Last week I named The Clarinets at Barbés as best gig of 2006. I doubt that anyone else reading this would have reacted the same way, but hey, I’m not here to convince anyone to go out and listen to anything in particular. At best, I may be able to communicate some information about clarinets that isn’t in the general discussion of this blog, yet.

In a world where the best acoustical environment we have to listen to music in our everyday lives is inside of our cars or on headphones* in the subway during our everyday commute to work, live gigs become the only way to focus completely, to shut out everything and concentrate on hearing the music.

Barbés is a bar with a back room where most of the musicians associated with the improvising/new music scene in the neighborhood of south slope Brooklyn play frequently. It serves as an extension of the living rooms and basements where days are passed practicing, composing, or in rehearsal sessions for projects which may or may not result in gigs, recordings and tours. I wish I could get there more often.

I am predisposed to liking clarinets and clarinetists, which I will explain later. Somehow, I’m guessing during one of the Mexican-spice-fests-of-a-dinner in Oscar’s kitchen, my three favorite clarinetists decided to form a trio and began playing once a month at Barbés. This wasn’t bound to be like some barbershop quartet (or saxophone quartet, for that matter) with each person playing either the melody, tenor, or bass in harmony of a three-part chord. I ran into Anthony Burr one day as he was walking his dog after spending the day in a recording studio. Apparently, the work of minimalist composers can be quite exhausting because one spends the day varying the tone of single notes over the top of other single notes to create different resonances, requiring immense amounts of concentration and jaw muscle strength. I can’t imagine him wanting to explore traditional harmonies in this trio. Oscar Noriega’s background may have been quite different, but it led him to want to explore similar themes in this trio. Elsewhere, he plays with Soul Slavic Party, his own quartet, and other groups I haven’t heard about because I keep my head in the sand sometimes. Chris Speed, who started a label called Skirl, has catalyzed a few other groups into finally recording a few of the projects in the community. There isn’t enough space for me to recite his discography. Let’s just say that having mastered traditional harmonics and ‘jazz’ improvisation, he has gone out in exploration of non-canonized new territories such as gypsy and Bulgarian folk music. (Not to be dismissive of the genre, but every clarinetist in New York knows how to play Klezmer). This fuses in his brain and we get results that I can’t articulate, even though I played clarinet and have listened to a whole lot of music over the years.** There is a recording out of The Clarinets which is fantastic, but can never quite duplicate what it sounds like to hear them live. Because I know them all too well, I close my eyes and I can hear each of the personalities practically speaking to each other in an overtone language of another world.

The predisposition part of it all: when I was a child, I studied clarinet for a few years and then went through a brief and traumatic period during which I all of my grades plummeted because I stopped being present in school. During that time the best form of solace I could find was in retreating into a basement room where I mastered various harmonic scales, chromatics, arpeggios, cadenzas; slurring, tonguing and trilling techniques; jumps in registers giving rise to different voicings; and how various time signatures with different meters/tempos work within a composition. Critically, I did not make it to the point where I was required to improvise more than a few bars at a time during band practice.

The outcome of all this practice was that when I performed some rhapsody as a duet with a concert pianist at some state recital in the eighth grade a lot of whispering ensued. When one is being judged as a child, especially when one is slightly depressed and almost failing out of some of her classes because she is simply not making it to class, the whispering of adults becomes especially unnerving. I remember standing there, being embarrassed about my haircut and clothing, not understanding anything about anything going on around me, when one of the judges finally made the public declaration of “That is the best performance we’ve heard all day” and then, abruptly, escorted me out of the building, across a parking lot, and into another building where I was asked to sight read some more music. “Remarkable tone”, “please study this,” and then, even more harrowingly, I was seated as first chair of the second clarinets in the all-state high school honors band slated to perform a concert that evening. This does not have the traditional happy ending; I quit playing the clarinet less than a year later. Official reason: I disliked the available repertoire of Mozart concertos and dixieland bands for clarinets. I also moved from living with my dad to living with my mom*** and there was no fucking way I was wearing any marching band outfit as I began trying to make friends in a new high school.

About six years later, during one of those humbling moments in the music library of KTRU, I finally heard the music of one John Wallace Carter, which was like some mainline shot to my central nervous system. Involuntarily, my hearing became much more acute as I recognized the instrument without understanding much of anything of what he was able to do with it. His playing is liquid. Even having heard Eric Dolphy, Don Byron, Michael Moore, David Krakauer, Hamiet Bluiett, Marty Ehrlich, Gianluigi Trovesi and others, John Carter still stands out. For one thing, he doesn’t play the clarinet as if it were a saxophone and for another, his compositions are rich with the American folklore of children’s games, slave chants, storytelling in dialect, and harmonicas combined with the principles of Ornette’s free jazz. He and Ornette grew up playing together in Fort Worth, Texas in the 40’s, and I would suggest that anytime the Local Music DJs at KTRU get bored, they could expand their definition of local to include the regional contributions to free jazz. My favorite recordings are the ones he did in his later years, and they are: Shadows on a Wall, Fields, Dance of the Love Ghosts, and Castles of Ghana. As a side note, rather than reading the blowhard reviews in the All Music Guide, I would recommend first listening to the music. Here’s a link to Fields– I must warn the bass clarinet enthusiasts out there, that is not John Carter, it’s Marty Ehrlich on that extended bass clarinet solo. Mr. Carter sticks to his B flat soprano clarinet.

If you ever come to Brooklyn, go to Barbés.

*One can not wear the Sennheiser sound cancellation ones inside of the New York subway system without asking everyone around to beat the crap out of you. Only the biggest social idiots wear those. I have the ones that you have to wet with your mouth and then shove deep in your ears so that they form an acoustical seal to the environmental noise around. They work really well. It’s so great to see all of the gestures of multiple conversations, people moving in and out of the doors, the train rattling along, but hear only, say, German minimal techno or a new Threadgill record.

**Fair disclosure: Chris and I used to be very close, so I hear his music in a particular way, and I can’t pretend to be a dispassionate reviewer. With that qualification in mind, he’s the best damned clarinetist in the world right now. Sorry, I’m extremely biased; this is a blog entry, not a magazine article.

***My mother and I had a few fights because I wanted an electric guitar. She thought it was a phase I was going through.

26 comments to clarinets

  • Matthew Thurman

    Once again, the incredibly small world that we live in is winding itself into a much tighter sphere…the universe is not expanding, rather we are becoming one…or in more modern terms: “Holy shit, I was just at Barbes last night!”
    I only live a few blocks away from the joint, but I have to admit I don’t get there very often. It’s a fairly eclectic place…a lot of slavic banjo festivals with yodelers who claim to have met Christ. Bliss Blood also plays there occasionally, but I also have yet to catch that. Last night(Sunday) we saw Stephane Wrembel, a French guitar player who basically worships Django…well, he wore a Django T-Shirt anyway. But he does play in the Gypsy Jazz style, although last night he played with a keyboardist, and a drummer. The keyboard was yer basic poly synth with a lot of flashing lights, and buttons, switches, adjustable fribberjesters, complete with off-cock and machine wrapped with butter, but the dude was getting a very tasteful Hammond B-3 sound out of the thing, and his basslines were very loud, and full. Nice. The drummer was perhaps a bit out of his element, he was sort of struggling on a few of the more uptempo numbers and he made a buncha mistakes, but I really dug his playing…it was cool to see him after a song just look around as if to say ” Whew! This is a bitch, but I’m hanging in there…let’s go!” And finally, Stephane played a nice l’il acoustic(complete w/ pickup, through a small amp), with blinding speed, much like Django, except on a few numbers, he kicked on a tube screamer and wah-wah and took this band of gypsies into the spaceways. Pretty cool.
    Those that know me well, know of my unabashed love for Eric Dolphy. I have all of his official records as a leader, and several where plays on someone else’s date, and while it’s hard to say whether or not he’s my favorite musician, I can probaly say that he might be my favorite SOLOIST of all time. Just maybe. His alto, and flute work is astounding, but it is his bass clarinet playing that I think really defines him. If you’re new to him, I would say it’s time to plug in, and I would recommend going with the Live At The Five Spot Discs with Booker Little. If you want a li’l avant garde, then head for the Blue Note’s “Out To Lunch”…one of the greatest albums of all time-hands down. He also really stands out on Andrew Hill’s “Point Of Departure”, and of course, his arrangements for Coltrane’s “Africa Brass” are outstanding. Hell, I’m just crazy about the man, get it all. Or, if you’re ever in the mood for something really out there…see if you can find Anthony Braxton’s “In The Tradition Vol. 1”, an album of standards, where Braxton plays a variety of reeds. He does this Contrabass clarinet solo on “Ornithology” where the notes are so low and rumbling…it’s fucking hysterical. I love it.

  • Justin

    I used to play Ornette Coleman and other free jazz types pretty regularly on my version of the Local Show. So there.

  • Justin

    Also, it amuses me that Matthew and Heidi might be in the same room and not recognize each other.

  • stu

    Hey! I’m an Eric Dolphy freak as well!
    I first got into him listening to Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ about 10 years ago and even amongst that seeming cacophany, something about Dolphy stood out to me. I got ‘Out To Lunch’ the next day and was hooked.

    I also love John Carter’s Castles of Ghana, and I should probably get more of his stuff.

    I half-assedly tried to learn the bass clarinet a few years ago. That shit is hard! Anybody who can make a halfway decent noise out of that thing has my utmost respect.

  • John Cramer

    Wow Heidi, you get my vote for best post to date. Thanks a lot, now I have to follow it somehow.

  • Daniel

    I half-assedly tried to learn the bass clarinet a few years ago. That shit is hard! Anybody who can make a halfway decent noise out of that thing has my utmost respect.

    If you think that’s hard, try playing the contrabass clarinet, aka “the paper clip.” I played one on part of Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony when I was a junior in high school; I think it was meant to imitate the sound of a bowed string bass. We couldn’t find a real CBC reed, so the first-chair clarinetist (who was much, much better than me) had to work down a bass sax reed to the point where I could play it. The instrument itself wasn’t in great condition either- I had to hold it together with a watch. et cetera.

    Anyway, the sound of the thing was so low and I had to play so quietly that I couldn’t even really hear myself, but damn if it wasn’t fun blowing into a six-foot paper clip.

  • Matthew Thurman

    Justin, it might also amuse you to know that last night I saw yer picture on MySpace, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that, indeed, you were the person that I’d been picturing in my head all this time…I mean, I wasn’t completely sure, and we never really spoke much during my time in Houston, so I wasn’t completely sure…this is so embarrassing.

  • heids

    Daniel, you must have had one helluva set of lungs and embrochure to get any noise out at all. It’s admirable that your school system was exposing you all to Shostakovich at such a young age. Where was your school, if you don’t mind my asking?

    Anybody ever try playing a contrabassoon?

    John, just think of it as a lead into your post. I’m sure yours will be equally fantastic, as usual. This was just a rare indulgence for me.

    Matt and Stu, I have to agree with you both on Out to Lunch. I can’t quite imagine what it must have been like to see Dolphy perform live. And Justin, it will happen that either Matt or I will post something and we will realize we were in the same room without knowing it. I’m just waiting for that to happen.

  • Justin

    Aww. I have sexy dreams with you in them too, Matthew.

  • heids

    Also, for anybody who is in town and up for it:

    This friday! Party starts at 8pm. Performances at 9pm.
    A one-year (almost) anniversay celebration of SKIRL records!
    Shelley Burgon and Trevor Dunn play
    Lawrence Krauser reads and A special guest does something special
    This Salon-Saloon is a celebration year of SKIRL records, the brainchild of downtown jazz luminary Chris Speed. On the eve of the label’s first anniversary, Skirl Records is preparing to launch the February reunion tour of Human Feel who’s new CD will be finished on the 24th. Come help us support this exciting label and community of musicians.
    The Loft of Paul Willis in DUMBO
    135 Plymouth #305, Brooklyn
    F Train to York

    $5 gets you in
    $10 gets you in and 3 drinks
    $20 and you drink for free all night
    $50 = happy ending
    Beer and Wine and Professor Connelly’s special Hot Whiskeys.
    Oh, and a bottle of Sake.

  • Matthew Thurman

    Yeah…there was this weird period a couple of years ago, where I went to about 4-5 shows in one week, and Jim Jarmusch was at every single one of them. It sort of validated me…really made me feel like one cool dude, like I must be onto something. I’m not sure I would know if Heidi was in the same room with me or not, which could be an odd feeling. Anyway…there’s this guy that sells bootleg videotapes on Saint Marks Place, he also has a booth at the WFMU Record Fair, and I bought one of the Coltrane ones from different European TV appearances, and some of the songs are from ’61 when Dolphy was in the group, but he doesn’t really do much soloing, and the director always has him standing behind an artificial window-frame set piece, or next to a fucking street-lamp. Drives me crazy.

  • Daniel

    Daniel, you must have had one helluva set of lungs and embrochure to get any noise out at all. It’s admirable that your school system was exposing you all to Shostakovich at such a young age. Where was your school, if you don’t mind my asking?

    I went to Dunwoody High in a suburb of Atlanta. We had a fabulous band director named Jack Jean. His tastes were all over the map- for that same program we played a rather obscure modern piece called Saga of the Clouds by a composer named Tull that called for the low brass to play those twirly hooting hoses. It also required a water gong, an anvil, and a set of crotales (small flat cymbals played with a bow- they sound like the opening notes in the Star Trek: TNG theme).

    This was in band class; that same year we played Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah in symphonic orchestra (I was specially recruited to play bass drum. BOOM! BOOM!), while the marching band played music from Pocahontas. The Disney movie. We all thought that was gonna suck but it turned out to be a total blast.

    He traditionally would announce the theme of the following year’s marching band show at the band banquet in May; at the banquet my junior year he announced that the next year’s theme would be PIRATES. Then he left for a larger school during the summer. There were some rumors that he was forced out due to personal issues but I think the other school probably just offered him more money. Other choice selections from his tenure included the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Zorba the Greek,” “Brazil” (again, from the film) and “Jaws.” I felt, and still feel, very lucky to have played under him and I was pretty crushed when he left. Not to take anything away from the dude who replaced him, Derrick something-or-other, who was totally cool (he had a tattoo of which he never admitted the existence, and he let us shave his head after we got high marks at competition) but kind of in over his head.

    To tell the truth I was probably a pretty crappy CBC player. I did an OK job with the embouchre, but I didn’t have much time to practice. We were playing SO quietly that it was all I could do to make any sound at all, and I’m pretty that’s my SKWEEK you can hear on the competition recording of that program.

  • Electramummy

    Hi Heidi and all yous

    I uploaded the John Carter~Fields to the NAPCAST.
    You can also embed a player onto your own blog by following the email I sent earlier. Its a nice piece of music, and thanks for the personal touch this week.


  • John Cramer

    Speaking of, happy B-day today to Jim Jarmusch. He’s 54.

  • dd

    argh! so many things to respond to! so many tangents!

    In terms of Dolphy: you can “see him live” on the Impro-Jazz DVD “In Europe 1961-4”. I got it for my flatmate for Christmas, dunno if he ever watched it but I’m watching it now. The first performance is for German television and shot well but the video compression is kind of blocky and there’s a big “Impro-Jazz” slug in the upper right corner (presumably to prevent piracy but in point of fact it’s annoying). Also the German guy who narrates the radio performance is unsubtitled. But it seems to sound good, at least at the level I can get away with listening to at 12:45 AM in my flat. (The second performance is with the Mingus sextet, and I haven’t watched it yet, but might have by the end of this post.)

    Heidi, marching band is the main reason I *had* a social life in high school. It was sort of like a preview of Rice – all the people who were sort of freaky and sort of dorky in one room. Although of the people from high school I stayed in touch with, none of them were in marching band. But the first script I started writing was going to be a heartwarming story about the zany antics of a marching band. Thank the fucking Lord that that never saw the light of day.

    Dolphy’s playing a solo piece right now called “God Bless The Child” on what the packaging claims is a sax but looks like a bass clarinet or some such to me. It’s awesome. Too bad he’s surrounded by a storm of pixels.

    As far as headphones go, I would be happy if anyone could recommend a pair. Criteria:

    1. Noise-reducing (essential for international travel)
    2. Not earbuds (too damaging to hearing)
    3. Not too dorky to walk around in.
    4. Not the kind that go behind yr ears – don’t work well with my glasses.
    5. Don’t break after a year.

    I’m between headphones right now, which cuts down listening options dramatically.

    This whole Heidi/Matthew and Justin/Matthew in the same room thing reminds me of how JJ Watson and I spent several years living in Houston together, my band playing at clubs he was working at, common friends, etc., and I didn’t get to know him til I moved to Portland.

    There was just a big glitchy thing on the disc at 14:35. Consider this an official de-recommendation of Impro-Jazz. Shame; they’ve got a lot of releases and I’d happily go crazy picking them up. (This is a good place to recommend Coltrane DVDs, by the way; there must be a good one out there. No?)

    I would be tempted to buy the Clarinets CD but they say to email for international shipping charges and I’m lazy.

    But mostly I wanted to say that I’m proud that another NAP writer has taken my lead with a lower-case blog title.

    Hey, the Mingus sextet performance doesn’t have the stupid slug in the right hand corner! Much lower fidelity though.

    Happy birthday, Jim Jarmusch!

    Okay, I’ll stop now. Thanks for the personal reminisce, Heidi.

  • Roberto

    Agh, heids, your posts have consistently reminded me about the great things I missed about living in NYC, so thank you. But this one (with its accompanying thread of comments) reminds me all too well one of the reasons i didnt like living in nyc. I dont know exactly what it is, but ultimately i think its the feeling of having all this stuff around me and not being able to get a grip on any of it. Like dd says, too many tangents or something. And more often that not all the tangents would seem to represent to me (and probably only to me) something that hurts me deep in my stomach. Beginning with Eric Dolphy, who I would probably like better if he didnt remind me of my ex-girlfriend who decided one day that she wanted to sleep with my housemate every other night and who loooooveeeed Dolphy, to all the stories about high school band experiences playing obscure instruments i’ve never even had the chance to hold in my hand (I had a friend who had a clarinet once, thats it). And places like barbes scare me in the way that rich people’s parties do (though after a few drinks i always end up enjoying them), but before the drinks I always get the feeling like that guy paying for cash in the visa check card commercial. I dont know, i’m sure its some deep psychosis about people that actually have it together and have figured a few things out and are having a conversation with others that have figured it out too in a way i dont understand and no one is explaining, como un cierto no se que, que huele of elitism to me and i have a real hard time with that. One day i should discuss it with some therapist, except i’ll probably just drink it away instead. But come on, Jim Jarmush? Happy birthday Jim Jarmush? Does anyone here really care if JJ has a good birthday or not? does anyone know JJ? wait dont answer, I’m sure someone must. It really kind of turns my stomach. I’m gonna go have a drink. Cause i’m already feeling like a total idiot for even having the above thoughts, not to mention writing them down and do i dare hit publish?

  • dd

    Roberto, Jim J. has given me enough good things in life (DEAD MAN, GHOST DOG, MYSTERY TRAIN, DOWN BY LAW, YEAR OF THE HORSE, etc.) that the least he deserves is a good birthday.

    Shit, I should have gone to bed when I said I was.

  • Roberto

    dd, i certainly didn’t mean to imply that JJ didnt deserve to have a good birthday. and i have liked some of his movies quite a bit too.

  • heids

    Roberto- It’s going to take me a little bit of time to come up with a thoughtful response… but, lemme just say, about the ‘girlfriend’ who looovvved Eric Dolphy, I don’t think understanding Dolphy’s music on any level means you’re soooo frrreeee that you sleep with your boyfriend’s housemate. I’m inclined to think she was a bit of an idiot in spite of her relationship with you. I also don’t think you need therapy just because nyc can seem a little overwhelming and intimidating. If you only knew half of the stories behind the lives of the people that frequent Barbes, you’d love it. Click on the Oscar Noriega interview- you’ll see what I mean.

  • Kilian

    New York is like the blogosphere. It’s overwhelming and intimidating but if you stick your foot in there you don’t have to go very far to find something you like. You’ll never see it all but what you see is alright.

    Heidi – yes thanks for the personal memoir very tasty stuff.

    I was never in high school band because the Jesuits didn’t really have a band. The “marching band” was modeled after Rice’s Mob but only played kazoos. My mom was in marching band. She was a total dork and claims that band was what got her out into the world. She greeted JFK’s plane when it landed in Dallas, although I don’t think she played taps later.

  • Son of Ravyn

    Wow. That story is beautiful. I now get to out myself as a band dork, as well. I played trumpet in concert/marching/jazz band at St. Thomas H.S. in Houston. The jazz bands were always good, because they were the only ones who cared. The Marching Band never marched; we just shambled out onto the field in complete dissaray, stood in one place, and did our thing. Our instructor had us play an AC/DC show, including Highway to Hell, called Via Ad Infermo to add a classical touch and confuse the football-game attending alumni out of being offended. It was pretty sweet. My younger brother convinced him to do a punk show, but I can’t remember what all they did. I know there was some Clash, and maybe Ramones?
    As a jazz band, we tried to be innovative, playing rock tunes with really wierd instrumentation. We did Blood Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” with bagpipe solos, and something else with didgeridoo (DD, did I spell that right?).
    My crowning moment was winning 2nd place in a state contest hosted by TPSMEA (Texas Private and Parochial Schools Music Education Association). I played in a brass quartet comprised of me as first trumpet, a second trumpet, tuba (euphonium, actually I think), and trigger-bass trombone. We were actually pretty good. We played Giovanni Gabrielli’s “Canzona per sonare No.1” It’s an interesting midieval period contrapuntal arrangement, and was actually pretty challenging. Way harder than Brass Monkey, our football game favorite. If you want to hear it, go to
    This is not my ensemble, but they do a pretty good job. The voicing in the upper horns is a bit too legato, and the low end is murky, but not bad, overall, for another HS ensemble.

    Thaks for the post, Heidi. I really enjoyed it.

  • Son of Ravyn

    That address seems to have gotten messed up. It should be
    Canzona per Sonare No1

    Hey, Sweet! I just learned HTML. Now you won’t have to be annoyed by actuall url’s in my comments anymore. I’m glad I decided not to be SO lazy, and actually figured out how to do that.

  • dd

    SoR, didgeridoos are Australian, not, um, New Zealandian (we usually just say Kiwi). But unrelatedly I do know how it’s spelled and yr. correct.

  • Electramummy

    Not that it really matters… But since I am an Aussie (making me an authority on all matters OZ) and OWN a crappy Didjeridoo, I can tell you that Didgeridoo, Didjeridoo, and Didjeridu are all acceptable spellings.

  • Roberto

    heids, sorry its taken me so long to get back to you on this post. I was reading the noriega interview which was very cool. i always identify with searchers.

    Also i most definitely do not make a direct correlation between my ex-gf’s behavior and Dolphy’s music, but she was so into it that it is hard to hear him without thinking of her, which is not necessarily bad anymore since this was aeons ago and thinking of her doesnt bother me anymore, but I guess its just one of those things where the association will be there until something replaces it. Maybe this blog will do the trick. Also I did like tooting on my friends clarinet back when I used to hang out with her, and I’ve always liked the sound of the woodwinds better than saxophones. At the bottom i guess im a little jealous of people who had band in school. We had no music in my school at all, except for the occaional catholic church song (i think the whold repertoire was like 10 songs).

    Finally, you are right also about how i should get to know the individuals before being intimidated by them as a group, and in the end i am very adaptable once i get past the first few awkward moments when you meet a group of people all of whom know each other and none know me. So i’m sure one day when i’m walking down park slope and see the Barbes sign, i will defintely go in, just so i could tell the bartender that i heard about his place from Heidi on the NAP and i’ m sure i will have a great time, cause i’m well trained to have a good time at bars with music.

  • Son of Ravyn

    Roberto, I tend to be the same way, and certainly the “when you meet a group of people all of whom know each other and none know me” thing applied to me on NAP, with the exceptioin of JC. Now I feel like part of a big, dysfunctional family. Just wanted to say thanks. Oh, just to be a shit, I believe that a sax is technically a woodwind, since the sound is produced by a vibrating wooden reed. Unless of course you use plastic reeds; then it’s a plastic-wind instrument, I guess. It’s never too late to learn, by the way. I would reccomend flute, for starters. Beginning floutists are not as annoying as beginning horns/saxes/reeds in general, and the fingering positions translate directly, though vertically, to sax. They probably also transfer passably to clarinet, though Heids should know better than I; I was always a brass man.