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Rare and Unusual Instruments in Jazz


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Historically the cornet was the quintessential jazz instrument but over a century of its evolution other instruments have also become part of the regular jazz armamentarium. These include common ones such as the piano, saxophone, bass and drums to the more occasionally appearing violin, clarinet and other percussion instruments. There are few, however, that exhibit unique sounds and though infrequently utilized within the jazz mainstream, represent a fresh and delightfully unusual approach to the music by its ingenious practitioners.

The following list includes musicians who mostly or almost exclusively play these rare instruments. It does not include those who occasionally use them for effect or in conjunction to their primary axe.

Rufus Harley
Re-creation of the Gods

Perhaps the most unusual of the bunch is the bagpipe, a reservoir of air and enclosed reeds that comes in many varieties depending on geographic origin. The most commonly used type in modern times is the Scottish version and the most accomplished piper in jazz played this type. Rufus Harley was a tenor saxophonist who picked up the bagpipe after being enamored by it when he heard it played at president John F Kennedy's funeral. He recorded a handful of albums for the Atlantic label but perhaps, his most uniformly superb record is the live 1972 date captured on the small Transparency label, Re-creation of the Gods. The disc is solidly in the soul-jazz tradition with a strong sense of spirituality and an earthy groove that organist Bill Mason helps create. Harley's expansive tone on the bagpipes is reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk blowing into a manzello and a saxophone simultaneously.

Lyle Ritz
How About Uke?
Verve Records

Another uncommon jazz instrument is the ukulele or the uke. This four-string lute descendant of Portuguese and Hawaiian origin has only a few proponents in jazz and none as innovative as Lyle Ritz. Ritz started his musical career as a tubaist and a bassist and picked up a tenor uke in the mid 1950s. His masterpiece remains his debut, How About Uke? (Verve 1957). In the hands of Ritz the ukulele produces a gentle lyricism. He coaxes out of those strings elegantly agile lines that complement, on some of the tracks, flautist Don Shelton's breezy muscularity.

Dorothy Ashby
Verve Records

As far as size and number of strings are concerned there is no better antithesis to the ukulele as the harp. The iconic instrument of angels has had a long history in both western classical and eastern traditional music but its use in jazz was a little more than a novelty until the appearance of Dorothy Ashby. Trained as a pianist, Ashby switched to harp early in her career. She recorded several superb bop oriented albums in the 1950s and 1960s but her landmark work remains the soulful Afro-Harping (Cadet 1968). Her unique sound and ingenious approach to the instrument is at the forefront throughout the disc. Her intricate phrases glide and dance with swagger over the funky groove of arranger and conductor Richard Evans orchestra.

Jean "Toots" Thielemans
Man Bites Harmonica

Another "harp," the ubiquitous mouth harp or harmonica is surprisingly rare in jazz. One of the main proponents of this small, free reed instrument is Belgian maestro Jean Toots Thielemans. Originally a guitarist Thielemans who also excelled in whistling he recorded several superlative recordings on the harmonica, but the one with the most delightfully distinct sound is Man Bites Harmonica (Riverside 1958). Supported by a tightly swinging rhythm section of pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Art Taylor, Thielemans is matched on the frontline with Baritonist Pepper Adams' smooth, buttery tone. The result is a distinctive combination of aural and harmonic color that intrigues and charms.

Richard Galliano
French Touch

Another free reed instrument the accordion has been associated mostly with European folk music and the Argentinian tango. Pianist Bennie Moten's relative Buster Moten played blues and jazz on the accordion from the early 1920s to the mid 1930s but the instrument did not gain any proponents in jazz until frenchman Richard Galliano innovatively stretched its boundaries making it a genuine improvisational tool and a valid jazz instrument. Galliano's entire oeuvre contains very few, if any, weak spots but his jazziest recording remains French Touch (Dreyfus 1998). Joined only by a bassist and a drummer Galliano showcases his ingenious virtuosity with sophisticated spontaneity. The disc also focuses on his compositional skills as majority of pieces are his originals.

Michael Rabinowitz
Gabrielle's Balloon
Jazz Focus

Of all the double reed instruments the bassoon has made the most appearances in jazz. Although a mainstay of western classical orchestras, there are only a handful of full time jazz bassoonists. The most accomplished and prolific of them is Michael Rabinowitz. A member of the Mingus Orchestra, Rabinowitz has recorded half a dozen superb albums, but his Gabrielle's Balloon (Jazz Focus, 1997) remains his best. Rabinowitz is the lone wind instrument on the album and he demonstrates thrilling agility as he weaves dark, warm lines of melody around the sympathetic rhythm section.

Julius Watkins
Julius Watkins Sextet Volumes 1 and 2
Blue Note

Another aerophone that is part of the classical orchestra but is seldom utilized in jazz is the French Horn. The man who did the most with it in the jazz context was Julius Watkins. Watkins was trained from age nine on the horn but played trumpet early in his career. He became the first person to introduce the French horn with its mellow, pillowy tone to the jazz mainstream. His best work remains his debut Julius Watkins Sextet Volumes 1 and 2 (Blue Note, 1955). With lyrical bassist Oscar Pettiford anchoring the music Watkins alternates sharing the frontline with tenorists Frank Foster and Hank Mobley while drummers Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke take turns propelling the stimulating Watkins compositions and one a piece each of the pianists, Duke Jordan and George Butcher. Obscure guitarist Perry Lopez adds a lilting touch to most of the tracks.

Pepper Adams (with Bernard McKinney
The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams

A brass instrument that is often left out of jazz ensembles is the euphonium. The fuller and darker sounding cousin of the baritone horn is a concert instrument with little soloing opportunity in the current classical literature. In jazz, the premier euphonist is Kiane Zawadi (Bernard McKinney). He, unfortunately has not lead any recording sessions but gets ample soloing time on baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams' The Cool Sound Of Pepper Adams (Savoy, 1957). The two, low-register horns complement one another other and give the disc a suave swagger and a dark, indigo tone. With brothers Hank Jones and Elvin Jones on the piano and drums respectively and bassist George Duvivier completing the rhythm section, this is a stimulating and captivating album that has weathered the test of time.

The Modern Jazz Disciples
Complete Recordings: The Modern Jazz Disciples and Right Down Front
Fresh Sound

A relatively new addition to the brass family, the normaphone was quickly abandoned after only a few decades. Shaped like a saxophone but with a trumpet's mouthpiece and piston or rotary valves, the tenor version of it sounds very much like a bass trumpet or a valve trombone. The only documented alto normaphone player in jazz is William "Hicky" Kelley. An euphonist by training, Kelley played the normaphone with saxophonist Curtis Peagler's jazz disciples on the latter's two dates for Prestige label in 1959 and 1960. Both records have been reissued on one CD from the Spanish label Fresh Sounds Complete Recordings: The Modern Jazz Disciples and Right Down Front (Fresh Sound, 2012). Kelley's solos are delightfully lithe and melodic and his tone sweet and clear, somewhat reminiscent of an alto horn but smoother. Although far from groundbreaking, this music is uniformly stimulating and engaging.

Red Camp
The New Clavichord

Lastly, among the keyboards some of the piano's predecessors and relatives have been used for additional color on sporadic recordings. They rarely were the main instrument on any album, one exception being pianist Red Camp's The New Clavichord (Cook, 1957) rereleased in 2004 on Smithsonian Folkways. A pianist with several solo recordings to his name, Camp improvises freely on a dozen ragtime and early jazz tunes and he sounds eerily avant-garde. The denser, quieter clavichord, as compared to the piano, brings a uniquely curious and intriguing touch to these short pieces.

These ten recordings demonstrate the versatility of jazz as an art form. These unusual instrumentations also bring a surprisingly refreshing flavor to this ever-evolving and encompassing genre.

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