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.