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Mort Weiss: Sets Sail With Clarinet

R.J. DeLuke By

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Every note you hit, you're going down a certain road. You paint yourself in a corner sometimes and you have to work your way out of it. Even Bird did. Everybody does it.
Mort WeissThe world of jazz seems to be ever changing. It accepts change, with new modes of expression, new influences, new players spawned from the long lineage of musicians who created and followed an fused the great American art form over the last century

But some things don't change, and one of those is that a player who's proven himself is a player. Period. Circumstances and situations may get in the way; they may delay. Sometimes situations, bad ones, have even done people in. But a player is a player, is a player.

Enter Mort Weiss, a West Coast clarinetist who, over the last few years, has produced some bitchin' recordings, exhibiting a biting, aggressive tone and spirit of adventure that is opening eyes and ears. It's influenced by his idol, Buddy DeFranco, and the boppers of the 1940s, but different than some of the cats out there—Ken Peplowski, Don Byron, et al. He's 71 and has only been on the scene for about five years, but two of his latest discs, The B3 and Me (SMS Jazz, 2006) and Mort Weiss Meets Sam Most (SMS Jazz, 2006), show him in fine form with some of the heavyweights of jazz—the former featuring none other than organ wizard Joey DeFrancesco and the latter, obviously, featuring Most, whose reputation on flute and saxophone precedes him (though it may be time for some to rediscover him).

Okay. Correcting a little misnomer: "Only on the scene for about five years. It's actually a return to the scene. You see, Mort Weiss has been playing clarinet since he was nine, back in the mid-1940s. A guy who incessantly practiced—including carrying the instrument around with him when he drove a taxicab at night through Hollywood and adjoining areas of Southern California, practicing on the cabstand when waiting for fares—he was a player then.

And he's a player now. Just listen to the recordings that also include his first, No Place to Hide (SMS Jazz, 2002), with guitarist Ron Escheté; The Three of Us (SMS Jazz, 2004), with Escheté and bassist Dave Carpenter; The Four of Us: Live at Steamers (SMS Jazz, 2005), and The Mort Weiss Quartet (SMS Jazz, 2003), also with DeFrancesco on the B3.

Weiss' playing, by his own admission as well as to listeners' ears, has grown better and better, and his latest two discs, Meets Sam Most and B3 And Me are testament to a man who understands his instrument, as well as the language of jazz. Both bands cook. The excitement is palpable and Weiss is rightfully excited about the music. Listen to him burning with DeFrancesco on "Ornithology or sailing along effortlessly over the organ comps on "Falling In Love With Love, showing his grasp of harmony. The session is a gem of mainstream jazz. With Most, recorded live at Steamers Jazz Club and Café, the horn players are simpatico, both capable of cooking, swinging, and beautiful balladry, ably supported by Escheté, drummer Roy McCurdy and bassist Luther Hughes.

"We've never rehearsed one song on any of those dates, says Weiss. "Any time you hear something from me, it's all pure, extemporaneous jazz, man, made up on the spot. And there are warts, a lot of warts. But I've left all the warts in. I got into sailing quite heavily in my life when I wasn't playing. There's an analogy I thought of from jazz to sailing: It's a series of corrections. You can't sail in a straight line. You have to make adjustments with every little puff of wind that comes along. The same with jazz. Every note you hit, you're going down a certain road. You paint yourself in a corner sometimes and you have to work your way out of it. Even Bird did. Everybody does it. That's the brilliance of the guys that worked their way out of it and go down a different road. That's what separates the legends from the wannabes.

Indeed.

"I'm not a legend. Far from it. I have a few more years before I become a legend. I have the date on my calendar, the quick-witted and congenial clarinetist says with a chuckle. "You have to forgive me, I was in a penitentiary.

True enough. Troubles with alcohol and drugs are what caused the long hiatus for Weiss. He wasn't incapacitated for that time. Far from it. But it pushed him away from music. Thankfully, he's back. The world could use his musicianship and his infectious good nature and genuine good spirit.

"I've always felt that I had something musical to say. It was a great sadness to walk away from it. But you don't fool around with it. If you quit smoking, you quit smoking. That's why I never touched the instrument (during his hiatus), he says matter-of-factly. "But as I got older and I felt that I had something to say, for my own ego I wanted the world to know that I passed through here. We all have that feeling. What's it all about Alfie? I knew if I could line myself up with some heavyweights...

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