Marty Nau Group: Mood Ebony (2010)
An all-clarinet album is a rare thing in jazz these days. The B-flat clarinet has an old-fashioned sound, ubiquitous in the early days of jazz, but gradually replaced by the bigger, deeper, and often more aggressive reed sound of the saxophones. Early New Orleans bands at the birth of the form almost always featured the "stick," but with a few exceptions, it has become something of a rarity.
Multi-reedist Marty Nau has made a credible effort to reaffirm the clarinet as an instrument worthy of leadership in a jazz ensemble. Mood Ebony features a mix of Nau originals, additional compositions by Phil Woods, and a few standards. Nau plays the B-flat clarinet, with additional support from bass clarinetist Scott Silbert, and they stay, for the most part, with mid-tempo numbers and reasonably thin arrangements that allow ample aural space to emphasize the light, woody tones of their instruments. Backing, on some tracks, from vibraphonist Chuck Redd, offers a smart contrast to the reeds.
A jazz clarinet album simply begs for the opportunity to wheel out an old, rarely heard Benny Goodman tune, and Nau seizes the chance on the very first track with a swing classic, the clarinet legend's "Slipped Disc." Using bass clarinet to double-up and harmonize the melody, Nau and Silbert deliver telepathic interplay that really drives the tune.
Through the magic of overdubbing, Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" gets a truly original reading, with at least three clarinet parts, and no rhythm section. The bass clarinet provides the bottom anchor, with a Stravinsky-like throb, while Nau reads the familiar melody with sympathetic improvisations. "A Night in Tunisia" has been covered so often, and by so many musicians over the past sixty years, that it's difficult to imagine anything fresh being delivered by yet another version, but Nau has done it herenot by trying to out do Charlie Parker's famous solo, or beating Gillespie's exuberant delivery, but by cleverly arranging it into a new whole cloth piece with a familiar melody.
Nau's originals are well crafted, and integrate well with the material by other composers. "Bossa for Eddie" accentuates the clarinet by utilizing only bass and piano for accompaniment, showing Nau at his best as an improviser. There are places where he plays faster, with more notes, but his performance here is lyrical and subtle. "Blues for Benny" brings back the swing in a big way, again using vibes to comp behind the improvisation, and bass clarinet in place of double-bass for the rhythm. Pianist Robert Redd takes a bow here, revealing himself as a solid all-rounder on the keys.
With a little luck, Mood Ebony will set the stage for additional clarinet recordings from Nau, and perhaps other players. It's a good album that makes a robust case for the clarinet as a lead instrument with virtuosic playing and a terrific selection of songs.
Track Listing: Slipped Disk; AS Long As I Live; Smoke Dreams; Doctor Tee; Three in One; A Night in Tunisia; Ballad for Hank; Bossa for Eddie; Blues for Benny; You Came Into My Life.
Personnel: Marty Nau: clarinet; Scott Silbert: bass clarinet; Robert Redd: piano; Tommy Cecil: bass; Chuck Redd: vibes; Wade Beach: piano (3, 4, 7); Steve Novesel: Bass (2, 10); Brooks Tegler: drums (9, 10).
Record Label: Summit Records