Here are eight examples of great jazz clarinet playing, in no particular order. I realize I’ve left out Artie Shaw, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds and lots of great contemporary players, but these are all tracks that had a major impact on me. Also, I’ve tried to list records that you can actually still find, although some may take some searching for.
The Essential Benny Goodman (Bluebird/Legacy, 2007)
This is a great example of Benny at his best, in 1939. You can hear him give a lift to the entire big band with his great sense of time and swing, as he could still do when I worked with him in the mid-1980s. He plays here with such rhythmic drive-an increasingly scarce ability these days.
“Ole Miss Blues”
Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz (Verve/Universal, 2012)
From 1956, here’s another example of a clarinetist with great time but with an entirely different approach to improvising than Benny’s. I always thought Edmond’s clarinet sounded like it was covered in hair, with that great raspy sound of his! He always played inventively with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, both as an ensemble player and as a soloist-check out his bent notes, too. Who knew a clarinet could be that funky?
“I Was Doing All Right”
Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson
Play George Gershwin (Clef, 1954)
Here’s Buddy, one of the nicest, most supportive clarinetists (a very short list!) in jazz music and, I think, the guy who moved the conception of jazz clarinet a quantum leap forward from the Artie/Benny school. This shows off his melodic side and beautiful tone, things that many people overlook when they think about Buddy’s playing.
Shadows on a Wall (Gramavision, 1989)
Here’s a man who found a way to play very Ornette Coleman-inspired clarinet. He was also a really interesting composer, and I love his later recordings such as this one, where he integrates electronic sounds very organically into his ensembles.
“A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid”
Chicago Rhythm 1923-43 (JSP, 2006)
A rare chance to hear Jimmie, later in his short life, recorded live with just a rhythm section and actually stretching out a bit. I used to play with musicians who knew him, the Chicago tenor player Franz Jackson being one. Years later, these guys would still talk about Jimmie’s huge sound and his charisma as a player.
“Duet” (Wendell Marshall, bass)
The Forum, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (8 February 1954)
(Music and Arts, 2011)
I always felt that Jimmy Hamilton could easily have played in a symphony orchestra, with that beautiful dark sound of his. He, more than anyone, inspired me to strive toward my eternal goal of not sacrificing that centered classical sound just because I play jazz. I’m glad I got to meet him when he came back to New York to play a couple of engagements at the short-lived club Carlos 1. I thanked him for being such an inspiration.
Fly Away Little Bird (Sunnyside, 1992)
A version of Benny Goodman’s closing theme, performed with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, that is equally as haunting as any rendition by the original master. Giuffre was a fascinating musician who incorporated Lester Young, free music and a great sense of form and sound into his playing.
Pee Wee Russell
“Bugle Call Rag”
Billy Banks and His Orchestra
I know everyone refers to Pee Wee as an “eccentric” and always cites his later albums where he plays Monk tunes, etc., but I love to hear where he started-a lot more technique than he’s given credit for, and still that distinctive sound and sense of surprise that he carried through all of his years.
Ken Peplowski is one of jazz’s most lauded clarinetists and a noted tenor saxophonist. He has a quartet album forthcoming from the Capri label, and is the musical director for the 2013 Oregon Festival of American Music, to be held in Eugene, Ore., Aug. 6-10. Visit him online at KenPeplowski.com.