling moments come when DeFranco boldly chases Tatum's phrases and the two weave a magic spell of arpeggiated flurries. What may sound simply ornate to some listeners should instead be rightfully acknowledged and admired as intrinsic to the approaches of these two masters.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Henry Brant: Jazz Clarinet Concerto

Henry Brant (1913 - 2008) is one of the mavericks of American music. A Canadian by birth, he moved to the United States with his family in 1929. He had a highly successful career as a composer and orchestrator for radio, recording and motion pictures (he was Alex North's orchestrator for such scores as Cleopatra and Cheyenne Autumn). In the 1950's, he began composing spatial works exclusively, with various instrumental groups spread out all over the stage and even the seats of a performance space. His works include Orbits for 80 trombones, and Meteor Farm for orchestra, jazz band, two choruses, West African drum ensemble and chorus, South Indian soloists, gamelan ensemble, percussion orchestra and two sopranos. His Ice Field won the Pulitzer Prize. He was a member of the Academy of Arts & Letters and taught at Juilliard, Columbia University and Bennington College.

In 1946, Brant wrote Jazz Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman. He had previously arranged two Alec Templeton pieces for the Goodman band - "Bach Goes to Town" and "Mozart Matriculates." Goodman rejected the Concerto claiming it was too abstract. While it could be argued that he'd commissioned pieces from Bartok and Hindemith and both of those pieces could be considered abstract as well, Goodman didn't play those pieces once he's premiered them. Both Eddie Sauter and Mel Powell wrote the kind of virtuoso clarinet pieces he liked to play, and perhaps he expected the same thing from Brant. What Brant did write was a piece that sounded a lot like what Goodman was playing on the job in 1946, but goes its own way. It does not sound like a classical piece that swings, it sounds like three ambitious swing pieces which would have been fun to hear if Benny had given this work a chance. Above all, the work is a piece audiences would want to hear again. It approaches the jazz band on its own terms, and as a result, I believe it to be far more successful than Ebony Concerto and even "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs."

This performance was apparently recorded on a cassette tape machine, and is in mono. While the sound quality is adequate and the performance very good, at least the piece can be heard and perhaps adopted by a clarinetist looking for something a bit different but audience-friendly.

March 31, 2009 · 0 comments


Barney Bigard & Art Hodes: Hesitating Blues

From the first striking, keening high note, this tune is a festival of virtuoso clarinet playing by the mature master Barney Bigard late in his illustrious career. Mixing it up with Chicagoan Art Hodes, with his superb feel for piano blues, and with top-notch rhythm support from drummer Barrett Deems and bassist Rail Wilson, they produce utterly marvelous, soulful music, refreshing this old W.C. Handy classic. Bigard and Hodes are beautifully attuned, working off each other to perfection. The catchy, marvelously engaging main melodic theme is played with excellent soulful feel and dynamics by Hodes. You will have that tune reverberating in your head long after listening—with your body unable to resist rhythmically moving along with it. And Bigard gives us all those swoops, flutters and trills, creative lines, and oh-so-rich clarinet tones that were unmatched in jazz history. His virtuoso clarinet lines and tonal effects are present in sublime manner right to the exquisite ending.

March 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Barney Bigard & Art Hodes: Bucket's Got A Hole In It

This is the first track on the excellent album from Delmark (Bob Koester's significant independent Chicago record company for over 50 years) featuring clarinet great Barney Bigard and the fine Chicago-based jazz pianist Art Hodes, who had a special feel for the blues.

"Bucket's Got A Whole In It" is a traditional tune that was widely heard in New Orleans in jazz's early years. The song gets a zesty, beautifully played revival in the hands of Bigard and Hodes, with trombone legend George Brunies and Nap Trottier on trumpet making superb lead-line additions. Hodes opens things on piano with wonderful verve and dynamics, leading to the full band playing the finest updated-and- refreshed classic ol' New Orleans-style ensemble jazz, each instrument contributing to the marvelous mosaic. Bigard sings the pure fun/let's party lyrics like one who knows where this song originally came from and feels it. And after the first singing run, Bigard treats us to a beaut of a clarinet solo with flair, using all his unparalleled rich tone, inventive lines, and stylistic techniques. Following more lyrics, Trottier blows some gorgeous, ringing trumpet lines in perfect complement to the character of the tune, with Brunies adding some fine tailgate trombone work. Then the full band turns it up a notch further, romping through the rest of the tune with great momentum.

Listening to this track, preferably with the volume turned up, I don't see how anyone could resist walkin' along with a big smile and snapping their fingers in time. This is hugely enjoyable pure jazz.

March 09, 2009 · 0 comments


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