Monday, March 5, 2018

Choruses on 'A Smooth One'

The turnout and enthusiasm of the crowds for our series at BLU Jazz + in Akron continue to inspire and impress. Here are a couple of my choruses on the Benny Goodman classic "A Smooth One" from last Saturday night...

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Benny Goodman and George Lewis * Tonight at BLU Jazz +

Tonight my band and I continue our survey of historical jazz clarinet composers "From Bechet to Today" taking on the legacies and contributions of two very different, yet nearly equally influential artists: Benny Goodman and George Lewis.

Now stylistically speaking, despite his vast influence over many players, I don't really solo like Benny. I love his playing and his originals, though, which are really very interesting proto-modern numbers that give a soloist plenty of room to stretch. Here's a chorus of mine on my very favorite Goodman composition, "A Smooth One" from last fall at The Bop Stop in Cleveland. We'll feature this tune again tonight...

The second half of the program will feature originals and spirituals associated with George Lewis, the great New Orleans trad clarinetist whose band set off New Orleans revivals globally in the 1950s and '60s. Included tonight will be his original numbers 'St Philip's Street Breakdown' and 'Burgundy Street Blues'. Here's my band playing the traditional spiritual 'Go Down Moses' on a concert of ours last fall. We'l play this again tonight.


Uniting all of these elements of style and influence, I'll be performing some originals as well (as we do on all of our programs). Tonight we'll lead off with a tune I wrote last year, and which has become quite popular with local audiences: 'Jeremiah Blues'...

We hope to see some of you in Akron tonight at one of DownBeat magazine's top rated jazz clubs in the world: BLU Jazz +. For our international readers, perhaps I can bring my music closer to you someday!

Keep swinging!


Friday, March 2, 2018

On Sound

 As a musician, I find that when people talk about me--whether in private or even on the bandstand addressing an audience--the thing they mention invariably, and almost always first, is my unique sound. When I was a youth, my sound separated me from other kids in a good way--it was the driving force that got me noticed, won auditions, and gave me the chance to play in both jazz bands and symphony orchestras. In college, my professors generally were excited to work with me, but considered my sound controversial, and always tried to make me more conventional, to fit a mainstreamed type of idea. As a professional, I've always developed my tone along the lines I felt it needed to be expressively, even resorting to vintage instruments long out of production to achieve my voice.

This approach, while not exactly mainstream, has paid off, in that these days I think most musicians who know and hear me understand why I've made the decisions I have...and the reaction of people who are moved to tell me how my sound has effected them is deeply gratifying. So I figure my first real post here should be about that thing most associated with me: my sound.

I've always taken sound itself to be the soul of playing. Your distinct sound is your calling card, your identity. But that sound is always in motion, in context. Many players suffer under the concept of an 'ideal' sound, as though an instrument's sound could exist in a vacuum--and this is true whether you are a jazz musician or a classical musician (or any other kind of musician). I've known tenor sax players who wrecked themselves trying to sound like Trane, and classical clarinetists who did the same with whatever great player they admired. Exacerbating this can be a culture of teaching 'proper' sound on an instrument, which while in some circumstances can be justified, is not necessarily the healthiest way to look at things.

The truth is that sound, like a human being, is constantly relational, and also like human beings, no two sound exactly alike--unless we're talking about a very low level of artistry. So instead of searching for an 'ideal' sound, I like to encourage people to become sound collectors--to give the magpie or mockingbird instinct some freedom. Instead of enjoying only a few artists close to your ideal, find the beauty and soul in players you wouldn't ever play like yourself. [post continues below photo...]

detail of Reform Boehm Clarinets c1951 by Fritz Wurlitzer

For a brief time in my career, I was employed as an artist representative and coach for Wurlitzer Clarinets America. My job was to demonstrate and teach the wide variety of tones a clarinetist could achieve on Wurlitzer Reform-Boehms. At the time, there was a dominant myth (in America at least) that German clarinets only yielded one to counteract that I would show off my mockingbird skills by playing like Johnny Dodds, Benny Goodman, Pete Fountain, Sidney Bechet, or Edmond Hall on a Wurlitzer. Of course I'd never sound exactly like those great players, who are each inimitable--but similar enough to demonstrate the range of colors one could get. It was also fantastic training--in those years I developed a palette of sound from gruff and dirty to smooth and clear. That period of my playing career was one of the most thrilling because it was like real field work, collecting and making discoveries every day. Since then, I've tried to encourage others who were frustrated with their sounds to do the same. Instead of always refining, refining, refining towards some 'ideal' concept that never arrives, but tightens a noose around your playing, open up--experiment with anything and everything. Become a collector of odd sounds, and a virtuoso mockingbird. All of those will eventually feed your own art, when you decide to direct those things towards a singular expression.

Beyond that, always remember the search for a personal, expressive, artistically satisfying sound is a lifetime's journey, and is actually related to how we view other people, how we interact, whether we become dismissive and prideful about what we do, or whether we're looking to share something beyond the notes or our technical proficiency. The ultimate goal: to let our souls sing. Bless you on your journey.


Friday, February 23, 2018

Jazz Clarinet Q & A: Clarinet Angle

From reader Mike Kaiser:

I notice guys like Shaw or Goodman or even yourself seem to hold the clarinet facing outward, almost like you're playing a recorder, yet all the beginner clarinet method (that I'm currently following) want a player to point more towards the knee or lap.  It's not a matter of tilting your head back, or you'd all be looking at the is it a different embouchure or mouthpieces with different beak angles?   Just curious.


Thanks for the question, Mike!

The 'proper' angle at which to hold a clarinet is a much debated topic. I'm tempted to give you the short answer that Goodman, Shaw, and I are correct and everyone else is wrong. I'd be joking, of course, but unfortunately that's about the level of discussion many teachers or methods will give you, in a nutshell, though such dogma was more common a generation or two ago than it is today.

The fact is that a player's musical goals, equipment, dental structure, and other concerns all factor into the right angle to hold the clarinet. For instance, the angle Benny used changed throughout his career, especially after his years of study with Reginald Kell, when he took on a double lip embouchure and began focusing more intently upon classical performance. 

Artie Shaw's embouchure was unorthodox, with a scowling muscular formation. Whether this was a legacy of his saxophone embouchure, I don't know (among the great clarinetists of the 20th century, he was one of the few who mastered saxophone before switching to clarinet, rather than the other way around). Because of this, he had a pretty unique sound concept, in many ways flipping emphasis from the chalumeau to the altissimo register. 

My embouchure, compared to either of theirs, is a rather natural, simple, relaxed one. The muscles have developed well over the years, but there is far less strain to mine than Shaw's, and while I played double lip for a time (just to see what it would do for me), pretty quickly reverted to a more comfortable sing lip. 

Beyond the discussion of embouchure, both Shaw and Goodman changed their equipment throughout their careers. In the 1930s and '40s both of them played on large, relatively straight bored Selmers. Shaw was also known to record and play on large bore Conns, but though he endorsed them, later admitted he preferred the Selmers for actual performance. His last recordings were made using a Buffet--but I'm not sure if it was an R13 (the revolutionary polycyclindrical model that changed clarinet culture) or a pre-R13.   

Benny played Selmers on most of the famous recordings before 1950, but switched to Boosey & Hawkes for a time and then permanently to the Buffet R13.

I mention this because the angle he needed to play might have been decisively effected by the equipment change. In my own experience (and that of other pros I've talked to), large straight bores are better played while held out farther from the body--one tends to blow straight down the instrument more. If you look at pictures of clarinetists playing large bore German instruments even to this day, you might note they tend to hold the instrument out farther, but the same principle holds for vintage French made instruments (such as the Selmer Centered Tones I play). Contemporary instruments (whether they are Buffet, Selmer, Yamaha) tend to follow the basic reverse conical or polycylindrical bore that took over the market in the '50 and '60s, and tend for reasons of intonation to demand a different blowing angle.     

Mouthpieces also effect things, but generally not beak shape (unless you're using something like this Morgan from the '80s.) 

Most importantly, the player's dental structure and body play a decisive role. Clarinetists with overbites tend to hold the clarinet in more tightly--but students should be careful not to think that because some great player or teacher does so, they ought to as well. Your own dental structure will impact the angle more than any pedagogy. 

Trail and error, experimentation with different angles and equipment: these are the best ways to find out what will work for you. Comfort, flexibility, ease of projection, ability to properly balance the instrument, and ability to properly articulate: these are the ways to determine whether an angle is correct.  

Thanks again for the question, Mike, and KEEP SWINGING!


Friday, January 12, 2018

PSA Regarding Gear Reviews

Hey everyone!

One of the great things about this blog: it puts me in touch with many clarinetists around the globe. I get emails from all sorts--professionals, amateurs, beginners, advanced players. I like being in touch with all of you. Having said that, here are some things you ought to know:

1. My gear reviews are not endorsements. I currently have no endorsement deal with any clarinet maker, shop, company, or person. Other than my reeds, I do not play on any contemporary equipment: all of my clarinets are vintage, and none of the models I play are currently in production.

2. I cannot and will not advise anyone regarding internet purchases. Please do not email me to ask whether you should buy a certain instrument on eBay or otherwise. There is no way I can speculate as to whether or not an instrument plays well from an advertisement, and never having heard you play. Once again, I do not officially endorse any make of clarinet, or any brand.

3. I have never given permission for my reviews or writing on this blog to be used in advertising of any kind, and have never been asked permission (despite the many times I've seen my reviews quoted on eBay and elsewhere). Caveat emptor to anyone who buys an instrument!

I'm glad so many readers like my gear reviews, and have found them helpful. My purpose in writing them has been simply to give the perspective of a professional jazz clarinetist who (in general) prefers the sound world of clarinetists prior to the 1950s. Beyond that, the best advice I can give is this: Play what works for you!

Keep swinging!


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

'Goodbye Bowler Hat' (for Acker)

Here's a song I wrote as a tribute to Acker Bilk. A fan caught this performance on her iPhone one night at the Bop Stop in Cleveland, and graciously shared it with us...

Photo: Bill Laufer/Laufer Film

Jazz Clarinet Poll

What's your favorite Pete Fountain Mardi Gras Medal?
A) Blue Jacket & Bow Tie
B) Red Jacket & Pirate Hat
C) Blue Jacket with Purple Sleeves & No Hat
D) Robin Hood Green with Cape
E) Hirschfeld Caricature

(vote in the comments)