This time around the tune is performed by Ralph Marterie and his ‘Down Beat’ Orchestra, who presumably borrowed the exotic guitar arrangement of the Ellington classic from an earlier recording by the Esquire Boys.
The bass clarinet is easily one of the most interesting instruments to watch, whether your seeing an orchestra or a jazz band. With its curved bell near the floor and mixture of African blackwood and chrome, the bass clarinet is eye-catching. Its sound completely distinct.
Its became more common in classical music during the romantic era, appearing in all of Mahler’s symphonies and all but one of Richard Strauss’ tone poems. Stravinsky used the bass clarinet heavily in his three great ballets, and Steven Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians includes two of them as the piece’s only wind instruments.
But our favorite appearances of the instrument are in jazz. Perhaps the earliest appearance of the instrument is on a 1924 Edison Diamond Disc by Wilbur Sweatman’s Brownies, with the bandleader soloing on his bass clarinet. Jelly Roll Morton added a bass clarinetist to his Red Hot Peppers a few years later, and we have read that Benny Goodman recorded on the instrument but never seen such a recording (we’d love to hear it one day).
Herbie Mann recorded an entire album on the bass clarinet (Great Ideas of Western Mann), but it is not as easily found as those 70s soul jazz hits featuring him as a flautist.
The bass clarinet is a little more common on jazz recordings today than when Herbie Mann made that album in 1957. Chris Potter (heard with both Dave Holland’s and Dave Douglas’ bands as well as others) is a favorite of ours who occasionally plays the instrument. David Murray, a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, has a remarkable timbre on the bass clarinet. Sadly, so many of his records are obscure imports, and even the Cds are difficult to find.
But you can’t think about the bass clarinet and omit Eric Dolphy, who was fortunately very widely recorded before he passed away at the young age of thirty-six. He recorded on the alto saxophone and the flute as well as the bass clarinet, and also on a couple occasions the uncommon soprano clarinet. His virtuosity on all instruments and versatility in all settings left an enormous imprint on jazz.
His style was so expressive, disarmingly personal, yet able to reach into the era of classic jazz with wit and confidence. And it was on the bass clarinet he most beautifully expressed his ideas, which could connect to Stravinsky as surely as to Sweatman.
He worked with such an enormous variety of musicians. As a sideman he worked for some of the era’s best composers (Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane) soaking up all kinds of insight. As a leader he put together unique ensembles and became a notable composer.
One of his last records, Out to Lunch!, opens with two of his original songs for the bass clarinet. The first, “Hat and Beard,” is a playful tribute to Thelonious Monk, and the second, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” has him interacting inventively with the great bassist Richard Davis.
Dolphy’s death in June 1964 from an undiagnosed diabetic condition was an absolute tragedy all around. The world of jazz lost what could have been decades of great music like his new songs on Out to Lunch! That he may have been left by physicians in Berlin to die because they assumed he was a junkie is an example of the institutional racism jazz musicians faced even in purportedly progressive Europe.
Charles Mingus’ liner notes to Last Date, a posthumous live recording from Dolphy’s last month, are a beautiful tribute to the man. “Usually, when a man dies, you remember—or you say you remember—only the good things about him. With Eric, that’s all you could remember. I don’t remember any drags he did to anybody. The man was absolutely without a need to hurt”
Although it would be just about impossible to pick the best song from Jonathan Richman’s albums, this one from Jonathan Goes Country is certainly one of our favorites. It seems fitting for this time of year, when students are doing a little extra traveling before the school year begins.
Folk singer Phil Ochs left us with a heartbreakingly small discography. His seven albums only hint at the depth of his insight and wit, which is why his songs are so often performed by others. “There But for Fortune,” made famous by Joan Baez in 1964, is one of several of Ochs’ songs overdue for a revival.
The message of this song, heard here from Ochs’ last traditional folk album, Phil Ochs In Concert, is deeply relevant to our contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, although he does not explicitly mention race in the song. While Ochs often exercises his satirical side in his songs, “There but for Fortune” is distinguished by its sincere empathy.
Another often-recorded song by Ochs is “Love me, I’m a Liberal,” which also made its debut on his live album.
We’ve read that Phil Ochs in Concert is one of those ‘fake’ live albums, because the recordings from the New York and Boston concerts weren’t entirely use-able and studio recordings were overdubbed with audience sounds. This potential inauthenticity isn’t as significant considering so many of the songs didn’t appear elsewhere on Ochs’ albums (a studio recording of “There but for Fortune” was released on a Vanguard Records compilation in 1964). One of the songs introduced on this album is “When I’m Gone,” which could be seen as the bridge between Ochs’ early political folk career and his later works as a more sentimental singer on albums like the ironically named Greatest Hits. This song is also often performed by folk singers (an especially beautiful interpretation appears on Ani Difranco’s 2000 EP Swing Set) but Ochs’ own recording takes on depth in the wake of his tragic passing in 1976. Like the stark cover of his album Rehearsals for Retirement, “When I’m Gone” is strikingly morbid, but unlike much of his music it offers an insight into the optimism buried deep in Ochs’ soul.
Folk music today is often frustratingly apolitical, and we ache for an Ochs out there today. We’ve heard enough well-heeled suburbanites sing about riding rails n’ ramblin’ to last us a lifetime, and we’d like it once in a while they’d say something about the shitstorm which is this election cycle or our collective denial of an entire generation of black men. Or the shocking extent to which we as a society have apparently decided we’re not going to do anything about climate change. Or the fact that the last verse Buffy Saint Marie’s “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” can be updated with a new alarming injustice to indigenous people basically every year. Instead folk music today seems to be the music of introverted heartbreak, self-loathing and cultural numbness. Phil Ochs probably wouldn’t move a single unit in today’s market.
There was some confusion in our house last evening. I brought home an Ian Hunter album and was listening to it while I finished cleaning up the dishes from dinner. Laura came downstairs and asked, “Why on Earth are you listening to John Cougar?”
“I’m not,” I insisted, a little embarrassed, because you know, John Cougar. “Well then play that last song again,” she said, and that’s when we discovered that John Cougar owes Ian Hunter an apology.