What I’ve been listening to lately: clarinet choirs

There is nothing quite like the rich, woody sound of a mass of clarinets, especially when the lower-end members of the family join in. Yet few jazz ensembles have featured the combination of multiple clarinets. These are the ones that I know and like, a list that is not as long as it should be:

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  • John Carter’s Clarinet Summit. If there ever was a trend for clarinet choirs, the recording that started it was probably this group’s 1981 Concert At The Public Theater. In a response to the then-current fashion for saxophone quartets, Carter brought together the New Orleans modernist Alvin Batiste and Ellington alum Jimmy Hamilton to join him on clarinet, along with David Murray on bass clarinet. It’s a great listen, moving from lovely Ellington arrangements to a solo feature for Murray to more adventurous Carter compositions. Unfortunately the album is not readily available these days; the follow-up studio recording Southern Bells is, but to me is a bit less compelling.
  • Hamiett Bluiett’s Clarinet Family. True to its name, this grouping featured every member of the clarinet family, from the massive contrabass all the way up to the tiny sopranino, backed with the great rhythm section of Fred Hopkins on bass and Ronnie Burrage on drums. Bluiett himself, better known as a baritone saxophonist, plays the seldom-heard alto clarinet. This 1984 concert recording is possibly one of my favorite jazz records of all time, not just for the great clarinet sound, but for its high-energy drive and exuberance, reminiscent of Mingus at his best.
  • Douglas Ewart’s Inventions Clarinet Choir. The multi-instrumentalist Ewart is responsible for one of the greatest recorded bass clarinet solos, his feature on George Lewis’ 1978 Homage to Charles Parker. But he also led his own clarinet ensemble starting in the 1980s. I have only heard a few of these recordings, but they are very high quality indeed; mostly they are available through his website.
  • Mark Whitecage’s Licorice Factory. I know less about this group, which produced only one 1985 album. It’s a clarinet trio with the great Perry Robinson on soprano, Whitecage on alto and Mike Morgenstren on bass, backed by a standard rhythm section. The recording is actually pretty traditional despite the avant-garde background of Robinson and Whitecage, featuring several lively swing tributes; there’s also a nice arrangement of Oliver Nelson’s classic “Stolen Moments.”
  • Wendell Harrison’s Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble. In a slightly different format, this group features two soloists – Harrison on standard soprano clarinet and James Carter on contrabass clarinet – backed with a clarinet section and rhythm. Their 1994 album Rush & Hustle is fresh and lively, and Carter’s low-end rumblings are excellent. 

 

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