Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mouthpiece Review: Vintage Ebolin Brilhart with Serial Number

One of the most iconic pictures of a jazz clarinetist depicts Artie Shaw, meditatively putting a Brilhart mouthpiece to his lips, with fingers thoughtfully poised over an enhanced Boehm Selmer Balanced Tone clarinet. It's such a cool mood shot that it can make you want to go out and buy a BT, then cap it off with a Brilhart.

Vintage Brilhart with Serial Number

Fortunately, The Jazz Clarinet's instrument and mouthpiece museum contains both items, and I've done exactly that today to find out what the combination might yield.

I'm happy to report that, once you've gone to the trouble of finding an Enhanced BT and a good, vintage Brilhart, you will sound exactly like...[drumroll please]... yourself playing a BT and a Brilhart. In other words, despite any delusional hopes, Artie Shaw's sound will not be making phantom tones your studio. (In a similar way, while you might also buy clothes like his, you probably won't end up looking like him).

With that out of the way, what can I say about this vintage 'piece?

First, it's important to distinguish these from the cheap Brilharts made since the late 1960s by Conn Selmer. The contemporary Brilharts are very cheap, and generally sound that way. While the current design owes a debt to the earlier Brilharts, vintage pieces have characteristics of being a more serious, professional level mouthpieces--in terms of projection and depth of sound especially.

The sound of this one is round and open: very loud and strong. The core is not easy to control, tending to split in several directions unless directed strongly by the embouchure. Artie's embouchure was quite muscular and unusual; perhaps the Brilhart was optimal for his approach. A good refacing job might mitigate these factors, but the base sound of the mouthpiece seems more wild than a Selmer or Vandoren.

Earlier caveats aside, there is a hint of Shavian sound concept--the big roundness, at least. But I'm hesitant to recommend these mouthpieces. I'm one who believes material matters to the sound, and my preferred 'pieces are Selmers made from rod rubber. I've also liked crystal and even wood. By contrast to these, this 'ebolin' feels flimsy to me, and insubstantial in weight of tone.

It's important to remember that Artie knew and worked with Arnold Brilhart (Brilhart even collaborated on Shaw's Clarinet Method). Undoubtedly the mouthpieces Artie used were hand finished to personal specifications. And this, ultimately, is the best strategy for today's clarinetists too: to work with a master mouthpiece maker/refacer personally.

Having equipment like this is interesting for historical reasons, but that's pretty much what it's limited to in my opinion. Still, they are fun, loud, and for someone who prefers a brasher, wilder side, who knows? Maybe a vintage Brilhart is just the right thing.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Jazz Clarinet Question & Answer: School Jazz Band: Clarinets Need Not Apply?

This past weekend a reader of The Jazz Clarinet contacted me about an issue that is rather close to my heart:

Hi Eric,

I stumbled on to your blog "The Jazz Clarinet", so far I'm really enjoying it. Thank you. I have a question for you. My son is 12, he has played clarinet since the 4th grade (he's now in 7th). He is quite good, he has a nice natural feel, or so I think, I am a lifetime guitarist. He isn't able to join jazz band at school until next year, but his teacher suggested he learn sax since they do not have clarinet in the jazz band! He and I are both a bit confused by this. I have exposed him to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and the jazz of the 20's-40's. So, for now I would like to get him started myself on learning jazz clarinet, particularly improvising. Do you have any suggestions on book, ways to teach him jazz?

Thanks for your time.

M. C.

Thanks for reading, M.C.!
Both the question and my ultimate advice on this matter require a decent amount of historical and personal background. It's a question that comes up frequently among jazz clarinetists, and one I've wanted to address for awhile now in more depth.
First, there is a long history of saxophone/clarinet doubling in jazz band history. While the Swing Era (circa 1935-46) has rightly been considered the golden era of jazz clarinet, it's important to realize that only two of the top bandleaders--Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw--were full time, virtuoso clarinetists. Others band leaders associated with the instrument (such as Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman), were almost invariably doublers, and equally invariably sounded better on saxophone than clarinet.
To play clarinet within the saxophone section was a standard double for many bands. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James and most other bands employed reed doublers, often hiring important jazz clarinetists such as Barney Bigard, Jimmy Hamilton, and even Lester Young to do so (Prez was not only one of the greatest tenor players ever, but a fairly interesting clarinet soloist too).
Up through the 1940s, clarinet parts were an important part of jazz band arrangements. This started to change sometime shortly after WWII, though the reasons for it are vague. As early as the 1950s, publications like DownBeat were wondering why the clarinet was losing prominence in the jazz world. As a touchstone for historical trends we might look to arguably the most important Big Band album of the decade, 1958's Atomic Basie, which featured an array of now classic, benchmark arrangements by Neal Hefti--none of which called for a clarinet. To my knowledge, no one ever complained.  
The 1950s also saw an exodus of Big Band alumni, now looking for work and stability, into the ranks of public school teachers. The impact of these musicians on our culture has been profoundly positive. If the Big Band has been preserved, it has been largely through High School educators and their college counterparts since the 1950s. Unfortunately, though, the need for a large number of simple, educational arrangements and methods coincided with a trend away from clarinets in the jazz band. The vast resources of jazz educational literature that have developed since then have tended to neglect instruments that weren't fashionable during the 1950s. That means that if a student plays clarinet or banjo (both of which are musically essential and culturally important to early jazz), he or she is generally asked to switch to saxophone or guitar. 
Ordinarily, this is no big deal. Most 12 year olds who want to play jazz aren't in love with a certain instrument, and just want to be in the band. But there are important exceptions.
Imagine a girl who has a natural coloratura soprano voice, trying out for the school musical, only to be told she has to sing mezzo--because those are the only roles they intend to do. Or imagine a boy who can sing countertenor told he has to be a Heldentenor. In such situations, you'd hope the music director would have the sense to use the talent they have, rather than slotting people into roles that go against their natural abilities.
Instrumental music is not quite so dependent upon natural endowment as these: it is true that a kid can generally hold an alto as well as they can hold a clarinet. Still there are natural traits, and even basic attractions to an instrument, that ought not be ignored. It's relatively rare for a kid to be able to play easily over "the break" early on, or cover the open holes of a clarinet deftly, or reach into the altissimo without instruction. I was like this, and therefore could have been one of those kids put in a bind wanting to play jazz. Which brings me to the personal part of this response.
The question of doubling came at around the same age for me. By 13, I had been casually transcribing jazz for a few years (though I wouldn't have known the word for it--I just copied recordings for fun), I had learned to improvise some basic blues, and was reaching into the altissimo as a regular feature of my improvisations. When the question of whether or not I should switch to saxophone to follow my love of jazz came up (this was in the mid-1980s), I was fortunate to have asked the question in the company of  some old New York veterans of the Big Bands, and a unique trumpet maker named Jerome Callet.
Callet, who has a specialty of teaching altissimo trumpet, put it best when he heard me play at age 13 and said "He has a natural sound on the clarinet: don't ruin that. Let him develop his voice." This concept of personal voice and distinctive sound is unfortunately growing less common, and I fear that if we lose it, as a society we're going to opt even more for a utilitarian approach to music rather than something that enhances basic human dignity. While this might sound very heady, the old jazz musicians I spent time with as a kid felt exactly this way, and often expressed it in similar terms--they saw voice and sound development as spiritually and culturally important. Rather than becoming cogs in a wheel (as classical orchestras have too often turned into), the jazz community was supposed to be a bastion for respecting and encouraging the unique and personal.     
Fortunately, my High School Band director agreed with these assessments--he was one of those enlightened jazz musicians too--and while our school didn't have a jazz band, he comped for me daily during Study Hall, featuring me during Concert Band concerts. He also lobbied at the County Band level, suggesting to those who ran the auditions that I might perform as a "featured soloist" if there were no charts with clarinet. I continued this approach at music camps, and was never turned down.
It has been my experience that jazz band directors are among the more open minded people in this world; usually quite enthusiastic about what they do. Jazz is a medium that prizes originality, risk-taking, creativity, and non-conformism--it's one of the few paths in our education system that actually encourages many of these qualities.  If a kid really wants to play jazz clarinet, or tuba, or flute, unless you're dealing with one of the very worst personalities in the music education business (and if so, I haven't met them yet), chances are they're going to reward that enthusiasm and determination with a chance.
My advice: If you're a kid who is addicted to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw; if you're wailing the blues on the clarinet and feel great doing it; don't feel you need to switch to sax. When all is said and done, there probably will come a time when you play sax (even Benny and Artie did--and so have I), but if you really feel the clarinet is your thing, let your band director know. Tell him or her about the recordings you're into, and how much they mean to you. Suggest that you might read out of a trumpet or tenor sax book, if it's a question of method materials. Show that you're willing to be flexible. Chances are your band director will be impressed and want to encourage such enthusiasm.  
If it doesn't work out, and you have a very rare closed minded teacher to deal with, well, then  you have to look at your options again. Playing sax can be an extremely valuable experience, and even help your clarinet playing, so there is certainly more than one way of looking at this. But for me, a decisive moment happened when I asked this very question: it was a moment when a bunch of enlightened jazz musicians heard me and said my "voice" was important and worth something. A kid doesn't forget that lesson any time soon, believe me.
Best of luck to your son, M.C. Keep swinging, and please let us know how it turns out.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

CD review: The Benny Goodman Sextet * 1939-41 * Featuring Charlie Christian

On October 2, 1939, exactly 74 years ago today, one of the great combos in the history of jazz went into the studio to record for the first time: The Benny Goodman Sextet. In the wake of exits by Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, and at the behest of John Hammond, Benny hired a new star for his rhythm section: guitarist Charlie Christian, whose contributions to the group would revolutionize the history of jazz guitar, beginning with the very first recording, "Flying Home."

Nick Fatool would replace Krupa on most of these cuts. Fletcher Henderson initially took over for Wilson, though he would be replaced rather quickly by Johnny Guarnieri. It's fascinating to note that, less than a year later, both Fatool and Guarnieri would be founding members of Artie Shaw's Gramercy 5--another combo of importance to jazz history.

The Sextet was to become Goodman's chosen small combo vehicle, albeit with varying personnel, for the next two decades. Often the group would expand to a septet, under which circumstances it would be promoted as "Benny Goodman and his Sextet" rather than "The Benny Goodman Sextet." Goodman must have realized that "Sextet Sells" however, as he would even use the term when the group was expanded to eight members!  

In the liner notes to the 1989 CD release of these tracks, Leonard Feather comments on how non-dated the material still sounded in the late '80s, and marveled at how much musical material was presented in such short tracks. "Who today can say in ten minutes what these men could in three?" he marveled. This is indeed a unique group, and for me the greatest of all lineups of the Goodman Sextet. There is a relaxed, expansive, and balanced quality to the group that has rarely been matched. With two other brilliant soloists in Hampton and Christian, there is a triangulation regarding the leadership and timbre. Benny regularly sits back in the head arrangements as "one of the guys", leading sometimes from an easy chair (or so it seems). More than any other Goodman group this really sounds like six guys lounging around and sounding brilliant just for each other.

These recordings also serve as an important lesson regarding Benny's style. For those who think Goodman used an essentially "straight" classical tone, without much pitch bend or jazz inflexion (as I have seen erroneously asserted, both on the internet and elsewhere), these recordings are among the best refutations. Players can listen to "Stardust", (from the first session), "Memories of You", and "These Foolish Things" for a clinic on portamento, tone shading, and jazz inflexion. Just because the pitch bend or gliding between notes isn't obtuse, vulgar, or obvious doesn't mean it's not happening. For me, Goodman set the standard for tasteful, subtle shading. His use of these approaches is so nuanced and complex that it is often missed altogether by ears unaccustomed to listening carefully.

Goodman's playing on these recordings is a study in relaxed perfection. His solos and statements of the melodies tend to be more laid back than the earlier Quartet and Trio recordings. Despite the virtuosi in the group, this Sextet wasn't a virtuoso vehicle, but an exercise in ensemble.

Two cuts ("On the Alamo" and "Gone With What Draft") feature a rare appearance by Count Basie. Other notables among the rotating members are Cootie Williams and Georgie Auld. And despite the triangulation of voices, it is Goodman's (even when whispering) that holds all together conceptually, shaping the direction and mood of each number--not by force, but by depth and musical sympathy.

Five Good Reeds.