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Four Artists Of The Jazz Clarinet Renaissance

Dan Bilawsky By

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Since the jazz clarinet never really died, renaissance—or rebirth—may not be the term that best describes what's happening to the instrument in the twenty-first century jazz universe; it is, however, a pretty good one word synopsis.

The licorice stick was there at or near the start, tooting along next to the trumpet and trombone in early twentieth century New Orleans front lines, and its popularity carried over into the swing era, as clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw brought the instrument into many a home via their respective recordings and radio broadcasts. Things were looking up for the clarinet at this point, but that all changed when bebop took hold. The clarinet seemed to lose the cachet that it had earlier, but it held on for dear life. The instrument remained an essential ingredient in much of Duke Ellington's music for decades, and players like Tony Scott, Buddy DeFranco, Jimmy Giuffre, Pee Wee Russell, John Carter and Kenny Davern kept the clarinet flame burning; the flame, however, was dim.

Bebop musicians, avant-garde players, fusion-istas and, surprisingly, the neoclassicist young lions didn't exactly flock to the clarinet, but things started to turn around in the '90s, and the clarinet came back with a vengeance in the new millennium. Players young and old, hailing from all over the globe, now embrace the jazz clarinet. Headliners, like Don Byron, Eddie Daniels, and Anat Cohen, continue to give the instrument a popularity boost in mainstream jazz circles, but they're hardly the only ones deserving of attention. The four recordings under discussion here shed a light on a few other players worth savoring.

Darryl Harper

The Edenfred Files

HiPNOTIC Records

2013

Clarinetist Darryl Harper has more than two decades of professional experience under his belt. He's worked with artists as diverse as pianist Uri Caine, vocalist Carla Cook and, most notably, violinist Regina Carter, with whom he spent two years. When he's not busy working for jazz notables, or attending to his teaching duties at Virginia Commonwealth University, he's managed to make his presence felt with a string of releases on the HiPNOTIC imprint.

The Edenfred Files, which takes its name and inspiration from a period of time in 2009 when Harper was holed up in an artists' retreat in Edenfred, Wisconsin, is a concise and compelling document. It's a quartet date on paper, with clarinet, piano, bass and drums, but it's not a foursome in practice. Harper engages in three-way dialogue in certain places, tapping into the relationship he's developed over time with bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Harry "Butch" Reed—his band mates in the Onus Trio. He also works the duo format with pianist Kevin Harris. He even lets Harris close out the album all by his lonesome, as the pianist delivers a peaceful and semi-ruminative take on John Coltrane's "After The Rain."

The trio leans toward the blues in their explorations, working this tried-and-true form in various ways on "Blues For Jerry," the jaunty "Kansas City Line" and, most impressively, "Edenfred." Everything falls into place on the latter listing, which turns out to be the high point of the album. Harris and Harper—known as the Into Something duo—demonstrate a playful approach on "Spindleshanks," as melodic displacement and toying ideals come to the fore, and they bring a spiritual quality into focus on "Walking With Old Souls." Harper and company leave no fat to be trimmed here, as the whole shebang comes and goes in around forty minutes. This to-the-point philosophy of album construction serves Harper well.

Francois Houle and Havard Wiik

Aves

Songlines

2013

This duo date came about as a direct result of a suggestion from from Ken Pickering, artistic director of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Pickering thought that clarinetist Francois Houle, a mainstay of Vancouver's creative music scene, and pianist Håvard Wiik, a Norwegian now based in Berlin, would make for an intriguing combination; he was absolutely right.

Houle, known for his boundary pushing explorations, extended techniques and exemplary listening skills, is no stranger to the clarinet-piano format, having logged some significant miles with pianist Benoit Delbecq. With the wonderful Wiik by his side, he manages to conjure all manner of sounds and spells on Aves.

Both musicians bring their own compositions to the project and they engage in collaborative creationism. They even give a nod to Delbecq, fleshing out a brilliantly sensitive and nuanced take on the pianist's "Letter To Gyorgy L." In the end, regardless of who gets the writing credit, much of the music comes together like some form of open-source composition. It's often hard to tell where the written material ends and the improvisation begins, and that's part of the beauty of this music.

A sense of space, control and openness is often present in this work, but these common threads never threaten to dull the impact of each individual piece. Stark settings ("Zirma") are visited now and again, synchronous movement makes an appearance on rare occasions ("Aporetic Dreams") and a sense of unrest is part of the package ("Nomenclature"). Houle manages to get more out of the clarinet than most, with popping and slapping sounds ("Woodhoopoe"), sans mouthpiece flute/recorder-esque tones ("Ged's Shadow") and duo tone effects. Music like this is best experienced in the flesh, where the eyes and ears can both take it all in as it's happening, but a recording is the next best thing. Houle and Wiik are a fine match and, hopefully, they'll have an opportunity to further their relationship.

Waclaw Zimpel Quartet

Stone Fog

fortune

2013

The music on Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel's Stone Fog is not for the faint of heart. Zimpel has worked with many of the best in the artfully edgy-and-outre camp, including multi-reedist Ken Vandermark and trombonist Steve Swell, and he shares in their embrace of wide-open principles.

The music Zimpel makes with his quartet on Stone Fog is diverse and occasionally dangerous. In some places, he taps into an ECM-ish aesthetic, as on the meditative "Cold Blue Sky," where pools of sound build up and gentle metallic resonance holds forth, and "Stone Fog," which blends a pseudo-Native American sound with a Charles Lloyd-esque sense of mysticism. Elsewhere, the music is frigid, as Zimpel creates sound constructs with scrapes, flutters and gloomy adornments ("Hundred Of Wings Steel The Sun"). A sense of restlessness and agitation comes to the fore on occasion ("Old Feet Feel Out The Path"), but the peaceful ("River Willows Sway") and woozy ("As The Moon Dips Into Nettles") also have their place in Zimpel's world.

At times, it seems like Zimpel is engaged in an emotional purging session, as intensity is born from the icy cold of initial indifference ("One Side Of My Face Is Colder Than The Other"), but these feelings are balanced out with more even-keel sentiments. Stone Fog can be a challenging listen at times, but it's a challenge well worth taking.

Ken Peplowski

Maybe September

Capri Records

2013

Ken Peplowski doesn't really belong here. The three clarinetists discussed above are all a bit under-the-radar while Peplowski belongs to the aforementioned Byron-Cohen-Daniels list—a.k.a. the jazz clarinet elite. He walks a fairly straightforward path, hobnobs with the heavies, and plays at the big events. Having said all of that, he still deserves attention for his work, which is ever-captivating.

On Maybe September, Peplowski puts his clarinet and tenor saxophone to good use on a program that leans toward the mellow. The first three numbers don't betray this fact, as Peplowski ramps things up, moving from the calm of "All Alone By The Telephone" to the snazzy "Moon Ray" to the driving "Always A Bridesmaid." He eventually settles into a relatively mellow comfort zone, but his solos never lack for energy, regardless of the general mood.

The inclusion of a classical number—"Romanza (From Poulenc Clarinet Sonata)"—may seem odd at the surface, but it fits in fairly well with the other mellow, mid-album offerings. This easy-going string of music, which includes a take on "I'll String Along With You" that demonstrates the winning rapport that exists between Peplowski and pianist Ted Rosenthal, is eventually interrupted by Duke Ellington's "Main Stem," but it's a welcome interruption. This swinging number comes at just the right time, providing a small energy boost before the final subdued stretch.

Peplowski may live in a different artistic and commercial realm than the other clarinetists under discussion here, but they're all partly responsible, along with numerous others, for breathing life back into the woody marvel of an instrument known as the clarinet.

Tracks and Personnel

The Edenfred Files

Tracks: Blues For Jerry; Sirens Calling; Spindleshanks; Walking With Old Souls; Kansas City Line; Edenfred; After The Rain.

Personnel: Darryl Harper: clarinet; Kevin Harris: piano; Matthew Parrish: bass; Harry "Butch" Reed: drums.

Aves

Tracks: Father Demo; Sparrowhawk; Earth/Sea; Nomenclatural; Zirma; Fallen Angel; Ged's Shadow; Letter to Gyorgy L.; Aporetic Dreams; Meeting On A Line; Ursula's Dream; Woodhoopoe; Hello Blackbird; Strobe.

Personnel: Francois Houle: clarinet; Havard Wiik: piano.

Stone Fog

Tracks: Cold Blue Sky; Old Feet Feel Out The Path; A Sudden Shift Missed; As The Moon Dips In Nettles; Hundreds Of Wings Steel The Sun; River Willows Sway; One Side Of My Face Is Colder Than The Other; Stone Fog.

Personnel: Waclaw Zimpel: clarinet; Krzysztof Dys: piano; Christian Ramond: double bass; Klaus Kugel: drums.

Maybe September

Tracks: All Alone By The Telephone; Moon Ray; Always A Bridesmaid; (Now And Then There's) A Fool Such As I; Romanza (From Poulenc Clarinet Sonata); Caroline, No; For No One; I'll String Along With You; Main Stem; Maybe September; Without Her.

Personnel: Ken Peplowski: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Ted Rosenthal: piano; Martin Wind: bass; Matt Wilson: drums.

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