They Can’t Take That Away From Me

This seems an appropriate piece of music for these days. It’s an unusual but deeply moving performance by the  legendary Lester Young who  was best known as a tenor saxophonist, but decided to play clarinet on two numbers that wound up on an album called Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’. I have the original vinyl LP, which was issued on the Verve label, but it’s still waiting for me to transfer it to digital. The other members of the band are Roy Eldridge and Harry Edison (trumpets), Herb Ellis (guitar), Hank Jones (piano), George Duvivier (bass) and Mickey Sheen (drums).There were lots of problems making the record, apparently, but it did produce some fine music including this devastatingly tragic version of the standard They Can’t Take That Away From Me which is among the very best recordings he ever made.

At the time of this recording, in February 1958, Lester Young was terminally ill with cancer – he died just a year later at the age of 49.  Despite being barely able to stand, struggling with his breath control, and playing almost in slow motion, he manages to cast his fading light over this tune in a way that’s heartbreaking as well as beautiful.

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12 Responses to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Lester Young… was best known as a tenor saxophonist, but decided to play clarinet on two numbers that wound up on an album called Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’.

    How hard a transition is that, please, Peter?

    • Lester Young played clarinet earlier in his career when he was with the Count Basie band, but his clarinet was stolen in 1939 and he stopped playing the instrument until he was given one by Norman Granz in 1957. Presumably it was that one he played on this session.

      The tenor saxophone is a much bigger instrument and requires more bodily strength to play, so his ill-health may have been a factor in switching at this date.

      In the swing era it was not unusual for saxophonists to double on clarinet. In more modern times it’s more usual for musicians to switch from tenor to soprano saxophone if you want a higher pitch and different tone (e.g. John Coltrane). One advantage of that is that the fingering is the same, which is not the case with sax and clarinet.

      A perhaps bigger problem is the fact that the mouthpiece and reed is much smaller on a clarinet, which means you have to change your embouchure quite a lot. I’ve noticed, in fact, that many saxophonists seem to play clarinet almost out of the side of their mouth, presumably because they find it difficult to adjust their chops.

      I’d say it’s probably quite easy to be competent on both instruments but much much harder to be truly fluent on both. An exception is Roland Kirk who could play dozens of instruments with equal facility.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Interesting – thank you!

      • Because it overblows a twelfth, the clarinet in essence has two fingerings for each note – one for the low register and one for the high. Saxophone fingering is the same is the upper register fingering for clarinet. In practice, that means that a clarinet player can switch to basic saxophone playing in a matter of hours (with the exception of the very high and low parts of the instrument), but those who have learned on saxophone find it MUCH harder to add clarinet. That’s why in general if someone wants to learn the saxophone, it is probably better to start on clarinet. Of course, playing WELL is a different matter.

      • Well put. It’s certainly very easy to switch from clarinet to soprano saxophone for that reason.

        In the section of a big band you’re only likely to be playing backing riffs etc on your second instrument.

      • telescoper Says:

        Also, since I mentioned the soprano saxophone, I have never figured out why that instrument is so much harder to keep at the right pitch than the tenor…

      • “An exception is Roland Kirk who could play dozens of instruments with equal facility.”

        Not only that, but he could play more than one at once, and often did.

      • “That’s why in general if someone wants to learn the saxophone, it is probably better to start on clarinet.”

        As a cosmologist, I wonder about the Big Questions, such as whether John Peacock has ever blown a sax.

      • telescoper Says:

        Perhaps he will answer. He’s fine clarinettist, so I’m sure he would have no problem.

      • telescoper Says:

        I received an email from John Peacock during which, among other things, he answered this question. I quote:

        Anyway, having played the clarinet for many years, I bought a sax as an experiment for my 50th birthday. So many things are different that it’s hard to know where to start.

        * Sax being conical, its upper register is an octave higher, rather than an octave and a 5th for the clarinet. So you only need learn one mapping from note names to finger positions. This is pretty similar to the clarinet in the 2nd register, so clarinet to sax isn’t a hard transition finger-wise. But vice versa would be.

        * Both clarinet and sax mechanisms were invented about 1840, but in comparison the sax is a dog: it uses far more keywork to achieve the same effect. As a piece of engineering, the clarinet is much more economical and satisfyingly elegant. At the top of its range, the sax has a pile of “palm keys”, which look like ad hoc additions designed to get extra notes – and they are. They don’t work together – it’s like a computer with a pile of post-its down the side.

        * The biggest difference as a player is the embouchure: the sax requires you to be much slacker than the relatively tight lip muscle demanded by the clarinet. This particularly shown in the lowest notes, where the clarinet can whisper easily, but the sax bottom notes are really hard to get to speak as a clarinettist – they keep jumping up the octave until you slacken the embouchure until you’re barely touching the thing.

        So overall I didn’t enjoy the sax as much as I hoped. But probably if I’d persisted I would have got round these problems and learned to love it. It’s certainly louder, and sometimes I feel I could use that volume.

      • “A perhaps bigger problem is the fact that the mouthpiece and reed is much smaller on a clarinet, which means you have to change your embouchure quite a lot. I’ve noticed, in fact, that many saxophonists seem to play clarinet almost out of the side of their mouth, presumably because they find it difficult to adjust their chops.”

        I’m sure that they have their own special ailment. 🙂

  2. […] long ago I shared a track on which Lester Young played clarinet as opposed to his usual tenor saxophone. I got to thinking […]

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