Music for Like Instruments; The Clarinets
Nine Winds NWCD0279

Ambiance Magnétiques Jazz AM 144

Explorations among the wood, metal and air columns of the reed family, these CDs respectively feature either five or seven clarinetists, yet have widely differing goals.

Part of his ongoing series of woodwind family investigations – earlier volumes link flutes or Eb saxophones – Los Angeles-based multi-reedist Vinny Golia and four associates take 13 tracks to permute characteristics of the clarinet family. Over its 73-minute length, Ab, Eb, A, Bb, G, alto, bass, contralto and contrabass woodwinds make up varying patterns, tempos and textures. Rousing more than dissonant, MUSIC FOR LIKE INSTRUMENTS; THE CLARINETS, resides in a zone somewhere between many Rova Saxophone Quartet CDs and what the woodwind section of an orchestra would sound like jamming away from the public ear.

PEE WEE ET MOI has a different agenda. Featuring Robert Marcel Lepage, one of the major players in Quebec’s Musique Actuelle scene, it’s an exploration of his links to Pee Wee Russell (1906–1969), jazz’s most idiosyncratic reed player. Russell, who over the course of his career played with everyone from Bix Beiderbecke to Thelonious Monk, was his own man in any situation. The strength of his oeuvre is such that LePage, who composes theatre, dance and film pieces as well as improvises, felt, that long with a rhythm section, he had to invite six other clarinetists to share the clarinet role.

Although six reedists often playing in unison may conjure up bad memories of retro-jobs like Supersax, Québécois quirkiness prevents this. With the reed section, including Vancouver’s François Houle, made up of outright modernists and the rhythm section members – guitarist René Lussier, bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay – leaders of their own projects, this isn’t a band likely to play a Dixieland Jazz hotel party any time soon.

Instead, two Russell compositions and 12 of LePage’s are used to sketch a slightly off-kilter view of the older clarinetist’s legacy. Taking Dixie-Swing conventions and turning them on their heads, at any time some of the musicians work from a 1930s base, while a few others are resolutely in the 21st century. Part of the date’s success has to be attributed to Maxime Séguin, who collaborated on the arrangements.

Look what’s done with Russell’s own “Muskogee Blues”, for instance. With Tanguay playing a simple backbeat and Lussier jangling T-Bone Walker-like licks, the tune surges polyrhythmically as one clarinetist growls in false registers like a modern version of Russell, while another emits a more elegant Jimmy Hamilton-like tone. Just after the turnaround the entire ensemble suddenly speeds up, then slows down to mid-tempo for the finale.

Unfortunately the booklet notes don’t name any of the clarinet soloists – surely LePage couldn’t do all the work himself – but the key to this collection of blues lines is how Séguin and LePage alter our perception of Quebec’s Musique Actuelle musicians as much as the purported Dixielanders.

Guilbeault, whose avowed influence is Charles Mingus, slaps his bass à la Pops Foster on “Pee Wee fait des archaïsmes, moi je fais des anachronisms”, while Lussier’s strings scratching suggests a tinny version of Tiny Grimes’ style. Right in the middle of the composition there’s a quick turnabout as the tempo leapfrogs from andante to agitato, followed by a high-pitched clarinet solo that in this context, sounds like Pete Fountain fronting a 1930s Swing Era band.

Similarly, “Pee Wee joue aux échelles et serpents” is a parody two-step, riding on Tanguay’s paradiddles. Here the guitarist showcases distorted strumming in Eddie Lang fashion, as the horn section riffs around him. Reed solo exhibitions include double-tonguing harmonic vibrations and chalumeau excursions.

“Portrait de Pee Wee à la face longue” finds Lussier procuring a Middle-Eastern, lotar-like sound from his axe, creating finger-picking reverb that meets a chorus of spetrofluctuation from one of the clarinetists, with the duo surrounded by repetitive legato riffs from the other reeds.

Fully POMO, despite the instrumentation, other tracks are redolent of Miles Davis’ BIRTH OF THE COOL sessions – if that session had featured crisscrossing rasgueado guitar work; one of Gerry Mulligan pseudo-Swing Era lines, with a clarinet lead, two-beat drumming and the threat of bursting into barnyard cacophony every chorus; and Dixieland as interpreted in the style of French chanson by a marching band. The last includes a species of musical fanfare that springs from the European roots that influenced both Russell and LePage.

Then there’s “Dixie chinois”, which sounds a lot more like Heavy Metal than Chinese music. Still, it does prove that the combined smeared overblowing of seven clarinets, often adding pedal-point snorts, can be as solidly rhythmic as any guitar-laden hard rock band.

Rippling unison section work from the reeds doesn’t upset the foot-tapping fervor of most of the tunes. Who knows maybe because of this the Musique Actuelle types will investigate Pee Wee’s Dixieland and – though doubtful – perhaps a few Classic Jazz fans will try to listen to POMO – or even MO – improvisations.

MUSIC FOR LIKE INSTRUMENTS; THE CLARINETS is definitely POMO and incidentally features a healthy helping of unison improvisation. Yet considering most of the pieces revolve around dexterous layering of mostly basso timbres, probably Trad Jazzers won’t appreciate it either.

Since like Golia the other reedists – Jim Sullivan on G, Bb and bass clarinets, plus Andrew Pask, Cory Wright and Brian Walsh on Bb and bass clarinets – appreciate both improvised and contemporary notated music, the likelihood of Be-Bop revivalists investigating this CD is slim as well. Too bad, for if they did, they could hear the sort of unfussy, contrapuntal roughness that animates the tunes, even if they don’t swing conventionally.

Dissonant rather than atonal, many of the compositions depend on individual jaunty arpeggios or wheezing Klezmer-like glissandi to cut through the robust, low-pitched quintuple counterpoint common to most of them. Atmospheric in sections, extended techniques like tongue slaps, flutter tonguing, altissimo squealing, diaphragm vibrations and split tones are used to relieve the density of the basso tones. Shrill aviary portions, bagpipe-like overblowing from Golia’s alto clarinet, and woody tremolo tones do the same job.

Almost symbolically descriptive of the strategy is “Well Beneath the Sleeping Floor”. With the bass clarinets snorting in harmony as if they were a herd of submerged hippopotami, intervallic peeps from Sullivan’s alto clarinet imply the presence of those tiny birds which perch on the hippo’s backs since Golia’s explosive contrabass blasts can’t seem to dislodge that higher-pitched timbre.

Other gaps among the woody, opaque tunes feature broken octave soling, call-and-response vamps, polyphonic layering and nasal Middle-Eastern ney and musette emulations. Nor is duo and solo work neglected. Walsh’s Bb clarinet solo on the nearly nine-minute “Monuments of Broken Balloons and Burnt Promises”, for instance, is all altissimo flutter-tonguing. Breaking loose from the framed portamento slides and call-and-response rondo of the others that surround it, he introduces languid oscillations that vamp a contrapuntal phrase back and forth. Eventually all five smooth the line out into measured trills.

Somehow Golia’s alto clarinet solo on “Played 2 or 3 Times” ends up sounding a formal as anything Buster Bailey would have played on clarinet 60 years earlier, yet it stands out from the close harmonies of the others. Starting with a solid mass of overblown subterranean tones, the piece gradually splinters into understated harmonies as the combined ensemble takes the line a half-step higher. Pitch-sliding and whistling, the moderato tone finally turns to shrills, with one reedist – Golia? – letting lose with alpine-horn-like implications.

Woodwind fanciers and others interested in the evolution of the clarinet in groups will be drawn to these CDs. Whether you prefer your experimentation neat, or cut with the water of tradition will help you choose between them.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Clarinets: 1. Clown Car Syndrome 2. The Fleming Valve 3. Accumulation 4, You Were The One Who Drew First 5. Which One is the Real Dr, Otto 6. Hand as Tongue 7. Monuments of Broken Balloons and Burnt Promises 8. Blugger! 9. Played 2 or 3 Times 10. Why is that thing so pointy? 11. Well Beneath the Sleeping Floor 12. Five Solo Statements on the Disappearance of Elfego Bacca 13, Tricostomy

Personnel: Clarinets: Vinny Golia (Ab, Eb, A, Bb, alto, bass, contralto and contrabass clarinets and taragoto); Jim Sullivan (G, Bb and bass clarinets); Andrew Pask, Brian Walsh and Cory Wright (Bb and bass clarinets)

Track Listing: Moi: 1. Pee Wee’s Blues 2. Pee Wee fait des archaïsmes, moi je fais des anachronisms 3. Tutti Pee Wee 4. Pee Wee a des papillons sur les doigts 5. Pee Wee souffre d’une labyrinthite 6. Pee Wee joue aux échelles et serpents 7. Dixie chinois 8. Un, deux, trois, Pee Wee 9. Blues au compte-gouttes 10.Le tire-pois 11. Pee Wee Rocks 12. Portrait de Pee Wee à la face longue 13. Le contortionniste 14. Muskogee Blues

Personnel: Moi: Robert Marcel Lepage, Guillaume Bourque, François Houle, Jean-Sébastien Leblanc, André Moisan, clarinet; Pierre-Emmanuel Poizat and Richard Simas (clarinets); René Lussier (guitar); Normand Guilbeault (bass); Pierre Tanguay (drums)