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'A Strict Taskmaster': 5 Ways To Play The Jazz Clarinet

Jimmy Hamilton (left) and Harry Carney were among the reedmen who played clarinet for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
William Gottlieb
The Library of Congress
Jimmy Hamilton (left) and Harry Carney were among the reedmen who played clarinet for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Earlier this year, the clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg released two remarkable albums with two almost entirely different bands. Goldberg has left a mark in many modern improvising contexts, including the New Klezmer Trio he co-founded and the Tin Hat chamber ensemble. So we asked him to reflect on some of his influences on the instrument, past and present. His two new albums, Unfold Ordinary Mind (with Nels Cline and others) and Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (with Ron Miles and Joshua Redman), are available now via Bandcamp or other outlets. --Ed.

I'm happy to have been invited to reflect on five clarinetists whose work has enriched my life, and to share a track by each of them. Clarinet, like many instruments, is a strict taskmaster — an instrument that at times responds better to the oblique glance than direct confrontation — and we are still at the beginning of working out its many wonderful possibilities.

Of course, cultivating difficult terrain with determination and perseverance often yields a flowering of unique and personal beauty. Here are five individuals who have worked that field, and a taste of their lovely and astonishing results.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

5 Possibilities Of The Jazz Clarinet

John Carter

"A Country Blues"

From 'Suite of Early American Folk Pieces for Solo Clarinet'

When I was growing up in Denver in the 1970s, I attended the initial conferences of the International Clarinet Society. Along with presentations of traditional classical repertoire, there was great interest in the possibilities of the clarinet for "New Music." Composers were excited about the range of sounds the instrument could produce using "extended techniques": false fingerings, multiphonics, extreme high notes, quarter-tones, glissandi, speech-like phrasing, circular breathing and so on. I heard a lot of virtuosic, meticulous and spirited performances at these outer edges of clarinetistry.

But I didn't hear John Carter until the 1980s, and I doubt whether the folks at the conferences had heard of him, either. Carter, as this track from 1979 makes clear, had already split that atom, and done so as an improvising, jazz-based composer with a unique voice; he handily incorporated abilities that, to this day, are beyond the range of most clarinetists. John and Bobby Bradford had a wonderful partnership for decades, based on hard work and musical chemistry, that lasted until John passed away in 1991, and I made it a point to hear them whenever I could. John was a gentleman, and a thinker, and you can hear in this track a kind of scientific curiosity — about materials, instrument, musical possibility — coupled with the sly humor and direct expression which have made his music important to me.

Jimmy Hamilton

"Lightning Bugs and Frogs"

From 'Ellington Suites'

Jimmy Hamilton joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra after Barney Bigard left in 1943, and I think it was smart of Ellington to bring in someone whose musical personality was so distinct from Bigard's. Jimmy Hamilton had superb control of the clarinet. His tone was warm and clear, his articulation and phrasing precise — qualities that I associate with the finest "classical" clarinetists. Just listen to the clarity of his opening statement in this cut, as well as the arpeggiated figures around two-thirds of the way through. These skills also enabled him, when called for, to blaze over the top of the orchestra with furious abandon — I recommend listening to his superb work on Ellington's And His Mother Called Him Bill. For an extra clarinet treat in this song, we get Harry Carney's redoubtable bass clarinet anchoring the entire piece.

Jimmy Giuffre

"My All"

From 'Jimmy Giuffre 3'

I was introduced to the music of Jimmy Giuffre by John Zorn. Based on my work with New Klezmer Trio, John had assumed I was familiar with Giuffre; surprised, he sat me down with his vast collection. I had no idea that such a personal, beautiful tone could be produced by a clarinet — honestly, at first I thought I was hearing a flute! — and I've been spellbound ever since. There's something about Giuffre's tone that I feel reminds us that the clarinet is a tube. Jimmy Giuffre and guitarist Jim Hall had such an easy feel together, as two guys who loved melody and evidently knew from experience when to leave beauty to its own devices. This is from a record they made with the sensitive young bassist Ralph Peña, whose career and life was cut short in a tragic car accident, so this record is pretty much what we've got. Giuffre and Hall continued collaborating in a trio with Bob Brookmeyer, and then there's Giuffre's celebrated group with Steve Swallow and Paul Bley. Both of those bands made astonishingly beautiful music, but there's something about the vast and comfortable groove in this trio that keeps me coming back.

Michael Moore

"The Thaw"

From 'Holocene'

Michael Moore is one of my favorite living clarinetists. I think of him as extending certain aspects of the Giuffre legacy; Michael has a seamless, liquid tone with no beginning or end, a rich and darkly mysterious substance that invites contemplation and wonder. (Michael is one of a handful of clarinetists who play on the notoriously difficult crystal mouthpiece. Years ago, I was on tour in Amsterdam just after my clarinets had been stolen, and he generously loaned me a mouthpiece. There I was, at the Bimhuis, struggling to produce even one note, and this is what Michael plays every day!) In addition to possessing one of the world's great clarinet tones, he's also a gifted and dedicated melodist, as I think you can hear in this haunting track.

Sidney Bechet

"Blue Horizon"

From 'Ken Burns Jazz'

The master. I first heard this as a teenager on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (highly recommended as a survey of jazz history), and I couldn't believe the sound. It was as if he'd built the clarinet himself out of a big chunk of ebony that he'd split with an axe. This is one of those songs that, as soon as it starts, I get that feeling of, "I hope he doesn't stop." Sure enough, the song takes off slowly like a giant plane lumbering into the air and just keeps going and going, heading for that lovely horizon. Along the way, we get chorus after chorus of Bechet's profound meditation on the blues.

Ben Goldberg
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