Her Eyes Illuminate
Gebhard Ullmann/Jurgen Kupke/Michael Thieke
The Clarinet Trio 4
Leo Records CD 622
Red Toucan RT 9345
Matthew Bourne/Laurent Dehors
Émouvance émv 1034
Something in the Air: The Clarinet Resurgence in Jazz
By Ken Waxman
At the height of jazz’s popularity, during the Big Band era of the 1930s and 1940s, one of the most common images was of a resplendent clarinetist, instrument shining in the spotlight, taking a hot solo. Subsequent styles found the so-called the licorice stick relegated to a poor cousin of the saxophone, with few reed players brave enough to keep the clarinet as a double, let alone concentrate on its unique timbres. However attacks on conventional sounds, coupled with an appreciation for unique instrumental textures staring in the 1960s, spurred a rediscovery of the wooden reed instrument. Right now there are probably more CDs extant featuring the clarinet than at any time since the heyday of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman.
Similar in some way to what a jam session involving Goodman, Shaw and Herman would have entailed is The Clarinet Trio 4 Leo Records CD LR 622. Besides the obvious difference that the trio members are German, rather than American, additional factors characterize this trio of reed players as a 21st Century juggernaut not a 1930s revival band. For a start, each man plays a different member of the clarinet family: Jürgen Kupke, regular clarinet; Michael Thieke, clarinet plus alto clarinet; and Gebhard Ullmann, bass clarinet. Plus nearly all the tunes are Ullmann originals rather than standards. Unlike earlier reed players who depended on rhythm section accompaniment however, the 11 tracks on this CD feature nothing but clarinet timbres. Interludes which result from an arrangement like this are put into boldest relief on “Collectives #13 #14” and “Geringe Abweichungen von der Norm”. The latter is carefully unrolled at adagio tempo, with balanced reed vibrations and understated motion as staccato slurs and pitch-sliding smears appear at the same time, finally melding into a tremolo narrative. In contrast, “Collectives #13 #14” is rife with pinched notes from the straight clarinet, snarling quivers from the alto clarinet and inner-directed bass clarinet growls. Eventually a mellow interface from the higher-pitched reeds surmounts these chirps and quacks as Ullmann continues to tongue slap and masticate tones. Other tunes such as Blaues Viertel and Waters explore variations in legato tone blending and burbling reverberations, as triple vibrations are showcased in broken-octave, chromatic lines. The climatic triple-reed definition is News No News however. As abrasive, tremolo lines from each reedist progressively align against one another the finale finds all ultimately diminishing to silence. Before that, three singular melodies have been cross vibrated and intertwined, while staccato lines maintain each player’s individuality.
Another trio, but this one including string and brass instruments as well as reeds, is on Clarino Cookbook Red Toucan RT 9345. This time the CD matches the clarinet of Belgian Joachim Badenhorst with the trumpet of German Thomas Heberer, who also composed the dozen selections, plus German-French bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. Although the line-up is the same as if it was a combo of Goodman, trumpeter Harry James and bassist Artie Bernstein, Heberer’s graphic notation wouldn’t have been recognizable by those earlier jazzers, though they would have been impressed by the breath of this trio’s technique. Encompassing a modicum of unanticipated tranquil passages, especially from muted trumpet and fluid clarinet lines, the fundamental object lies in revealing as many contrasting tones as they intersect. For instance a track such as “Nomos”, introduced by ringing double bass tones, develops new motifs as a busy trumpet limns the bouncing theme. Moderated with clarinet squeaks, the piece is cleanly concluded with bowed strings. More adventurous, “Bogen” is concerned with melding air bubbled through both horns’ body tubes with arco swipes from Niggenkemper, whose well-shaped notes later underscore Heberer’s brassy yelps and Badenhorst’s rhythmic tongue slaps. Even more dissonance is present on “Erdbär” with the bull fiddle barely audible. Upfront mercurial patterns entwine as the clarinetist’s circular breathing moves from moderato lowing to staccato bites and the trumpeter follows suit, with tongue not valve motions allowing him to interject mouthpiece squeaks. An overview however demonstrates that the three are in such control of the material – and their instrument’s sonic properties – that throughout quivering intensity is balanced with lyrical excursions so that a consistent narrative is apparent, even among the brass puffs, stentorian string thumps and reed stridency.
If Clarino Cookbook characterizes modern abstraction, then the 17 miniatures on Chasons d’amour Émouvance émv 1034 by French clarinetist/bass clarinetist Laurent Dehors and British pianist Matthew Bourne are the post-modern equivalent of jazz chamber music. Still the skills of both men include an undercurrent of dissonance. Take the familiar “La Vie en Rose” for instance. Dehors’ clarinet line consists of flutter-tonguing and split-tone pauses before uncovering the melody defined in a series of glissandi roughened by tongue stops and breaths. This may be followed by Triste, an impressionistic line dependent on harmonic balance between the pianist’s upwards moving glissandi and the reedist’s lyrical quivering. Overall, the CD includes some instances of hushed chamber music-style pacing while other themes are more barbed. The equilibrium of “BDK theme” is maintained as it unrolls at a clean clip, but by the final variant a Brubeck-like waltz rhythm played by Bourne is jockeying for space alongside Dehors’ strident reed shrills and snorts. Echoes of pedal point pacing from Dehors’ contrabass clarinet on “Two” are subtly undermined by piano clinks, while even the impressionism driven by the pianist’s key clusters and glittery plucks becomes hesitant and out-of-tempo on “Á propos”. Simple piano clusters characterize “Three”, yet Dehors completes the theme playing different variants simultaneously on two clarinets, one with wolf-call ferocity, the other double tonguing. In fact, the CD’s defining moments may occur on “Thrown”. A mini-suite in itself, which modulates from multi-level pumping impressionism to smooth lines at the end, the landscape includes chalumeau streaming tones from Dehors as well as reed bites, as Bourne’s patterns encompass key clicks and repetative chording.
Sonic landscapes of another structure are audible on Vancouver-based plectrumist Gordon Grdina’s Her Eyes Illuminate Songlines SGL-2407-1. Built on a jazz-like interpretation of lilting Arabic airs, Grdina, usually a guitarist, concentrates on oud playing, leading a 10-piece group which melds the traditional timbres of riq, ney and darbuka, with a strong bottom provided by electric bass and drums plus jazz-like solo interjections. Triplet runs from trumpeter JP Carter, contrapuntal duets between the split tones of tenor saxophonist Chris Kelley and the choked vibrations from Jesse Zubot’s violin, and liquid glissandi from François Houle’s clarinet are highpoints. One of Canada’s foremost woodwind players, Houle inventively creates a place for his Europeanized reed within this Middle Eastern showcase as he does in improvised, electronic and notated music contexts. Besides connective obbligatos and descriptive squeaks on other tracks, his most distinctive contribution is on the Egyptian/Druze composition “Laktob Aourak al Chagar”. Buoyed by the timed drumming tempo and aggressive string strumming, Houle bends his pitches so that his horn’s moderato line takes on a strident sturdiness, then as the percussion-pushed theme descends, he joins with the tenor saxophonist for a frenetic duet and finale.
Skillfully manipulating the single reed instrument’s sonic qualities, Houle, Badenhorst, Dehors and The Clarinet Trio validate the clarinet’s adaptability as a vehicle for contemporary improvisation.
-- For Whole Note Vol. 18 #3
November 11, 2012
A Vacant Lot
Drip Audio DA 00579
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 194 CD
Jim Lewis/Andrew Downing/Jean Martin
On a Short Path from Memory to Forgotten
Barnyard Records BR 0311
Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records BJUR 015
Extended Play: New roles for Trumpets
By Ken Waxman
Although the romantic image of a lone trumpeter has been standard in jazz since the time of “Young Man with a Horn”, musically it’s actually more difficult for a trumpet to be sole horn in a band – at least until freely improvised music rewrote the rules a few decades ago. The reason is simple: unlike the saxophone’s many keys which the soloist can manipulate for different timbres, the trumpet has only three valves and a length of tubing. Brass players thus most often work with a reed partner or as part of an ensemble. However these CDs, featuring mostly Canadian casts, show that notable sessions can appear no matter the instrumental make up.
Toronto-born, Brooklyn-resident David Smith’s Anticipation Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records BJUR 015 is the most conventional of the discs, with Smith and Montreal-born drummer Greg Ritchie playing in a quintet filled out by tenor saxophone, guitar and bass. Working out on one standard, a Coltrane line and five originals, the band rarely strays from the expected head-solo-head formula, with Smith’s bright playing amply backed by saxophonist Kenji Omae and guitarist Nate Radley. Standouts are the trumpeter’s compositions, Bittersweet, a gentle line celebrating his daughter’s birth with tremolo tonguing; and The Question, a contrafact of Monk’s Ask Me Now, built on cascading horn lines from Omae and a tough brassy break from Smith. Throughout Smith illustrates his instrument’s restrictions, since many of his solos feature complementary runs from Omae, while Radley’s fleet-fingered chording and limber picking dominates most of the tunes.
Ex-Torontonian, now Montrealer, trumpeter Gordon Allen plus saxophonists Jean Derome and Philippe Lauzier take an equally standard role as backing horn section on Montreal band Klaxon Gueule’s Infininiment Ambiances Magnétiques AM 194 CD. Throughout the 13 minimalist tunes the horns extend or amplify improvisations from the band’s core trio – guitarist Bernard Falaise, bassist Alexandre St-Onge and percussionist Michael F. Côté. Concerned as much with mood and texture as melody, the scene-setting arrangements frequently find single horn parts providing brief commentary on Falaise’s popping guitar licks, St-Onge’s pulsating rhythms or the knitting-needle-like clatter of Côté’s delicate drumming. The bass line serves as a pedal point drone on Momo Pèle, for instance, which fades away following dissociated drum beats, but not before Allen has pumped out bugle-like reveille. In contrast singular note extensions from one saxophone plus chromatic mellow timbres from the trumpeter inflate from distanced peeps to provide a counterweight to dissonant guitar-string snaps and abrasive strums on Brown Suinte.
Altering the paradigm so that each instrument is as important as any other creates a more equitable and satisfying performance – and boosts the trumpet’s role. Toronto’s Jim Lewis, Andrew Downing and Jean Martin demonstrate this On a Short Path from Memory to Forgotten Barnyard Records BR 0311. Consisting of 10 instant compositions, there is no foreground or background instrument. One tune for example could be a capriccio, as Lewis’ joyful trumpet blasts define the theme; another is dependent on Downing’s thumping bass pulsations; and almost all are illuminated more by the splashes of multiphonic color Martin creates with gamelan-like bell tones and triangle resonation than a steady beat from his regular kit. Showcasing Lewis’ phrasing, which ranges from staccato heraldic blasts to graceful flutters, is “Eight”, the tune in which his moderated a capella puffs give way to a rubato, double-time version of theme and finally to aviary chirps plus whistling resounds. These intertwine with martial rolls and rebounds from Martin and walking slap bass from Downing.
A refinement – or coarsening – of this strategy is displayed by Vancouver’s Inhabitants, on A Vacant Lot Drip Audio DA 00579 which adds the guitar of Dave Sikula to the basic trumpet (JP Carter), bass (Pete Schmitt) and drums (Skye Brooks) trio. Another major difference is the use of electronics, with Carter’s heavily miked trumpet’s pulsating alongside Sikula’s folksy strums. Eschewing a steady beat Schmitt and Brooks still use string strokes and harsh backbeats to prevent otherwise airy timbres from ascending into the stratosphere. Pacific Central is the representative track. After a minimalist introduction that’s mostly acoustic guitar and trumpet peeps, the piece opens up and accelerates to full-bore polyphony with hard drum ruffs, staccato guitar licks and trumpet shakes which cascade chromatically then fade, while still encouraging the group’s affiliated pulses. This is electrified music with a touch of dissonance.
By crafting new roles for trumpeters within improvising combos, these Canadian players have produced memorable CDs.
-- For Whole Note Vol. 15 #10
July 13, 2010