Raising the Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss
Raising the Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss
In late 2006, clarinetist Mort Weiss told his unusual story to R. J. Deluke in an exclusive interview for All About Jazz, appropriated titled "Mort Weiss: Sets Sail with Clarinet." His narrative is the timeless, archetypal journey of the hero's circular route to hell and backmuch like that of Homer's legendary mariner, Ulysses, except that in Weiss' case, the outcome was far from known. With Raising the Bar, Weiss completes his journey, and provides impressive if less than definitive closure to his story.
Despite all of the qualifiers which, in Mort Weiss' case, could be advanced to issue a positive review of this recording, the music speaks for itself: Raising the Bar is a triumph, perhaps even a tour of de force. Weiss' 40-year hiatus from music and the difficulties of reconstructing an embouchure for a notoriously difficult woodwind instrument, not to mention his status as a septuagenarian (he was 75 in April 2010)these and all other excuses need not be invoked to give this achievement, a 17-track, 70- minute album of solo (absolutely naked, unaccompanied) clarinet, high passing marks. The contextual circumstances merely complement the music with a subtext that can only serve to further enhance the singular success of Weiss' daring accomplishment.
Any listener could be forgiven for making certain assumptions upon listening to the album. Certainly Weiss must have spread out the recording process over a generous length of time, perhaps recording many hours of music and editing it down to the small amount of material he deemed playable. Moreover, besides salvaging the best of all that went down, he must have done some undetectable splicing here and there in addition to deleting "bad" notes and replacing them with "punched in" good ones. A listener could make that assumption, but it would be wrong. Weiss flew to L.A., walked into a recording studio, and played all 17 tunes stone cold, walking out several hours after completing his Odyssey in overachievement, with scarcely a single re-take.
Weiss' choice of a subtitle may strike some listeners as curious. Usually "definitive" appears on those single-disc anthologies that purport to represent a prolific artist by cherry-picking his very best performances from a large and diverse number of sources. While Weiss has produced an impressive half-dozen albums (especially his recording dates with organist Joey De Francesco, guitarist Ron Escheté and woodwind giant Sam Most) during his comparatively brief return to form, it's clear that with "definitive" he has a different meaning for the word in mind. From reading the liner notes and listening to the music on this album, the meaning becomes, in effect, "I've played my tail off, I've given it all I've got, practicing day in and day out, and the final result represents the very best of which I'm capable." The listener can also infer that Raising the Bar is, for Weiss, the equivalent of a high-water mark, or culmination, in his music: there's an undeniably strong implication that this music represents a kind of "final statement" by a musician attempting to demonstrate his complete if not ultimate mastery of his instrument.
Judgments will vary in assessing the musical results, but to those familiar with Weiss' development since 2002, it's practically undeniable that this album, in the clarinetist's words, "represents the best performance I can give emotionally, technically, mentally and physically," or that the effort is, at the very least, a bold and largely successful musical statement that realizes the artist's determination to leave "footprints to show that Mort Weiss had passed this way." In terms of the language of jazz clarinet, Weiss appears not merely to have covered all aspects but to have both broadened and deepened the instrument's vocabulary and syntax. Frequently, he reaches down into the lowest register then instantaneously springboards into the stratosphere. More remarkably, the consistency of the two extreme endsin fullness, timbre, dynamicsis of a piece, so much so that the listener is scarcely conscious of the weld between two reaches requiring virtually opposing uses of the embouchure.
Besides pitch, Weiss varies tempo often and again to undeniable expressive effect. Ballads are as apt to find him doubling the time, as he dashes off wildly gyrating passages intermixed with toccata-like cadenzas during which the trills are based on a interval of a third rather than a chromatic or diatonic step. At other times, he executes head-spinning passages when rapid-fire passages continually return to the same common note but without concessions to closure.
At the other extreme Weiss inserts slow, meditative passages in the mid-to-up- tempo standards like "My Shining Hour," "Tea for Two," "Just Friends" and "It Could Happen to You." In fact, the most memorable, impressive quality of his playing on this latest endeavor is his probing of the lower register and exploration the inexhaustible values of sustained bottom pitches. The sound is at times "edgy," or incisive, yet soon spreads out, embracing the listener in satisfying, radiant warmth. And the vibrato is frequently so slow as to take on vocal-like qualities. Listeners will likely disagree whether the effect is closer to the personal sound of a veteran clarinetist such as Pee Wee Russell or to the inimitable sweet-sour sound of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon's slow and bittersweet vibrato upon closure of a phrase.
The clarinet, with its penetrating, obtrusive sound, can be an ideal instrument for getting the attention of listeners prone to focus only on vocals. Weiss, however, is not a musician to play exclusively for effect. He doesn't indulge in the upward, admittedly dramatic, portamentos that Artie Shaw could make last for 4 bars or 32, as the song and arrangement allowed, nor does he exhibit the consistent, flawless execution of Goodman's clarinet, which often seemed to play no note unless it could be played perfectly. Weiss still has a tendency to fill in the "spaces"between the main melody and between his own development of a motifwith rapid, dazzling flurries of notes rather than definitive, clear articulations in which each note and every note is essential to the development of the solo. Finally, rhythmically Weiss, like most pianists since the days of stride piano, has to settle for an implication of tempo and rhythm, establishing it by implication before proceeding to ride on it, double-time it and half-time it. The success of the approach can be especially appreciated when it's not immediately in evidence, as on the more free and flexible rhythm of "Without a Song," which suffers from the listener's inability to sense a regular pulse.
Perhaps the challenge of maintaining the average listener's interest on an album such as this17 songs, nearly 70 minutes of playing time by an unaccompanied monophonic instrumentis all but insurmountable. Yet Weiss' arresting introductions along with the listener's familiarity with and recognition of each of the tunes works to his advantage. At other times, the listener is apt to give the program a breather before rejoining the musical adventurer on his solitary trip. The juxtaposition of Roderigo's "Sketches" with the public domain "Dear Old Stockholm" practically comes off as a continuous suite, inviting the listener to become an active "participant," filling in the missing parts. The first number recalls the Gil Evans / Miles Davis version on Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) while the second brings to mind the performance by Davis' "first great quintet" (Round About Midnight, Columbia, 1956). Oddly, the Burt Bacharach tune, "Alfie," which precedes the pair of Miles Davis vehicles, tends to run up against and right into the saliently different Roderigo piece. Greater separation between the twowhether through the arrangement of tunes, a change in keys, or an extra second pausewould no doubt help the listener focus more immediately on what is actually a radically different musical construction.
Perhaps the musical highpoint of the album is "Blues for Hakan," the ninth of the disc's 17 tracks. Here the clarinetist all but eschews the classic form in favor of its more primitive predecessors, the field hollers and plaintive cries that preceded the later, post-Emancipation 12-bar blues form. When the clarinetist pushes his sound seemingly to the edges of what his reed will bear, the solo climaxes in a multiphonic shriek that's equal parts the pre-history of this music and the avant forms it would take in the politically charged 1960s.
But there are no more memorable moments (the first practically shocking because of our lack of preparation) than when the clarinetist turns away from his instrument and speaks to the listener directlyfirst,on "As Time Goes By," and again on "My Way." This is not the place to quote Weiss' apparently extemporaneous remarks, but suffice to say that they're equal parts humorous, serious, elegiac, satisfying and sad. Each listener is likely to interpret the artist's sudden, practically jarring, intrusion differently. It's as though Weiss has momentarily replaced the outer formal wear of the artist with the radically different garb of the performance artist.
No doubt some listeners will take exception to Weiss' title for this session. First, you could easily question whether Weiss is accurate in implying that his is the first extended project featuring a single monophonic instrumental voice (immediately, similar examplesby woodwind players Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn and Herbie Manncome to mind). Secondly, the words Raising the Bar are bound to strike some as a sort of throwing down of the gauntlet, a challenge more appropriate to a fight or an athletic event than to the art of making music. Yet, when taken in the context of Weiss' career and life-experiences, the title makes perfect sense. After waking up, strung-out in a padded cell, nothing to his name (not even a clarinet for the next 40 years), Weiss had no where to go but upif he went anywhere at all. Perhaps the wonder is that he didn't give upnot just on the music but on life right then and there.
Mort Weiss didn't have to raise the bar: it was already in place. Reaching it, as he inarguably does on this recording, represents less ostentatious bragging rights for the musician than an inspiration to all who have been begun, then been tempted to abandon the odyssey. This is what the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson had in mind when he revised the ending of Homer's original poem, The Odyssey, in which at story's end Ulysses is once again safe and sound in his homeland. "What a drag!" is the response of Tennyson's Ulysses: ..." my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die."
In other words, this could indeed be the definitive, final, last recording by Mort Weiss. But don't bet on it.
Tracks: My Shining Hour; Smile; Tea For Two; Alfie; Sketches; Dear Old Stockholm; Everything Happens To Me; Without A Song; Blues For Håkan; Lunch In Navasota; Just Friends; What's New?; Love Is a Many Splendored Thing; As Time Goes By; It Could Happen To You; It Might As Well Be Spring; My Way .
Personnel: Mort Weiss: clarinet