Archive for clarinet

Sidney Bechet’s Blue Horizon

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on July 25, 2018 by telescoper

Having moved some of my CD & record collection to Ireland, I was listening to some music last night including this track that I blogged about many moons ago. Looking at that old post this morning, I noticed that the Youtube link was defunct so decided to update it. More importantly, I realized that I’d made a few mistakes which I thought I should correct, as well as some other edits.

This slow blues features an extended clarinet solo by the great Sidney Bechet. I’ve loved Blue Horizon ever since I was a kid, and think it has a good claim to be the finest instrumental blues ever recorded.  I also heard it more recently at the funeral of one of my Dad’s old jazz friends. Listening to in that context, it struck me that it’s not just one of the greatest blues performances, but must also be one of the greatest laments that has ever been produced in music of any kind. It’s absolutely pure sadness – there’s no bitterness, anger or resentment about it – and it develops through the stately choruses into a sense of great pride and even, ultimately, of triumph.

Many years I blogged about the thrill of high-speed jazz. This performance is at the other end of the scale in terms of tempo, but you can still feel pull of the harmonic progression underlying the tune which in this case is basically the standard 12-bar blues, but with a few substitute chords thrown in.  The last set of four bars in the 12-bar blues ends with the familiar  V-IV-I cadential pattern (often known as the blues cadence) leading back to the root at the end of each chorus. Although Bechet plays quite a lot across the bar lines, the gravitational pull of that sequence of chords is very strong and it tells you very clearly that one chapter of the story has finished and another is about to start.

Bechet builds his solo over this relatively simple structure in  six choruses in a slow and stately fashion, but makes telling use of searing  blue notes of heart-rending emotional power as the intensity builds. If you don’t know what a blue note is then listen, from about 2.12 onwards, to a chorus that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

I should also mention that the fine piano accompaniment on this all-time classic piece (recorded in December 1944) is provided by Art Hodes and the mournful response from the trombone is supplied by Vic Dickenson. Bechet’s raw power and very broad vibrato probably won’t suit scholars of the classical clarinet, but I think this is absolutely wonderful. If I ever had to compile a list of my all-time favourite records, this would definitely be on it.

Five – Tony Scott & Bill Evans

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on November 24, 2016 by telescoper

Just this morning finally submitted some documents for a couple of proposals that I’ve been stressing over for the past couple of months, so I thought I’d relax a little bit by posting some music.

Not long ago I shared a track on which Lester Young played clarinet as opposed to his usual tenor saxophone. I got to thinking afterwards that it’s quite interesting how the clarinet has become less prominent in Jazz as the music has evolved. The old `liquorice stick’ is one of the instruments that appears in the front line in `traditional’ New Orleans Jazz (alongside trumpet and trombone) and remained a key part of bands as different styles gradually developed until the Swing Era of the 1930s. Some of the greatest big bands of that period were led by clarinetists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman to name but three. However, when bebop arrived on the scene in the immediate post-War era the clarinet had been almost totally eclipsed by the saxophone. Perhaps that was because bebop was largely a reaction against swing music and musicians wanted to establish a radically different musical vocabulary. The alto saxophone in particular, championed by Charlie Parker, could – at least in the hands of a virtuoso like Parker – be played at breakneck speed but also had a much edgier sound and was capable of a different range of expression. The same comments apply to the tenor saxophone, as exemplified by John Coltrane. There were exceptions of course, notably Buddy Defranco, but as modern jazz developed the saxophone remained the dominant solo instrument.

Anyway, these thoughts popped into my head the other day when I was listening to Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 which featured the great Jazz pianist Bill Evans. One of the tracks played on the programme I listened to featured Evans together with clarinetist Tony Scott taken from the album A Day in New York which was recorded in 1957. A very large proportion of my very favorite recordings derive from the late 1950s, largely because so many new directions were being explored, and this is another track that seems to be looking ahead to something beyond the bebop era. Anyway, this is the track I heard the other day. It’s called Five, and I love the way the Scott constructs his solo from the jagged fragmentary theme, at first cautiously but gradually gathering momentum until it gets fully into its groove.

Buddy DeFranco Plays Rhythm Changes

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on April 21, 2016 by telescoper

The late great Buddy DeFranco was the musician who finally convinced me that I’d never be any good at playing the clarinet, though I still make the occasional half-hearted attempt. He nevertheless remains a musical hero of mine, not least because he was one of the few people to play clarinet in a “modern” style. I found this transcription of one of his solos on Youtube a while ago and thought I’d share it here. Twelve choruses of rhythm changes at a brisk tempo provide the foundation for a great jazz musician who unleashes a flood of improvisation. Feel free to play along at home!

The Giant Steps of Buddy DeFranco

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2015 by telescoper

Christmas Eve saw the passing of another great Jazz artist, the clarinettist Buddy DeFranco , at the grand old age of 91. Not surprisingly, glowing tributes to him have appeared in all the mainstream media as well as in specialist jazz sources as he was an absolutely superb musician as well as a distinctive stylist. Alongside countless other measures of his greatness and popularity, he won no less than twenty Downbeat Magazine Awards and nine Metronome Magazine Awards as the number one jazz clarinettist in the world.

It’s an interesting facet of jazz history that the clarinet, a mainstay of jazz styles from the New Orleans roots through to the Swing Era, fell into disfavour in the post-war era with the advent of bebop when it was largely eclipsed by the saxophone. Very few musicians persisted with the clarinet into the era of modern jazz, but Buddy DeFranco was one who did. That’s not to say that he disliked swing music though. In fact he began his career playing with big bands of that era, such as those led by Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey. One of the most famous bands of that era, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, formed in 1935 and saw its greatest popularity during the Second World War. It was disbanded in 1944 on the death of its leader, but it started again in 1956 and, although it has had a number of changes of personnel, it is still going strong. So strong that there’s a minimum two year waiting list if you want to book the Glenn Miller Orchestra for a gig! With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two coming up this year, I’ve no doubt that there’ll be a great deal of nostalgia evoked by renditions of Moonlight Serenade..

The distinctive sound of the original Glenn Miller Orchestra largely derived from the unusual arrangement of its reed section: usually four saxophones playing in harmony, topped by a high clarinet lead. Many jazz fans found that blend a bit too honeyed compared with the likes of, e.g., the Count Basie Orchestra but there’s no question that it gave the band an immediately recognisable sound. Despite his predilection for more modern jazz idioms, especially bebop, Buddy DeFranco obviously very much liked the idea of a big band with a clarinet playing such a prominent part and, in fact, he was the leader and musical director of the revived Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 until 1974, and also guested with them on a number of occasions after that.

Anyway, Buddy DeFranco was one of the most technically accomplished clarinettists in all of jazz. Very few have ever been able to match his control, particularly in the upper register. But what I admired most about him was his willingness to take on material not usually associated with his instrument. Here’s a great example, of him playing the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps together with Terry Gibbs on vibraphone. When I saw the relatively low quality reproduction of the film I assumed the sound quality would be similarly poor, but some superb remastering work has been done and this sounds terrific.

Rest In Peace, Buddy DeFranco (1923-2014).

R.I.P. Acker Bilk (1929-2014)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on November 3, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I heard the sad news that “trad” jazz stalwart Acker Bilk had died, aged 85. With his trademark bowler hat and goatee beard, he was one of the leading figures of the post-war British jazz scene. He scored considerable commercial recording success with the Paramount Jazz Band, especially with Stranger on the Shore which was in the British Charts for 50 weeks in 1962, was the first record by a British artist to hit No. 1 in the American Billboard charts, and was greatly admired by no less a figure than Duke Ellington. There are tributes all over today’s newspapers (e.g. here) that do better justice to Acker Bilk than I could, so I’ll just post one track as a special tribute. This track, Train Song, the B-side of The Harem, was recorded in the year of my birth and I have loved it since I was a kid.

Rest in peace, Acker Bilk (1929-2014)



Flyin’ High

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on February 10, 2012 by telescoper

I’m in need of a bit of a pick-me-up today, because it’s wet and gloomy outside and we’re all busy making the final push to get our STFC consolidated grant application together. I found this on Youtube the other day and it definitely does the trick for me. It’s by the marvellous Jazz clarinettist Edmond Hall. I always thought he was very underrated, but judging by the superbly detailed wikipedia page devoted to him, someone out there rates him very highly indeed! Ed Hall’s clarinet style is immediately recognizable for the incisiveness of his tone, which made him one of the “hottest” jazz clarinet players of all time. He’s also pretty much unique because he stuck with the old Albert System (aka “Simple System”) clarinet; the vast majority of practitioners prefer the Boehm System. In fact I don’t even know if it’s possible to buy an Albert System clarinet these days.

Anyway, whatever clarinet he played, he played it beautifully. I love the way he keeps changing gear throughout this performance, especially around 2.42 when he pulls out all the stops and shifts into the higher register for a sizzling last set of choruses. Wonderful.

Billie’s Bounce

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on July 28, 2011 by telescoper

I thought I’d put this up because I’ve just found it and I think it’s great. It’s an interesting facet of jazz history that the clarinet, a mainstay of jazz styles from the New Orleans roots through to the Swing Era, fell into disfavour in the post-war era with the advent of bebop when it was largely replaced by the saxophone. Very few musicians persisted with the clarinet into the era of modern jazz, but this is one that did. It’s the superb Buddy DeFranco, one of the most technically accomplished clarinettists in all of jazz – few have ever been able to match his control in the upper register. The tune they’re playing is a Charlie Parker composition called Billie’s Bounce, another tune based on the standard 12-bar blues sequence (in F) but with some alterations. As far as my chord book says, it basically goes like this:

| F7| F7 | B♭7| F7|| B♭7| B♭7|F7| F7| G7| C7| F7| C7|

while the standard blues progression in F would go like

| F7| F7| F7 |F7 | B♭7| B♭7| F7| F 7| C7| B♭7| F7| F7|

It’s a Charlie Parker trademark to have a “turnaround” at the end, with the dominant chord C7 instead of the tonic F and, as you’ll hear, these changes produce quite a different feel to the standard blues sequence.

Anyway, one thing I particularly love about this performance is the perfunctory instruction given by Buddy DeFranco at the start: “Play the Blues in F for a while”. That’s all they needed to send them on their way.