How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
The Clarinets is both the name of the all-clarinet improvisational trio of Chris Speed, Oscar Noriega and Anthony Burr, and the title of their new CD, the first release on Speed's new Skirl Records imprint. Here Speed (on clarinet), Noriega (on bass clarinet and clarinet) and Burr (on bass clarinet) explore the possibilities of their instruments in an improvised setting. Jazz purists won't find much to enjoy here: these eight pieces (gloriously recorded in the expansive former-church interior of the NACL Theater in Highland Lake, New York in 2005) display an almost-complete absence of tempo, jazz licks or harmonic development.
That said, this is surely the most affably accessible all-improv recording in a very long time. The Clarinets play measured, patient material that's undeniably atmospherica little too there to be ambient music, but simmering just above the line of that genrebut at the same time musically memorable. The term "instant composition gets bandied about so often in reference to musical improvisation that it's become a cliché, but here, for once, it's true: the power of songs like "Constellating and "Scrawl to implant themselves in the listener's mind is entirely the result of their elegant and, yes, compositional construction.
Texture and tone also play a huge role here. Lovers of the sweet, wooden sounds of these reedsand that includes the sound of simple aspiration and percussive, popping pads as well as musical noteswill be in ecstasy hearing these voices converse, argue, join and detach. "Languor couldn't be more aptly titled as Speed's clarinet sighs out a melody along the sleepy, slow-stirring bass clarinets of Noriega and Burr. There's a real sense of unhurried, sunrise awakeningyou can almost see the rays playing across the veldt as the lions stretch and rise.
"Accord embodies its title just as perfectly as the bass clarinets burble irritably and separately, while Speed's clarinet sings out wildly-dissimilar long, keening notes. Eventually Noriega takes up Speed's line, and then the lone holdout, Burr, gives in and takes it up as well, as if grudgingly converted by an unassailable argument. In the end, consonance wins out over schism.
Whether or not the preceding flights of interpretive fancy have any basis in fact doesn't really matter much. On "Lovescar, the spacious, silent performing space feels like the fourth member of the bandits emptiness surrounding the quiet cacophany of the increasingly chattering reeds. There's a pin-drop pregnancy of event here that's quite powerful, even if the song resists any glib search for narrative.
The three musicians here are old companions and The Clarinets has a corresponding amiability of dialoguethere's kindness and humor in the voices, even when they're not unified. Clarinet enthusiasts should hear this musicand so, for that matter, should everyone else.