To modern jazz and improvised music listeners, the bass clarinet has ceased to be a strange sight. Most attribute the instrument's popularity to Eric Dolphy, which, if one ignores Harry Carney or Herbie Mann's 1957 Great Ideas of Western Mann (the first album where a leader used the horn exclusively), is accurate enough. Certainly, apart from big band doublers, most of the vocabulary and approach stem from his innovations. The instrument has been around though for much longer, appearing in 19th century operatic works and even some early jazz by Jelly Roll Morton and Benny Goodman.
What is evident though is that almost 45 years after his death, Dolphy, who himself was a tripler, is no longer the only model. The bass clarinet now can be featured as part of a frontline, leading a traditional trio, in a reed duo or trio or even as all four voices in a composed quartet. Don't believe it? Read on...
Rudi Mahall, a German improviser most known for his association with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, is the rare bass clarinetist who doesn't stray. Given his solidarity with the instrument, it has been necessary for him to expand its range, or at least its thrust. Mahall treats the bass clarinet more often like a saxophone. In the cooperative Die Enttäuschung (The Disappointment) and this, its second album but first of original music, he is matched against the trumpet of Axel Dïrner and the rhythm section of Jan Roder and Ulli Jennessenthe Schlippenbach quintet minus its taskmaster. Given Mahall's approach, this album is a trip to Dolphy country, but taken in a vehicle with very tight shock absorbers. The 17 pieces, with the lion's share by Mahall, go by quickly, only once exceeding 5 minutes and all played with a certain agitated post-bop mentality that draws a line from '60s New York to modern Berlin.
Achille Succi's Terra is another album where the bass clarinet inhabits the role of co-melodicist, in this case alongside Beppe Caruso's tuba or trombone. Salvatore Maiore (bass or cello) and Roberto Dani (drums) fill out the quartet with Succi occasionally on alto. The album's 13 originals are split into two sections: eight pieces under the "Terra" heading and five as part of the "Flatland" suite. The mixture of soundsbass clarinet harmonized against the dolorous strains of either trombone or tuba and bowed bassoften imparts a funereal air. Even more upbeat numbers never heat up past a simmer. The 18-minute suite that closes the album makes its point through the array of its five components, some somber, others expansive, concluding with the reflective.
Jason Stein is a new contributor to the rich Chicago scene and another player, who thus far, sticks solely to bass clarinet. His discography is small with discs by Ken Vandermark, Kyle Bruckmann and Keefe Jackson yet A Calculus of Loss is an ambitious leader debut. There are not many bass clarinet-led trio albums out there and Stein further stirs things up by replacing bass with Kevin Davis' cello and adding the exploratory drums of Mike Pride. With Stein as the composer and primary melodic voice, his approach too is to use the bass clarinet as a saxophone while taking advantage of its versatility. This is almost a prototypical jazz record as one would expect to come out of Chicago; this means loose yet propulsive music which is dynamic yet ruminative, not afraid to quiet down for great effect.
Simpatico is the duet of Andrew Robson and Paul Cutlan, the former an alto saxophonist while the latter spends time on three horns: Eb clarinet (two tracks), tenor sax (four tracks) and bass clarinet (five tracks). The pair met as part of two different Australian ensemblesa sax quartet and a world jazz groupand then decided to distill their chemistry and breadth of experience into a fully improvised musical concoction. The 11 pieces on the 50-minute album are fairly perky affairs, Robson and Cutlan skittering around each other dynamically and turning on proverbial dimes. The improvisations involving alto and bass clarinet might be the most successful as they involve the widest disparity of tonealmost like Dolphy playing against himselfbut the entire album is a refreshingly restrained entry into the genre.
The French group Le Trio de ClarinettesArmand Angster (who recorded an album called Dolphy Suite with another clarinet trio plus string trio), Sylvain Kassap (more from the contemporary classical world) and Jean-Marc Foltz (called the heir to the legacy of another great French reedman, Michel Portal)show that Brooklyn's The Clarinets or the Gebhard Ullmann's clarinet trios are not the only improvising bands working in this challenging format. All members contribute material with different players and instruments (ranging from petite to contrabass clarinet) given solo features. The pieces, 11 in total, are relatively brief, ranging from two to eight minutes and the movement between the composed and the spontaneous is amazingly seamless, effected with remarkable discipline. Also laudable is a great assortment of feeling; each track exists unto itself but also leads into what follows and away from what came before, becoming a suite after the fact.
Edmund Welles is perhaps the most ambitious bass clarinet project of the group. Cornelius Boots, the mastermind behind this all-bass clarinet quartet, exists in some alternate-dimensional confluence of classical, jazz and ambient music. Of the many all-the-same-instrument recordings out there, the composing often doesn't live up to its potential but here it does gloriously. The bass clarinet is known for its particular sound as well as a four-octave range; Edmund Welles puts on a masterful display of both. Unlike the group's debut, the 12 pieces on Tooth & Claw are discrete compositions that are in turn disturbing, manic, ritualistic or heartrending. The concept of the group is that each player may represent a different function within a traditional quartet including rhythmic and melodic responsibilities, rendering other instruments moot. The outcome is fully realized music that doesn't lack for tonal variety or textural vicissitude.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: drei-null; Arnie & Randy; vorwïrtsrïckwïrts; Drive it down on the piano; Resterampe; Klammer; vorwïrtsrïckwïrts; Oben mit; viaduct; Very Goode; Wer kommt mehr vom ALG; Silke; Selbstrkritik Nr. 4; Silverstone Sparkle Goldfinger; Foreground behind; 4/45; Mademoiselle Vauteck.
Personnel: Axel Dïrner: trumpet; Rudi Mahall: bass clarinet; Jan Roder: bass; Uli Jennessen: drums.
Tracks: Terra-Le Sette Piante dell'Autunno; La Foglia del Linguaggio; Une Nota, una vita; Tavor il Magnifico; This is Disease; Une Noche con Ti; Nel Regno di Tavor il Magnifico; Fresh Flesh; Flatland-Lineland; Flatland; Solo per I Tuoi Occhi; Pope Dope; Bil Frisell.
Personnel: Achille Succi: alto sax, bass clarinet; Beppe Caruso: tuba; Salvatore Maiore: bass, cello; Roberto Dani: drums.
A Calculus of Loss
Tracks: Nurse Ellen; Miss Izzy; That's Not a Closet; Caroline and Sam; 167th St. Ellen; J.H. O1.
Personnel: Jason Stein: bass clarinet; Kevin Davis: cello; Mike Pride: drums.
Tracks: Lucette; Tag; March into Oblivion; The Mighty Khan; Through the Mist; When the Bough Breaks; Running Into Time; Get Down and Stay Down; Quinessential; Over the Hills and Far Away; Walk The Walk.
Personnel: Andrew Robson: alto sax; Paul Cutlan: Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax.
Tracks: Ploc; Ramdam; Cloches tubes; Loops; Dune de glaces; Dïsert; Choral; Firmin; No no no; Yu bin ha ga ki; Epilogue.
Personnel: Armand Angster: clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Sylvain Kassap; petite clarinet, clarinet, bass clarinett; Jean-Marc Foltz: clarinet, bass clarinet.
Tooth & Claw
Tracks: Vector; Tooth & Claw; Va Larga; The New Korridor; The Butcher of Andalusia; Rabies; Trap Panel; Elsie's Rain; Seventh Furnace; Syngel Passive Illumination; I.Z.T.
Personnel: Cornelius Boots: bass clarinet.