This month’s JazzTimes includes a fascinating article on the bass clarinet. From Eric Dolphy through Don Byron up to Todd Marcus, the piece provides a digestible but expansive survey of jazz bass clarinetists, as well as great insights from the musicians about the instrument’s development into a full-fledged solo horn.
It’s no surprise that this article is devoted to players from sixties and later. As James Carter notes, “Until Dolphy came along, the bass clarinet was used in ensemble shading but rarely as a solo instrument.” Still, it was hard to get the sound of the instrument with a Paul Specht small group on “Hot Lips” out of my mind while reading:
Clarinet obbligatos around and on top of the lead are a hallmark of early jazz. In this case the instrument’s bass kin doesn’t just play under the melody. Its shaded, oaky sound is halfway between ensemble coloring and solo. The bass clarinet peeks out ever so slightly because of its timbre, its burbling energy and even its deliberately campy sense of humor, which would be probably be fatally out of place in most modern settings.
The other bass clarinet anomaly that came to mind from outside of jazz’s post-postwar traditions was Buster Bailey on his own tune, “Big Daddy and Baby Sitter”:
[Click here to listen]
This one still has plenty of humor but it comes from a much darker place, both texturally as well as emotionally. Backed by just piano and drums (thank goodness Bailey liked trio settings), the bass clarinet is darker but also oilier. Bailey’s theme statement is also miles away from his usually agitated style. He’s not doing much from a technical perspective, but in terms of sound and phrasing, he dials up a sense of good-natured sleaze.
“Big Daddy and Baby Sister” was recorded in June 1962, less than a year after Dolphy’s deservedly famous unaccompanied recording of “God Bless The Child” live at the Five Spot Café in New York City (unavailable on YouTube but here‘s another great performance). Maybe Bailey had his ears to the ground, or just decided to record something he had been experimenting with for a while. Either way, his playing leaves an imprint on the listener. Isn’t that what a soloist should do? “Rarely” was a very good choice of words by James Carter.