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May 2008

Bobby Gordon
Bobby Gordon Plays Joe Marsala: Lower Register
Arbors Records

There are myriad reasons why clarinetist Joe Marsala languishes underrated: his insistence on playing small-band swing music during the 1930s and ’40s for aficionados on 52nd Street while his peers were touring in big bands or turning to bebop; his abandonment of performing in favor of being a songwriter (“Don’t Cry, Joe [Let Her Go, Let Her Go, Let Her Go],” “And So to Sleep Again”) and music-business executive at the end of the ’40s; and his relatively small body of recordings.

Clarinetist Bobby Gordon, a disciple and student of Marsala’s, may be the ideal figure to celebrate his 2007 centennial with a tribute album. Gordon’s 1963 LP Warm and Sentimental was produced by Marsala; he made an album with Marsala’s harp-playing widow Adele Girard (1992’s Don’t Let It End), and he has been making a practice of recording tribute albums of late, including collections devoted to Pee Wee Russell (another major influence) and Bing Crosby.

One purpose of the disc is to emphasize Marsala’s songwriting ability by using not only some of his hits but also seven previously unrecorded tunes. Arranger Keith Ingham, who also plays piano, seems to have taken inspiration from Marsala’s Hickory House band, which featured Girard’s harp, to try unusual combinations of instruments and rhythms. Russell George’s violin provides an unusual musical color that gives a hint of Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of France here and there, and Ingham himself turns to celeste on “And So to Sleep Again.” One of the new songs, “Angelique,” gets a Latin rhythm courtesy of the arranger. But the sound never gets too far from Marsala because Gordon mirrors his mentor’s chalumeau sound, the “lower register” of the title, accurately evoking the playing of a jazz musician who deserves to be better remembered.

Originally published in May 2008
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