Stoltzman Terrific in Jazz-Influenced Clarinet Music


AMBER WAVES / GERSHWIN: 3 Preludes (arr. J.A. Gach). BERNSTEIN: Clarinet Sonata. McKINLEY: Clarinet Sonata. FISCHER: Clarinet Sonata. HYMAN: Clarinata. ROWLES: The Peacocks. TRAD., arr. STOLTZMAN: Amazing Grace / Richard Stoltzman, cl; Irma Vallecillo, pn / RCA Victor 886446488240

One of my good friends was the late trad jazz clarinetist Frank Powers, a local figure well known for his promulgation of the Johnny Dodds school of playing, and although he did listen to and like much of later jazz (up to and including Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott), he shocked me once by saying that he didn’t like Richard Stoltzman’s tone. This surprised me no end because, even as far back as his days with the chamber group Tashi, Stoltzman always struck me as the one classical clarinetist whose playing and tone were most influenced by such jazz players as Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman.

In this recent release from last May, Stoltzman plays a diverse program of music by jazz-influenced American composers from Gershwin (the oldest) to the still-living nonagenarian Dick Hyman. The only name I did not recognize in this lineup was that of William Thomas McKinley, who died in 2015. McKinley, also influenced by jazz, had a long association with Stoltzman and his fellow Tashi artist, pianist Peter Serkin, in addition to the great British cellist Colin Carr and American conductor Gerard Schwarz.

One of the things that surprised and delighted me immediately was that he included the clarinet sonata by the great, and still underrated, American jazz and classical composer Clare Fischer, whose son Brent I am in touch with (for professional reasons) and who is still issuing new works and arrangements by his late father. Fischer had a discursive and varied musical mind, ranging in his influences from the jazz of Lennie Tristano and Bud Powell to Latin music (primarily Brazilian) and pop. I don’t know if Stoltzman had any personal contact with the late composer, but his performance here will surely bring a smile to Brent’s face.

In my own personal view, only one name is missing from this list, and that would be the great Eddie Sauter, who wrote some extremely interesting classical-influenced jazz pieces for both Goodman and Shaw back in the 1940s. I can’t imagine why Stoltzman didn’t include a piece like Clarinet à la King, one of Sauter’s finest works, or Clarinade. Either one would have made a fine item on this smorgasbord of jazz-classical works.

Personally, I liked Stoltzman’s reading of the Gershwin Preludes, certainly one of his finest works, in what may well be their first transcription for clarinet. Both he and pianist Vallecillo give the music a proper jazz swagger, so often missing from others’ performances—including Gershwin’s own recording, which was locked into an early-1920s ragtime rhythm. Without going into too much detail, these are clearly the best performances of these often-overplayed works I’ve ever heard. This is especially true of the central “blues,” which Stoltzman plays like a jazz pro, with infinite detail and shading of his instrument. I also liked his occasional “acrid” tone in the upper range, although I questioned the addition of a few extra notes at the end.

In the year of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary (2018) we get his clarinet sonata, and this was one Bernstein work with which I was unfamiliar. Considering how much different the Gershwin sounds from everyone else’s versions, I can’t say with certainty how much or now little Stoltzman shifts the rhythms here, but since Bernstein was even more involved with jazz than Gershwin, I’d say that the composer would surely have enjoyed his interpretation. The music is more involved and developed, as was generally the case with Bernstein compositions, but taken on its own merits this is clearly an enjoyable and interesting performance, full of color and an interesting use of dynamics. I particularly liked the way Stoltzman played the gentle “Grazioso” section of the second movement, in which he and his accompanist give the effect of gentle rain sprinkling the musical landscape before suddenly swinging into the “Vivace e leggiero” section (and back again to “Grazioso”).

McKinley, it seems, was constantly sprinkling his scores with such detailed instructions as “Play with a vivid red tone” or “with silver intensity.” A distant cousin of the assassinated 25th president, he also performed as a jazz pianist with such famous names as saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. His clarinet sonata skillfully blends the two worlds, sounding very classical indeed in the opening “Andantino” despite occasional jazz inflections from both Vallecillo and Stoltzman; considering their long working relationship, I’d have to say that the clarinetist presents the composer’s wishes here. There’s a fascinating, upbeat middle section in this movement, with the pianist playing repeated ostinato chords below the clarinetist’s excited high-register outbursts before settling back down into a lyrical vein, a passage that recurs in the movement’s development section. Later on the music that sounds like it could be improvised but is probably written out. The movement ends with a low clarinet trill. In the second movement “Scherzando,” the rhythm is clearly a classical one, albeit syncopated more in a 1920s vein, with the variations working around this motif in double time. The third-movement “Largo” is quintessential Americana in feel and scope, while the final “Maestoso” features high repeated chords from the pianist, with the clarinetist playing an odd, serrated melodic line above it, becoming more frantic as the music progresses. The late Artie Shaw would have loved this piece.

Fischer’s sonata also skillfully blends the jazz and classical worlds. Formally trained but bitten by the jazz bug as a young man, Fischer was forever toying with altered and extended chords, even in some of his more commercial work, and here used rich and fascinating chords in the opening movement, marked “Energetic.” Considering how little the clarinet was featured in post-1960 jazz, it’s notable that Fischer, who loved the instrument, continued to write both solo and concerted numbers for it, often using four- and five-voice clarinet choirs in his orchestrations (which his son Brent has continued to this day). Interestingly, this movement, too, ends with a low clarinet trill. In “Slowly and freely,” Fischer created a dark, moody piece in G-flat that floats through your mind, with sparse piano commentary on the clarinet’s meanderings, with a surprise transition at the end to E major. The last movement, “Metrically Steady With a Lilt,” is a decidedly bitonal 3/4 piece in Fischer’s more complex style, the pianist opening it up with a strange solo before the clarinet enters above it with commentary.

Dick Hyman’s Clarinata is a lively piece, almost a jazz-influenced polka albeit with references to the Eddie Sauter works cited earlier (particularly Clarinade). It’s essentially a virtuosic showpiece with a nice, lyrical “B” theme that acts as an effective contrast to the busyness of the opening and closing sections. By contrast, Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks is slow and atmospheric, with a well-defined melody played, once again, with infinite shadings (and some jazz-influenced note-bending) by Stoltzman while Vallecillo fills in with soft chord punctuations.

Stoltzman’s arrangement of Amazing Grace, a persistently popular but banal piece of hymnody, begins with a cappella clarinet playing the melody straight before introducing jazz-tinged variations in the second chorus. This helps the music considerably.

All in all, then, a surprising and surprisingly good album with truly great performances of both the familiar and unfamiliar works. Clearly, one of Stoltzman’s finest and most interesting albums!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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