06/21/03

Buddy DeFranco Live in New York

"Legends of the Clarinet" was the overall billing for a week at the Iridium by Buddy DeFranco, 80, and Tony Scott, 82. Conceived by publicist Jim Eigo, the event was booked into the establishment on Broadway and 51st Street and eventually became part of the JVC Jazz Festival's club affiliations. Most of the participating clubs had different artists every night, but DeFranco and Scott, with the Bill Mays Trio (Mays, piano; Martin Wind, bass; Matt Wilson, drums), were in residence Tuesday through Sunday. The difference here was that each night a third clarinetist was added to spice the stew. The diverse group of guests included (in order of appearance) Perry Robinson, Don Byron, Kenny Davern (two nights), Marty Ehrlich and Ron Odrich.

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I was there for the first of the two Davern appearances, and it turned out to be a good mix. Mays, a confident, harmonically astute player, opened in trio with an upbeat "Isn't It Romantic" that maintained interest as it moved among meters. Then DeFranco and Scott came on for "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Buddy, with fluidity, was at his bopping best while Tony was choppier, in fits and starts, scoring when unleashing those passionate bursts that have been part of his musical character throughout his career. "East of the Sun," at a relaxed pace, was mostly DeFranco with Scott playing an abbreviated solo before retiring to a chair at the side of the stage. Tony has had dental problems. In Rome, a couple of years ago, he showed me a clear, plastic clip that fits over the middle of his upper gum, enabling him to play.

Scott returned front and center for a dedication to Benny Goodman, "Memories of You." Davern joined the others for some mellow reflection. Here Tony, in lowering his volume, displayed a gorgeous, limpid tone that fit the piece perfectly, toasting Goodman without playing in his style and honoring Eubie Blake's memory and "Memories," as did all involved.

For his feature Davern chose to stay in the Goodman small group mode with "Moonglow," exhibiting great patience in exposing a melody and remarkable control of his carefully sculpted phraseology in improvisation.

Last was a rousing "I Got Rhythm." The two-bar tag, which is never played when any of the many lines written on "Rhythm" changes are used, threw the rhythm section the first time around but they're fast learners-or recallers-and stoked the fires for the clarinets three. DeFranco's amazing, uptempo aplomb won the honors on this set-closer.

For one week the oft-neglected clarinet was front and center. The return of Scott to New York, after many years in Italy, was an event, as was the entire week, the clarinet combinations eliciting much positive talk in jazz circles around town.

Incidentally both DeFranco and Scott have written books: Tony's, I believe not yet released, is Bird, Lady and Me. Buddy's is A Life in the Golden Age of Jazz: A Biography of Buddy DeFranco by Fabrice Zammarchi and Sylvie Mas (383 pp., including discography, filmography and DeFranco solos, transcribed by Tom Ranier; Parkside Publications. Cloth-bound $65 in U.S. & Canada; $85 in all other countries; Collectors' edition, leather bound, $125 & $145)

Great jazz musicians have always attracted avid fans who are sometimes moved to going beyond forming fan clubs or attempting to stuff ballot boxes in magazine polls. Some have backed the idol's band and/or subsidized recordings through their own independent labels; others have written biographies. Professional clarinetist Fabrice Zammarchi of France, abetted by his wife, Sylvie Mas, has chosen the last method to express his admiration for Buddy DeFranco, musician and man; and Malcolm Harris, head of Parkside Publications and another ardent DeFranco fan, gave the book a production he feels jazz musicians deserve but rarely receive.

Profusely illustrated with pictures (including an abundance of never-before published images and end papers consisting of color reproductions of DeFranco's album covers), the coffee-table book takes us from Buddy's humble, hard-times beginnings in Philadelphia, through his emergence in the big bands of the swing era and his early recognition that Charlie Parker was a true genius whose music was the pathway to the future. What DeFranco couldn't foresee was that the advent of bebop would coincide with the decline of his chosen instrument, the clarinet, which had been a focal point in the big bands with celebrated leaders Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Nevertheless, his singular excellence triumphed and led to a long, illustrious, varied and still-happening career.

DeFranco's clear, intelligent voice is heard throughout, talking directly about the music and the music business: his ups and downs with the crusty Tommy Dorsey; the fun he had with Charlie Barnet's band; his admiration for Count Basie; and his special regard for Parker, Gillespie and Art Tatum; his own failed big band; and the more successful quartet he led featuring Sonny Clark, Gene Wright and Art Blakey.

The main shortcoming in this labor of love lies in the editing. The writers could have avoided having DeFranco reiterate ideas and opinions that he had already made clear in other parts of the book. It's not Buddy's fault. He was only bring true to his ideals in a variety of interviews over the years.

This is a collectors' item and should appeal to aficionados and musicians.

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