Shifrin Plays Clarinet Quintets “For Our Time”

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CLARINET QUINTETS FOR OUR TIME / ELLINGTON: Ducal Suite (arr. Schiff): Clarinet Lament; Air-Conditioned Jungle; Heaven; Kinda Dukish/Rockin’ in Rhythm. ROGERSON: Thirty Thousand Days. V. COLEMAN: Shotgun Houses / David Shifrin, cl; *Dover Qrt; +Harlem Qrt / Delos DE 3576

Veteran clarinetist David Shifrin presents us with clarinet quintets “for our time,” the first of which reaches way back to the early 1930s when Duke Ellington first wrote and recorded Rockin’ in Rhythm, 1935 for Clarinet Lament, then moving forward to 1943’s Air-Conditioned Jungle and 1968’s Heaven, the latter written for star vocalist Alice Babs who sang it at his Second Sacred Concert.

Almost immediately, we are aware of the dichotomy that still separates many classical musicians from an access to jazz. Shifrin’s playing in Clarinet Lament is entirely correct insofar as classical clarinet playing goes, but his performance bears only a superficial resemblance to the way Barney Bigard played it on the original recording. Not only is he missing the wonderful “wood tone” in the lower register that Bigard and many other New Orleans clarinetists were able to draw from the instrument, but also a certain amount of swing. Ironically, the Dover Quartet does swing, and thus saves the day. Air-Conditioned Jungle is a bit better for Shifrin because it calls for more virtuosic and less tonally expressive playing, but once again, it’s the Dover Quartet that shines.

I particularly liked David Schiff’s arrangement of Heaven, more complex than Ellington’s original, particularly the string quartet part which has some music not in the original. Schiff actually makes an entirely different piece of it, and here Shifrin is more at home stylistically if somewhat clinical of tone. I’m not sure. Kinda Dukish is a piece that Ellington sometimes used as a preface to Rockin’ in Rhythm, which had an interesting history. Originally written and recorded in 1931, in two parts, it was a medium-tempo piece with the old-fashioned “stomp” rhythm of that time, but after bandleader Charlie Barnet updated it as a hard-swinging charger in 1940, Ellington completely revamped his arrangement and made it equally fast and even more furious than the Barnet recording. (When I heard Duke and his band play it in 1973, he used his entire saxophone section, standing in front of the band in a row, playing the lead melody like a sort of musical bulldozer.) Schiff’s arrangement is closer to the 1931 original but a bit faster, using transparent textures in the string writing that, again, are excellent. Shifrin tries to swing but only approximates the proper rhythm.

Chris Rogerson’s Thirty Thousand Days, written in 2017 on a commission from Chamber Music Northwest, was premiered by Shifrin and the Dover Quartet. The title alludes to what Rogerson’s father considered to be the average lifespan, 30,000 days divided by thirds. The music is melodic and tonal with a slightly modern bent. The first movement is not music that would be banned from classical FM radio stations. Overall, the effect of the music is soft and calming. Rogerson becomes much more interesting in the second movement, marked “Prestissimo, con sordino,” where fast, edgy eighths played by the quartet are contrasted by the clarinet line with is in turn melodic and quite busy with a slow, mysterious section in the middle. In the last movement, “Quasi una ciacona,” Rogerson begins with a soft, slow melody played a cappella by the clarinet, with the strings entering at 1:03 playing a soft cushion of chords beneath him. The music here is autumnal, reflecting one’s slowing down in the last third of one’s life (unless your name is Arturo Toscanini or Paul McCartney). It’s a somewhat interesting piece but, to me, a bit of a downer.

The last work on this disc, Shotgun Houses, was written by Valerie Coleman as a tribute to the late Muhammed Ali, as both grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. The title and opening movement are meant as an allegory of the “row houses” in hers and Ali’s childhood neighborhoods. It begins with a sustained string quartet chord with Shifrin coming in above the group, playing a series of brief motifs as the underlying support shifts to portamento string passages, then tremolos, before the quartet breaks up into four individual parts to make commentary before regrouping behind Shifrin. Then the tempo picks up and the music becomes livelier, albeit with an irregular beat. The quartet then plays edgy bitonal chords behind the clarinet’s solo line, which meanders a bit in syncopated eighths up and down the range of his instrument before ending quietly.

The second movement, “Grand Avenue,” is much more lyrical, described by Coleman as “a love ballad to his mother.” Since I don’t care much for love ballads, let us move on to the last piece, “Rome 1960.” This begins with “a young Cassius Clay, Jr. training with a boxing bag,” reflected in the music by the fast rhythmic figures played by the viola and cello. The crowing clarinet part represents his youthful bragging to news reporters. The second half of this movement depicts his championship boxing round in the Olympics, with the music emulating the ebb and flow of a boxing match. The clarinet simulates his jabs and punches as the strings play short, stabbing chords behind it. The music also simulates the sound of the “bell” at the end of each round. My sole complaint was that, to my ears at least, none of the performers sounded as if they were very motivated or excited to be playing this music, which is quite ingenious.

A mixed review, then, both for the music and its performance. I’d love to hear the Ducal Suite played by someone like Don Byron, however!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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