Ode to the Return of the Clarinet
Why did you leave jazz, O Clarinet? Did you ask too much of us, or did we ask to much of you? Either way, you've returned with a sleek, expressive vengeance!
Why Did We Forsake You, Clarinet?
O, Clarinet, why are you such a strange instrument? Why art thou made of wood rather than metal like flutes and trumpets and saxophones? Is that why you have become strangely out of fashion in jazz?
Or is your rarity mere backlash? You were so popular in the big band era, what with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw turning you into, well, almost a kind of pop music sex symbol in those Neolithic days of swing bands dominating the pelvic urges of teenagers. How could we not turn against you eventually?
But since ol’ Mr. Bebop came to town in the '40s, that snappy “licorice stick” just started to seem uncool. Sure, there were a couple of bop clarinetists (Buddy DeFranco, but what were the chances a guy named “Buddy DeFranco” was really going to make it big?), but those guys didn’t exactly provide any hipness to the horn.
A dark age descended on you in the '50s, O Clarinet, and then the only straight horn in jazz became the soprano sax, with its nasal whine and it’s Eastern cast. You started to seem positively symphonic in your straightness—the refuge of fourth grade girls taking music lessons for the first time, I dare say.
In jazz, at least, you became persona non grata. Exiled. Out in the cold.
Until, quietly, subtly, you just weren’t anymore.
Sneakin’ In the Back Door, Byronically
Cuz, boy were you sneaky, Ol’ Mister C. We barely saw you comin’. You approached on little cat feet, at least for me.
My ears got hip to your return in 1992 when a dreadlocked cat wearing Little Round Glasses and known for playing klezmer music (and, I mean, yeah—that’s where you’d find a clarinetist back in those days, right?) made a free and fiery album on Elektra called Tuskegee Experiments—and I thought, “Whaaaaaat? A clarinetist making political statements while playing semi-out music with Bill Frisell on guitar? I was baffled and thrrrr-illed!
That first recording by Don Byron redefined the clarinet in modern jazz. Almost overnight, the instrument didn’t seem so square any more. Why?
Back when I was ignoring you, Clarinet, your woody tones seemed soft and squeaky, even quaint. There was a pipey-ness to your sound that seemed utterly out of step with the bite and drive of jazz in the latest age.
But in Byron’s hands, I could hear how the clarinet was an ideal post-bop vehicle. Byron played the horn (whether the clarinet or the bass clarinet) with rasp and personality, but he also was able to give the instrument a clear sound that swooped and cut through the band with the clarity of a warm synthesizer. In Byron’s playing, I could hear how the instrument’s two registers—the fluttering and rich lower register and that edgy and vocal upper register too—gave it a versatility and range that few other instruments could match. For a jazz player, a player interested in rejecting orthodoxy in favor of individual voice, the clarinet offered multiple avenues for finding your sound and breaking the rules in doing so.
And Byron was both a strong orthodox player and a canny rule-breaker. Tuskegee found him playing Ellington and Schumann while also flinging harmonic convention aside when blowing, rubbing elbows with Ralph Peterson’s clattering drumming and a stinging electric guitar. But Music for Six Musicians, three years later, had him in a front line with trumpet while backed by Latin percussion. And a year after that Byron was assaying music from the ‘20s and ‘30s by not only Ellington but also John Kirby and Raymond Scott.
I mean, who is this guy, and why is he playing you, Señor Clarinet?
Okay, Cool, but Who Else?
So, you’re digging Don Byron, fine—the cat is a maverick—but who else in up-to-the-minute jazz is making the clarinet cool?
Turned on by Don, I started checking out John Carter, who was avant-garding the black horn a-plenty in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And some of the European players were getting it done. And then there were the ubiquitous doublers, making the clarinet horn numero dos behind, say, the alto sax (hello there, Marty Ehrlich!).
But it hasn’t been until just very recently that I’ve felt like the clarinet is really at the shiny, pointy end of a whole slew of great new jazz records. Now, as Bird said in his crazy blues language, is the time!
Let’s start off with Ben Goldberg, who also began his career as a jazz guy strongly associated with klezmer music (specifically, with the killer band the New Klezmer Trio). BG just released two killer records featuring his clarinet (and contra alto clarinet, okay, but that counts), each of which holds up to any scrutiny you might care to provide.
Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues
Here is an irresistible mix of new and old. Goldberg puts himself in a front line with trumpet and tenor sax (Ron Miles and Joshua Redman, respectively, no less) that sometimes plays and sounds like a New Orleans-styled group in contrapuntally improvised horn lines that snake around each other like Armstrong, Ory, and Bechet. A little cool old-ness for you—and played with the same sense of passion and melody. But they also play over just bass and drums (Devin Hoff and Ches Smith, both thoroughly modern players) without any chording instrument, which gives the band a hint of Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus, not to mention any number of up-to-the-minute bands that cut themselves loose from too much harmonic restriction to play free and bold and from the heart.
Goldberg’s writing for this group is a treat. It can be celebratory or tender, serene or edgy, and there is beautiful attention to the sonority of the three horns as they move against each other in the ensemble. On the tunes where the group sounds almost like a classical chamber ensemble, such as “Asterisk”, the care of every lick and every line is apparent.
As a clarinet player, Goldberg is completely different from Byron. He has a darker tone and a rougher way of phrasing things, though you’d be hard pressed to find him less limber in how he gets around the horn. His phrasing can be jagged and surprising in the places where Byron tends to be like liquid.
Unfold Ordinary Mind
If jagged music with clarinet at its root is your thing, then what you’ll want to hear is Goldberg’s more recently recorded disc, Unfold Ordinary Mind. Here, the quintet features the same drummer, but two tenors (Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth), electric guitarist Nels Cline, and Goldberg anchoring the affair on contra-alto clarinet.
The tunes have a swaggering groove to them, with Smith slapping a frequent backbeat and Cline splitting his time between coiling freakouts, distorted strumming, and funky/stinging soul playing. Unlike Subatomic, which flirts with an avant-chamber sparseness, Unfold get a big sound that can mass up in the middle of the sonic spectrum. The two saxophones grouse, grunt, and gambol in the middle of things, while Goldberg mainly lopes about below, sliding and snaking like a bass player lubed up with Astroglide. On a tune like “Parallelogram”, the groove is smooth and bluesy enough to get a toe to tapping even though Goldberg also gives the band room aplenty for free playing.
On a glorious unison line such as “I Miss the SLA”, the tenors play with casual relaxation like Coleman and Cherry, but then the song refuses to conform, with a steady groove hard to come by, even as the guitar wails and then the whole band starts improvising in the moment. Toward the end, all the horns and the guitar play together, but things never feel resolved—to our great relief.
The only real ballad is the closer, “Breathing Room”, which comes closest to the measured vibe of the earlier disc. Goldberg plays his regular B-flat clarinet at first, but then he moves down to the low horn and things go from straight to a bit mad. And somehow, in that movement, you get just what you need from the modern clarinet: a shift away from the sense that the horn brings you back to the ‘40s whether it wants to or not.
Anat Cohen, Claroscuro
The other recent clarinet-centric disc that is a thrill ride forward is the most recent from Israeli reed player Anat Cohen. Cohen’s quartet is a sleek modern jazz group featuring Jason Lindner on piano. Cohen isn’t a purely forward thinker in general—she tours her way through older tunes and genres aplenty, including some Latin jazz and a New Orleans-flavored take on “La Vie En Rose”.
But Cohen’s approach to the horn itself never feels corny or less than fresh. Even on “La Vie En Rose”, where Louis Armstrong’s shadow is consciously acknowledged, she phrases her brief solo with a slinky, behind-the-beat rhythm that drags quietly and then rushes forward with a sense of adventure. Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” is a duet with Paquito D’Revera’s clarinet, and Cohen plays with pure passion and fire, making her runs sound technically accomplished (even sort of “classical” in technical WOW) even as they bend notes and ripen with blue tone.
She fantastically flies on the Lindner opener, “Anat’s Dance”, which takes advantage of her fluid middle register and allows her to move through shifting rhythms in a style that might remind some of Wayne Shorter. She has a much more “legit” tone on her horn than Shorter uses on his soprano sax, but there is a kinship here: they way Cohen plays ideas with a fleet sense of attack rather than “runs” that skip over chord changes. In every moment you are listening to her, you feel that she is inhabiting the music rather than “playing” it.
Although Cohen also uses both tenor and soprano saxophone on this record, she seems most herself on clarinet. She also seems to breathe and be most fully of the instrument as a clarinetist. She gets the most out its woody tone, and you truly hear how each of the horn’s registers sound distinctive in her hands. On the opening of the melody to “As Rosas Nao Falam”, she plays low and full, sounding round and resonant. But on her restatement, later, she pulls up into the higher register where she gets more nasal, more “pipey” sounding, more urgent.
All across this record, most importantly, Cohen makes you want to hear more from this slightly unusual (in modern jazz anyway) horn. And that’s great.
Is It Less Common Because It Asks More?
All this got me wondering why there aren’t more people playing you, Clarinet, in today’s jazz. You are a noble instrument with a great tradition, even if there seemed to be nary one truly relevant player in the music from 1950 until . . . recently. Why? There are 20 rising saxophone stars at any given moment in jazz, and each one of them is toting around a Monk Competition victory or a sideman gig with Dave Douglas or a recent stint at the Village Vanguard. For you, Clarinet... not so much.
Listening to Byron and Goldberg and Cohen, it dawned on me, Clarinet, that you may simply ask more of players. More mastery of different sounds. More accomplishment in the technical complications. More imagination to escape the associations that listeners have with Goodman, Shaw, others. More sound to compete with the saxophone.
Somehow, the Mighty Clarinet presents enough challenges that being merely good on the horn is no longer an option. Saxophonists can be very good but not brilliant and still carry a date, somehow. But the dark horn risks sounding thin if it isn’t superb—it can get lost in a modern drummer if it isn’t more than ready to punch its weight, and more.
Which is why we should be thrilled with the fine players who are assembling in the music now. May they keep their brass horns in the closet. Go wood! Go, Clarinet!