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 out to lunch

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.

eric dolphy copenhagen concert

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”

Its interesting to visit seasonal records during their down-time. We don’t necessarily mean pulling out all the Christmas albums in August, although we do have a customer who tells us she does that every summer. Instead, we think of music with a strong seasonal connotation, which becomes an entirely different experience out of that context. For instance, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, which is commonly called “Winter Dreams,” has a very different feel this time of year. Then again, we find ourselves listening to a lot more Tchaikovsky in the winter altogether.

iced over

Tree Party’s most recent disc, Iced Over, now has a couple winters under its belt and we still enjoy the disc as much as we did the first time around. The album of songs centered around Minnesota legends isn’t entirely as wintery as the cover implies, but it is one which seems to get set aside when summer sets in.

We’ve been thinking the same is likely true for the summery-est of songs, too, and we’ve been working on a playlist of songs to re-visit in December when we’re trudging to the shop in snow drifts taller than Irene.

Between now and then, we’re very excited to be participating in Tree Party’s next release, a 45 on our in-house label of two new songs. The sleeves are distinguished by prints from the negatives member Joey Ford found in his father’s photography, and each copy of the single includes a postcard you can send to a friend to share the music. That’s right, each copy comes with two download codes: one for you and one for a friend!

The new single will be released a week from tomorrow with a show at the Cedar Cultural Center. Also performing are the Brass Messengers, who have a new album out as well. Details can be found on the Cedar’s website here. We’re not streaming the songs from the single yet, but here’s a peek at what the singles look like. This is the first of two new 45s with picture sleeves we’ll have out this year from Hymies Records!

tree party single

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.

 

 

Another glass ceiling broken.

only lady hobo on the line

 

phil ochs in concert

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.

Its lyrics are often interpreted anew, as for instance on a 1994 recording by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon or a 2008 single by Kevin Devine, but the message always remains a criticism of center-left politics and faux liberalism. We’d sure welcome a new version of this song today.

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 HitsThis 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.

ian hunter you're never alone

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.

Over two decades and a dozen albums, Lambchop has been one of the most inventive bands making new music. Each record seems like a re-invention. Their next album is due out in November, but this week they posted the eighteen minute closing track, “The Hustle,” on Youtube.

It appears their latest interest is minimalism and electronic music along the lines of composer Terry Reilly. We are very excited to hear the rest of the new album.

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