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Ken Peplowski: 10 Classic Clarinet Performances

The great clarinetist on Benny, Buddy, Jimmy Giuffre and more

Ken Peplowski

Here are 10 examples of great jazz clarinet playing, in no particular order. I know I’ve left out Artie Shaw, Johnny Dodds, lots of great contemporary players, etc., but these are all tracks that made a major impact on me. Also, I’ve tried to list records that you can actually still find, although some may take a bit of searching for.

Benny Goodman

“Stealin’ Apples”

Live version from 1939, found on The Essential Benny Goodman (Sony, 2007)

This is a great example of Benny at his best: 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.

Edmond Hall

“Ole Miss”

From the 1956 Live at the Hollywood Bowl disc of the Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz box set (Verve/Universal, 2012)

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?

Buddy DeFranco

“I Was Doing All Right”
Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin (Verve, 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.

John Carter

“Sippi Strut”
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, like this, where he integrates electronic sounds very organically into his ensembles.

Jimmie Noone

“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 charisma as a player.

Jimmy Hamilton

“Duet” w/ Duke Ellington (Wendell Marshall, bass)

originally on Columbia, can be found on iTunes’ Clarinet Masters compilation

I always felt that Jimmy Hamilton could have easily 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. (Anyone else remember this?) I thanked him for being such an inspiration.

Russell Procope/Jimmy Hamilton

“The Mooche”

Duke Ellington Ellington Uptown (Columbia, 1952)

I could go on and on about Duke’s clarinetists-I feel bad about leaving Barney Bigard off of this list!-but let’s let the music speak for itself. Here, Duke features both Procope’s more New Orleans-inspired approach and Jimmy’s straighter sound-a great aural example of the range of possibilities of the instrument.

Ivo Papasov

“Hristiyanovo horo”

can be found on iTunes’ Best of Ivo Papasov compilation

I first heard Ivo Papasov, the master Bulgarian clarinetist, on the much-missed TV show Night Music; after I picked my jaw up from the floor, I bought every record I could find. Incidentally, I later spent a week in Bulgaria and found out that there’s a whole school of wild clarinetists over there, playing madly over their own insane brand of dance music. Michael Brecker was studying this stuff toward the end of his life.

Jimmy Giuffre

“Goodbye” w/ Steve Swallow, Paul Bley
Fly Away Little Bird (Sunnyside, 1992)

A version of Benny Goodman’s closing theme that is equally as haunting as any 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”

w/ Billy Banks and His Orchestra (Eddie Condon, Henry “Red” Allen, Joe Sullivan, et al.)

can be found on iTunes’ The Ultimate Jazz Collection

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.

Originally Published