One By One: The Musical Arithmetic Of Mort Weiss


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Weiss possesses that rare combination of a fast mind and slightly behind-the-beat phrasing.
If it isn't a first, it's certainly not a common occurrence for a musician to take his axe out of storage after a forty-year lay-off without a missing a beat. And if Hammond B3 trios featuring tenor saxophonists with Selmer Mark 6s are a well-established instrumentation, the same can hardly be said about the combination of a B3 and a Buffet clarinet. So clarinetist Mort Weiss has pulled off a couple of milestones that would practically assure instant attention for any instrumentalist. But it would be a mistake to assume Weiss' development over the past several years, though admittedly accelerated, has been some sort of overnight fantasy.

Prior to his recent recordings with Joey DeFrancesco and Sam Most, the string of recording dates arranged by Weiss seems carefully planned—one by one (to quote the title of an oft-played Wayne Shorter composition). But whereas jazz followers are likely to be familiar with the career moves of a clarinetist like Don Byron, who deliberately and deliberatively surprises with an eclectic succession of projects ranging from recordings of intricate 1930s' cartoon music to a collection of operatic arias to greasy urban blues, Weiss has been more personally methodical in his approach, arranging a series of sessions that would prepare him for the challenge of DeFrancesco's B3 by placing him in the company of a constant but gradually burgeoning cast of players constituting, in effect, the Mort Weiss repertory troupe.

The result is an oeuvre of sequenced albums—by a duo, a trio, and a quartet—each emphasizing the American songbook and classic jazz repertory but at the same time offering a set of problems and solutions, musical challenges and successes unique to the individual project.

Ron Escheté and Mort Weiss
No Place To Hide

The first session, No Place To Hide: A Duet (SMS Jazz, 2002), could hardly be more aptly named, especially for the all-purpose guitarist Ron Escheté who, through the course of the two-disc duo session, can't afford to miss a single beat. Moreover, not only does the minimal instrumentation permit him to reveal the influence of guitarists like Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery but of seminal bass players like Ray Brown and Paul Chambers as well.

For example, on the Charlie Parker blues "Now's The Time," Escheté lays down a walking-bass foundation that would in itself be capable of holding the listener's attention were he not so quick to drop it in favor of a swinging chorus with the bass continuing only in his and the listener's imagination. On the ensuing standard, "You're My Everything," the 4/4 bass line remains implied throughout, inviting not just Weiss but the listener, in effect, to apply what has been learned from the preceding tune, mentally supplying the absent bass notes. Lest the challenge prove too much, on "Out Of Nowhere" the guitarist reverts to playing bass lines, providing both variety and reinforcement of what the listener has learned about supplying bass lines in the chambers of the imagination.

Weiss is encouraged by this spare, resourceful accompaniment to explore his instrument's expressive capabilities, including all of the nuances, subtle inflections, and varied vibratos that might be covered up in a larger ensemble. As demonstrated in the popular bands of the swing era as well as the early New Orleans ensembles and later "Dixieland" revival bands, the clarinet can be quite a flag-waver, bringing the most reserved crowds to their feet, applauding the soloist every time he climaxes on the same high pitch. The clarinetist, in turn, is apt to find it more than a little tempting to milk the note, using the instrument like a magic wand to elicit and control a crowd's responses—as predictably as Leonard Bernstein's baton or a theremin player's wave of the hand.

The minimal instrumentation, however, discourages Weiss from resorting to such devices (even though he once played tenor saxophone in commercial R&B bands) and helps direct his undivided attention to playing the horn, not the audience. He covers the entire range of the instrument handily, but more often than not it's in the middle register where his ideas are most compelling, his tone most alluring.

If alto saxophonist Paul Desmond's sound is, as many listeners have described it, like a dry martini, Weiss's is a smooth cognac, with enough strong flavor to linger but without any after-bite or burn. One time through on a melody like "Here's That Rainy Day" is no mere "in" chorus as played by Weiss but a richly satisfying performance that in itself comprises a complete whole.

This organic quality extends to the medleys, with Escheté's storytelling on "My Buddy" intiating a continuous narrative for which Weiss' "Someday My Prince Will Come" provides a consonant concluding chapter. "Indian Summer" opens as a tour-de-force by Escheté, who alludes to Coltrane's "Giant Steps," before turning the normally lethargic seasonal tune over to Weiss for some heated exchanges and extemporaneous contrapuntal legerdemain.

In many respects, No Place To Hide is no less original, satisfying and unique than Weiss' later meetings with DeFrancesco's B3 and company. Nowhere else are both players given as much individual solo or conversation time as on this musical dialog, which holds some of the same fascination as a revered meeting of minds such as Bill Evans' and Jim Hall's Undercurrent (Blue Note, 1962/2002).

Mort Weiss Trio
The Three Of Us

On the next session, The Three Of Us (SMS Jazz, 2004), the pair partially hide their nakedness behind a bassist, Dave Carpenter, whose proficiency ensures the conversational nature established by the early meeting is enlivened rather than lessened. The opener, "Look For The Silver Lining," sounds no less fresh and inviting as performed by Weiss than it did when Chet Baker played and sang the tune fifty years ago. Credit the complex, vintage, warmly present sound of Weiss' clarinet along with some melodic inventions rivalling those of a composer—Jerome Kern—who, though suspicious of any musician who tampered with his melodies, may very well have made Weiss' thoughtful variations the exception.

Weiss possesses that rare combination of a fast mind and slightly behind-the-beat phrasing, so that when he's in danger of being run over—for example, by a B3—he knows how to take what's given him. In such instances it just doesn't pay to direct traffic or force a result; let the music happen, and be ready to get in on the action.

On the other hand, on the percussion-less trio session, the clarinetist plays with considerable assertiveness, constructing his solos with a deliberate, aggressive edge while counting on his two complements to respond in kind. Besides providing a cohesive blues narrative on Parker's "Billie's Bounce" the clarinetist breathes memorable life into "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," the only instrumental version of the tune I can even recall (though both Carmen McCrae and Jack Jones proved conclusively that no single artist has exclusive property rights to the tune). Finally, "Secret Love," despite being taken "way up," features the clarinetist not only "making" the tempo but exploiting it to creative advantage.

Escheté and bassist Dave Carpenter, the other members of the trio, offer far more than empathetic support. Escheté honors the memory of Wes Montgomery on the aforementioned blues with an understated, respectful solo, and Carpenter, in addition to his harmonic and time-keeping chores, gets as much solo time as the clarinet and guitar. He's one of those complete bassists who doesn't yield an inch to the instrument's natural resistance, playing like a saxophonist—a gifted, pyrotechnical bebopper at that—but never at the expense of cohesive melodic lines. Carpenter ensures that this is a trio that amounts to a tribunal, with justice—not to mention solo time—divided equally among all three members of the court.

For those listeners who appreciate above all the interplay of melody at its fullest and purest, this combination might be placed somewhere between the recorded performances of the Benny Goodman trio (with Teddy Wilson, piano, and Gene Krupa, drums) and the Jimmy Giuffre 3, which in addition to the leader's clarinet, included the guitar of Jim Hall and the bass of Jim Atlas or Ralph Pena. In comparison to Goodman's disciplined heat and swing and Giuffre's improvised but programmed, often folksy and pastoral conversations, Weiss is more likely to count off a familiar "Real Book" standard and wait to see what develops.

As the listener, intent on picking up each contributor's statements, my reservations concern not the amount of solo time given the bass but the difficulty of making the sounds of the instrument intelligible, memorable and expressive in proportion to the featured role it obviously has earned. With a few notable exceptions—ECM's reproduction of Dave Holland's sound would be one—recorded bass frequencies are being overly boosted and the tones homogenized at the expense of the attack, the treble overtones, the sound of finger flesh against gut string, the unique properties of the wooden sound board, the natural acoustics of the room, and the space between the instrument and the human ear. (The next CD on my player just happened to be a reissue of Scotty LaFaro's bass as recorded with pianist Hampton Hawes on the Contemporary label over 45 years ago. In terms of clarity and definition, the earlier recording was superior, and not by just a little.)

Mort Weiss Trio
The Four Of Us: Live At Steamers

The same threesome picks up veteran drummer Roy McCurdy for the third of the three dates, The Four Of Us: Live At Steamers (SMS Jazz, 2005). It's hard to believe this is the same percussionist who was once stirring up thunder and lightning for Sonny Rollins' ventures into free jazz not to mention hard-core funk for Julian and Nat Adderley. On the present date, he's the quietest member of the group—more evidence of the reversed priorities in balancing the recorded sound of a rhythm section (I can remember when drums were actually loud) but also, I suspect, testimony to the drummer's versatility and impeccable taste.

"The Song Is You," with the usual hazardous Kern bridge, is not an easy tune at any tempo, but this accomplished and empathetic foursome takes to its challenging harmonies like B. B. King to a blues (which, incidentally, ends this programmatically diverse set). It's taken at the speed limit yet remains relaxed and comfortably in the pocket, with Weiss' fluid clarinet taking the melody to places where again even the composer might follow in spite of himself (Kern was so recalcitrant that he tried every legal means to prevent musicians from taking liberties with "All The Things You Are"). And any questions about the importance of Carpenter's voice as a soloist in the ensemble are settled when Escheté, finishing his two choruses, turns matters over to the virtuoso bassist for an additional facile two choruses—like Parker handing off to Gillespie on "Shaw Nuff."

McCurdy and Carpenter are locked tight in the groove for the most part, with the drummer receiving a short featured spot on Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas." And even though the sound is in the background, the presence of the drums provides just enough contrast and variation to prevent the bass solos from wearing out their welcome while making the switches from a 4/4 to 2/4 time feel (or vice versa) both more effective and practical.

Finally, the on-location recording ensures that not only the musicians but also the listener is very much in on the action, which captures the audience's responsiveness to the music as well as the leader's communication with the audience. Weiss is a musician whose enthusiasm, verbal encouragements and comments are palpable additions on virtually all of his recordings. But capture him in a setting where the crowd is actually present and "alive" yet respectfully attentive (compare this house to the gratuitous "noisiness" of the crowd on Wynton Marsalis' Live At The House Of Tribes), and the man is clearly in his element. The listeners, moreover, save their audible approval for the special moments— like Weiss' expressive, upper-register solo on "I Thought About You" and Escheté's building chordal excitement on "East of the Sun"—that have clearly earned it.

And so with these three dates under his belt, the karate-practicing clarinetist is clearly prepared to take on meaner comers and greater challenges. What's next for the irrepressible and recharged 70-year-old? A symphony orchestra? It's been done. How about a move sufficiently reactionary to be radical—a session featuring a single clarinet, with a title like "Just You, Just Me"? With a pure player and non-careerist musician like Mort Weiss, only one thing is certain: he's likely to be as surprised as the rest of us.

Tracks and Personnel

No Place To Hide: A Duet

Tracks: Pent Up House; If I Had You; The Lamp Is Low; I Love You; Falling In Love With Love; Lover Man; Sonnymoon For Two; East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon; Bye, Bye Blackbird; Now Is The Time; You're My Everything; Out Of Nowhere; Autumn In New York; Yardbird Suite; The Shadow Of Your Smile/Here's That Rainy Day; Days Of Wine And Roses; My Buddy/Someday My Prince Will Come; Indian Summer; Gone With The Wind.

Personnel: Ron Escheté: guitar; Mort Weiss: clarinet.

The Three Of Us

Tracks: Look For The Sliver Lining; Time After Time; You Go To My Head; I'll Remember April; Billie's Bounce; Soon; I Left My Heart In San Francisco; Groovin' High; My Secret Love.

Personnel: Mort Weiss: clarinet; Ron Escheté: seven string guitar; Dave Carpenter: bass.

The Four Of Us: Live At Steamers

Tracks: The Song Is You; I Thought About You; East Of The Sun; Over The Rainbow; St. Thomas; Stella By Starlight; Embraceable You; Blues In The Closet.

Personnel: Mort Weiss: clarinet; Ron Escheté: seven string guitar; Dave Carpenter: bass; Roy McCurdy: drums.

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