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Mort Weiss: In Twilight... Not!


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If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams... —Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

The Internet has done a bang-up job of bringing everything and everybody closer together. An immediate effect of this "closeness" is that I have become acquaintances and even friends with many of the jazz artists and other industry professionals appearing in these electrons that would not have been possible lest these electrons worked their magic across this rock upon which we live. This "closeness" has also gone a long way toward simplifying the image of these artists from the Lisztian "artist-as- hero" to the more real artist-as-human-being, meaning these artists share the same life experiences as the rest of us, but are just a hell of a lot more talented playing their respective instruments and composing their respective music.

It is with a teenaged sense of anticipation and adventure that I receive, by parcel post, any Uline-padded envelope containing a compact disc for review. This past week, I received such a package from one Mort Weiss, clarinetist, raconteur and all-around roustabout—well known to AAJ readers for his column The Mort Report, as well has his many recordings of the last 20 years. Recorded on the edge of the envelope in Mort's curiously reckless hand was, "Michael, this one's a wee bit different."

I set the disk aside to listen to at work the next day. I sent Mort an email thanking him for sending it, to which he replied, "What do you think?" Not having listened yet, I told him it was "fun," intending to elaborate in the review later.

Not my greatest fib...

Mort responded immediately with a note, "Fuck Fun! Is it meaningful, cogent, ground-breaking, intense, aw, you know man? :) ." Well, what I knew was Mort had busted me out proper and that I should listen to the disc.

The title is A Giant Step Out And Back, with the subtitle, "A Free Jazz Recording by The Undisputed Master of the Jazz Clarinet." I suspect that a little perspective is necessary.

Mort Weiss is a lot of things. Like most humans of great talent, he is complex. He is, at once, generous and mercurial, fast with his opinion and just as fast with his praise. He is determined, dedicated, intensely interested and completely engaged. "The Undisputed Master of the Jazz Clarinet" is much less a boast than a claim on a lifetime of listening and performing music on the most unforgiving of instruments. He has an overt dignity that we must accept as-is; and should we not, then we are the lesser.

I put the disc on. It is a solo performance not unlike Weiss' most excellent Raising the Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss (SMS Jazz, 2010). But, it is different. There is a greater urgency to this new disc; Weiss is trying to tell us something. A bit slow on the uptake, I finally read the liner notes, only to discover these words:

I'm very happy with the results of this effort regarding what took place [while recording]. [What] I've done with this work will come down to this: People that know what I'm saying...will know what I'm saying. A big thanks to all or you who have supported me these last twelve years. I now leave my works to the scrutiny of the years to come, as this will be my last recorded effort.

Hmmm. Boy, have I blown this one, I thought. I should have had a listen before I ever responded. Weiss recently turned 78 years old, and he and his wife are both cancer survivors. I allowed that Mort had a flair for the dramatic, as big a personality as he has. But I was concerned. I tentatively responded to him without asking the obvious and my mind was set to rest. Mort told me, in a nutshell, that he would no longer record because of the simple law of diminishing financial return...he had spent much more money recording than he had ever made back in royalties. That is the simplest and most practical reasons for any business decision. What came before was dedication and drive to preserve a great tradition—on that, we listeners allowed to go unrewarded. And having done so we deserve to be rewarded with "worthless dreams."

And that is too bad. Jazz is one of the few things that is completely American and we live in a political and cultural climate that largely could not give less of a damn. The positive thing is that neither Weiss nor his wife are in any immediate health danger. Concluding his liner notes, Weiss states:

One must get off the merry-go-round, no matter how many brass rings he catches.

That said, we have not heard the last of Mort Weiss. I suspect that we will continue to hear from him in his column. At least, we will be fortunate if we do. His last recording? That remains to be seen, so I will hedge my bets...

A Giant Step Out And Back?

Mort Weiss
A Giant Step Out And Back
SMS Jazz

Mort Weiss recorded the fifteen selections on A Giant Step Out And Back in five hours. Weiss' typical repertoire spans pre-swing through post-bop, framed in an arranged format with side support. Here, he simply sits down and plays. When Weiss calls this a"Free Jazz" recording, he means it literally. He extemporaneously plays six original compositions and nine standards right off the top of his head and directly from his heart.

There is an urgency in these pieces, a velocity of creation that resists the natural friction of thought. Weiss' original compositions materialize and evolve organically. "Trane Of Thought" reflects in two-and-one-half minutes the trajectory of its tacit subject, migrating from the melodic to the chaotic, capturing the sound of creative effort and progression. Weiss dismantles the bebop anthem "All The Things You Are," overdubbing a second clarinet part, establishing an amphetamine-fueled counterpoint of which Bach would have been proud.

Weiss pairs Benny Goodman's "Fair Weather" with Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye," creating a just homage to Goodman while highlighting Weiss' keen capability with slippery glissandos. Tempos are brisk, but not hurried. Weiss' pacing is sure throughout the disc, but it is at an upper end, adding a tension to music that acts as a reminder to take note of what transpires. Weiss overdubs on his originals "Jivin,'" and "Soliloquy," creating an almost atonal montage of sound that staggers, but never falls. It is a drunken nursery rhyme that is the equivalent of seeing double in Technicolor.

Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" is shot from a gun, setting up an almost impossible velocity, packing in the history of blues and bebop in a mere 1:19. Weiss follows with a laconic "Summertime," on which he takes his time exploring the crevices of the Gershwin classic while quoting Monk's "'Round Midnight." "Talkin' About It" is a voice improvisation that would make Meredith Monk smile. Weiss is a character in the best sense of the word, and this piece illustrates the fearlessness of that character.

The longest piece on the disc is Weiss' "Transfiguration," based on a Chopin melody. The piece begins with an overblown note that sets a dissonant tone for the piece that bisects through two recorded parts. This is the freest performance on the record, revealing Weiss as very capable with this adventurously improvised approach, bringing his art full circle. He adds a chiming clock to the recorded festivities, just to drive the fact home that "This is it."

Like Raising the Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss, A Giant Step Out And Back is a recording Weiss wanted to make, establishing firmly his art and vision. His invention and drive are evidenced by his playing and never-ending practice on that most unforgiving of instruments. This is his document of a lifetime in the music business, one well lived.

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