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Wendell Harrison: Rush and Hustle

From its heyday in the swing era when jazz fans debated the relative merits of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman, clarinet sightings in the postwar jazz skies have been few and far between. Yes, we’ve tracked the licorice-laced improvisations of Buddy DeFranco, Eddie Daniels, Alvin Batiste, Bob Wilbur, Gary Foster, Ken Peplowski, Don Byron and the late John Carter. These, though, are perhaps best described as anomalies.

No one is expecting a single album to revive widespread appreciation for jazzdom’s most difficult reed instrument. Still, for those who dutifully practiced the etudes of Lazarus and Klose, it’s heartening to come across Wendell Harrison and his Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble. What grabs me immediately is the group’s insouciance. These gentlemen-B-flat clarinetist Harrison, double-B-flat contrabass clarinetist James Carter, E-flat contra-bass clarinetist Ernie Rogers, bass clarinetist Harold Orr and B-flat clarinetists Greg Koltyck, Paul Onachuck and Ken Hobenstreet-are up to some serious fun. Harrison’s title track, for instance, is a will-o’-the-wisp whose windswept ensemble gives way to swirling exchanges between Carter’s rumbling double-contrabass and the leader’s quicksilver B-flat. Cassius Richmond’s charting of “My Shining Hour,” in which the leader’s tenor sax weaves through an ebony forest, is another gem. So, too, the remainder of Harrison’s originals, including “The Hooptie,” a street smart strut, and “Urban Lullaby,” an evocative nocturnal soundscape.

Pianists Harold McKinney and Pamela Wise, bassist Marion Hayden and percussionists Alex Brooks, Enix Buchanan, Jerry Gonzalez and Mahindi Masai effectively back Harrison’s reeds. In sum, a potent reminder of a voice deserving wider recognition-the mighty clarinet.

Originally Published