To the casual listener and in the broadest sense, the different eras of jazz always seem to have had an instrument or two which served as a sort of “face” for it. Hot Jazz called to mind the raucous trumpet dynamism of people like Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan, Bunk Johnson and Bix Beiderbecke. Hot Jazz gave way to swing, which fed many of its star improvisers into it while morphing into big band. These two closely linked genres also had their share of star soloists playing s diversity of instruments but with not necessarily an instrument but instead the musician/bandleader’s persona coming immediately to mind (Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Jimmy Lucenford et al). The 1950’s & 60’s when jazz was perhaps showing exactly how protean a medium it was, saw the emergence of the saxophone hero and keyboard virtuoso both of which had previously existed in past eras but never to such a high degree. From when jazz was still spelled with double “s” there was always the presence of the clarinet.
This instrument whether immediately up front or as part of a (big) band makes a perfect marriage with an art form one of whose appeal is that it is ever in flux. One reason is how close to a voice having a conversation it can sound. It sets the mood with if not the cadence of the teller than the atmosphere of the place. It can be bluesy, offering up indigos of “might have been” or loss of what was. It can be more cerebral giving avant-garde complexity or discordance. Or it can be outright beautiful, making one smile at both what is being said and in what a tone. Of course all of this can be said about many of the instruments which have been with jazz from day one. With some though, their roles changed, became more important than merely supplying a beat or bottom. Others did not begin to sing their own song outside of the body of the group until the music was well on its way. Clarinet has been there since day one with great soloists not dominating any specific era but always included in it.
Now based in Belgium, Welsh Clarinetist Daniel McBrearty has a new album out titled Clarinet Swing. Overall the album has some of the warmest sonics I have heard in a long time akin to a listening on vinyl effect. The album features a trio which eschews a drummer in favor of the subtly percussive effects of the piano.
“Poor Butterfly” (1917) is a standard which has been covered memorably many times. It was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (1904) and even briefly quotes the duet in the vocal version’s verses from act twos duet “Tutti I Fior”. One of the song’s reasons for remaining endearing to musicians is its inherent ability to be done in varying ways and not have an interpretation sound emotionally “off”. Here the song’s tempo is taken at a comfortable stroll. In Daniel’s hands it is bluesy but more in the vein of a missed last call connection than the fatality of silk blindfolds and cherry blossoms. Daniel’s playing is precise but loose which prevents this from ever feeling like a studied exercise in yesteryear nostalgia.
“Jitterbug Waltz” the perennial waltz timed standard by Fats Waller, is done beautifully casual. Made up of pre-bop standards and some originals, the album overall is inspired by another time but never gets bogged down in being merely an exacting recreation. Jazz is about the songs but even those when done by their authors varied in performance according to how they felt and where they were playing and with whom. This fluidity allowed for a piece to not lose its identity while still giving forth fresh enjoyments. This album offers a glimpse at another age but never lets a feeling of detachment enter in; as can happen when listening to an older recording or one that strives to be too meticulously mirroring its ancestors. Pianist Dirk Van der Linden is a perfect fit for this project. Even when one listens to a great such as Teddy Wilson playing with clarinetist Benny Goodman, there was, despite his immense abilities never the distraction of always filling in the empty spaces with virtuosic notes or runs. One of the things which made someone like Teddy Wilson great was his overall tastefulness in what he played. There are plenty of great pianists playing older standards and even in the same cadence as they originally appeared but the temptation for a pianist to relentlessly show what they are made of sometimes proves too great. Throughout the album Dirk takes solos which show what a great ivory tickler he is but as enjoyable as his solos are it is his overall tastefulness, knowing exactly the right amount to add to each piece which bolsters many of the pieces.
“Vikanda” is one of the album’s original tunes. It was named for a friend of Daniels who passed away. The song has a bittersweet air but is never overly maudlin. Jean Van Lint’s bass is all contemplative richness in this piece. He has a nice solo break in the piece which exudes an air of nostalgia not for a time or place but a person, vividly remembered and with a different face for each of us. The bass is the burnished richness of the perfect bar to which one would always desire to return to while the tone most often of the clarinet has a woodiness that is the perfect pour of bourbon to rest upon it.
“Body and Soul” is tackled, as some connoisseurs may feel that this song is owned by Coleman Hawkins or Billy Holiday it is a bold move to attempt. Smartly, Daniel notes in the liner notes;
“With such a known tune it is hard to say something new…”
And here it is offered up, a straight reading of the song which shows the great interplay among the trio. It is the equivalent of getting a familiar dish at a restaurant, not deconstructed or reimagined but just as it was initially conceived and spot on.
The CD comes in standard packaging with brief liner notes describing each song. Just as a good chef knows the mantra that one eats with one’s eyes first so too can it be with CDs. The cover art is fun with graphics and font the recall the heyday of jazz’s cultural pre-rock importance.
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