Via Larry Appelbaum’s indefatigable birthday notifications to his Facebook “friends,” I see that Ken Peplowski, the great clarinetist (tenor saxophone, too), hits 52 today. I conducted one of my first Downbeat Blindfold Tests with Ken — I think this was in 1998, maybe 1999.
1. Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon (from “Hot Jazz on Blue Note,” Blue Note, 1996/rec. 1944). Sidney Bechet, clarinet; Art Hodes, piano; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: [Immediately] Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon.” From the first note you can identify his sound. It’s that big vibrato and that big woody sound. He had that unique clarinet style, and as distinctive of a clarinet sound as his clarinet playing.
TP: Is he someone who influenced you at all in your approach?
PEPLOWSKI: He didn’t influence me by the sound. It’s a little bit much, to be honest, sometimes. But his intensity kind of influenced me, and the way he plays ballads and the way he plays this Blues, for example, with just 100% feeling. Also his rhythmic drive and his unbelievable technique. He’s an example of a guy who had a lot of technique and knew when not to use it. This solo is a really funky, real blues-oriented solo, and yet he could turn around and play a great technical tour de force on “China Boy” or something like that. This is a classic record. This would be 5 stars, no question. It’s a perfect example of playing for yourself in a recording situation as opposed to playing for posterity, when you worry about every single note. These guys are so relaxed, and it’s flowing, and obviously, whatever happens, happens. There’s a lesson to be learned now. There’s too much value put on perfection.
2. Artie Shaw, “Dancing On The Ceiling” (from The Last Recordings of Artie Shaw,” MusicMasters, 1992/rec. 1954) Artie Shaw, clarinet; Hank Jones, piano; Joe Puma, guitar; Tommy Potter, bass; Irv Kluger, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: I could be fooled right now. It could be Artie Shaw doing his Bop thing. It could be Buddy deFranco and it could possibly be Tony Scott.
TP: You’re very warm.
PEPLOWSKI: Hank Jones. The light touch gave him away. [PAUSE] I know it’s not Artie because there’s some things he does that sound like a saxophone player playing the clarinet. In other words, it’s not completely a Classical kind of clarinet sound. It’s like Jimmy Giuffre. [PAUSE]
Well, I guess my first instinct was correct. At first I said this sounds like it could be Artie or Buddy. It’s very interesting playing, but overall I think it misses the boat. There’s something that bothers me about certain clarinetists when they play this kind of music, more Bop-influenced. All of a sudden they lose their tone. Like, Artie is loosening up in places… He’s doing saxophonic things that don’t really work well on the clarinet. That’s why, as we listened to it later, I thought this is a guy who sounds more like a saxophone player. I think Benny did some of this, too. When they tried to play this kind of music, instead of just doing it their own way, they tried to adjust their sound and some of their phrasing to this new style instead of just interpreting it through their own method. So I think it’s a valiant effort, but to be quite honest, I prefer his earlier stuff. so that would be about a 3½, I think.
3. Barney Bigard, “Clarinet Lament,” (from Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, Fargo, ND 1940, Stash, 1990/rec.1940)
PEPLOWSKI: No question that that’s Barney Bigard with Duke’s band. Another guy that you can pick out immediately. [PAUSE] Barney Bigard to me is one of the greats of the clarinet. In fact, between him and Jimmy Hamilton, that covered a lot of jazz history on the clarinet. That has to be a 5-star thing. I think that was Barney’s finest period, too. He played so inspired, and Duke wrote some great stuff for him, and he’s one of the greatest. He’s so great that I don’t think he is a big influence on people because he’s so unique, that to try to take things from him, you wind up sounding like him. So he stands alone.
4. Jimmy Hamilton, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from “Far East Suite-Special Mix,” RCA, 1995/rec.1966). The Duke Ellington Orchestra.
PEPLOWSKI: [IMMEDIATELY] “Far East Suite,” “Bluebird of Delhi.” From the introduction. This record was a major thing for me when I was growing up. Jimmy Hamilton, from the first time I heard him, I thought, “This is the direction I want to go.” He combines the best of the classical clarinet approach with the improvisatory approach. He could have played in an orchestra, yet he could swing like nobody else. Plus, that’s got to be 5 stars for the record itself. “The Far East Suite” is some of the best writing of Strayhorn (mostly) and Ellington. It’s such a great example of how to write for specific soloists, and has some of the most beautiful clarinet writing. I love that. I listened to that over and over and over when I first heard it, and I would recommend it to anybody. [PAUSE] Also, I love the way the ensemble comes in and Jimmy Hamilton answers them. There was a lot of Duke writing in that fashion for Jimmy. And he had such great instinctive ears that he knew when to play and when not to play. He complements the band and they complement him. It’s beautiful.
5. Benny Goodman, “Shirley Steps Out” (from “Undercurrent Blues,” Capitol Jazz, 1995/rec.1947) with Alan Hendrickson, guitar; Mel Powell, piano, Red Norvo, vibes.
PEPLOWSKI: As soon as they started improvising, I knew it was Benny. This is one of his Bop experiments. It’s pretty interesting. It sounds like a guitarist who was influenced by Charlie, but I don’t think it is. [VIBES SOLO] Who is this? Is that Johnny White?
TP: It’s Red Norvo.
PEPLOWSKI: Red Norvo, wow. [PIANO] That sounds like Teddy.
TP: Mel Powell.
PEPLOWSKI: What is this record? Is this a Commodore?
PEPLOWSKI: It’s very nice. This to me is a little more successful in this vein than what Artie was attempting. Because Benny plays closer to himself… It still sounds like him. It’s very nice. That was a nice record. I was surprised. I don’t remember hearing that. I’m sure I’ve got it, but I have to confess, I overlooked that period myself. It was nice. I’d give it 4 stars. It was really refreshing. It’s nice to hear Benny play some different material, too.
TP: Do you find Benny’s style stays integral through all of his improvising? Is that characteristic, that he keeps his sound through any situation?
PEPLOWSKI: Pretty much, yeah. Critics love to write about his double-lip embouchure period, and he allegedly changed and all this stuff. But you could pretty much recognize him all the time. When we first heard the head, then I was thinking this could obviously be Buddy De Franco. But as soon as he started playing, the way he gets around the horn, that’s Benny. First of all, there’s only a few people who sound like they really play it like a clarinet and not like a double, as opposed to if you heard somebody like Jimmy Giuffre. I love the way he plays, I love the way Lester Young played, but they’re still saxophone players. And Benny does some distinctly clarinet things that could only lend themselves to that instrument. That was nice.
6. Jimmy Giuffre, “Conversations With A Goose” (from “Conversations With A Goose,” Soul Note, 1996), Giuffre, clarinet; Paul Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, electric bass.
PEPLOWSKI: It sounds like Barney Bigard on acid! [AFTER A WHILE] I have no idea. Who is this?
TP: It’s Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. Do you see any changes in his playing from the earlier things they did?
PEPLOWSKI: Well, if anything, I think he’s into even more of a kind of primitive approach. Actually, to be quite honest, it was more interesting to me what the piano was doing and the bass player, because they had a certain groove going on. But that may be partly due to the way it’s recorded. It kind of bothers me. It sounds like the microphones are thrust right inside the piano, we’re hearing the piano so clear and loud, and the clarinet is kind of off in the distance a little bit in the mix. So automatically, psychologically, he doesn’t feel like part of the ensemble. It’s interesting. Obviously, he’s heading into an ever more free zone than he ever was.
TP: Is this music that’s appealed to you?
PEPLOWSKI: I like the idea. Sometimes I like the idea more than the execution, and this would be an example of that. Obviously, it’s kind of a crap shoot when you’re just playing freely like this, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This time it was kind of interesting, he got into some different sounds and things, but it was a little bit rambling for me. I’d give that 2½ stars. I don’t know if I’d listen to that over and over.
7. Bill Easley, “Come Sunday” (from “Wind Inventions,” Sunnyside, 1988) Easley, clarinet; James Williams, piano; Rufus Reid, bass, Tony Reedus, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: Obviously, I know “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington. The clarinet has a little bit of a New Orleans type of approach, whether he’s from there or not. Actually, he sounds a little bit like Barney Bigard in his sound. But I don’t know who it is yet. The piano player is a little heavy-handed for me on this song. He sounds a little bit like he’s playing with hammers instead of fingers. [THE SONG GOES INTO UP-TEMPO]
I really don’t know who it is, but they’ve got a very beautiful clarinet sound. It’s a little curious to me to play this song like this. Why not use anything else as a vehicle for improvisation.
TP: Well, the interpretation could be the jubilation of…
PEPLOWSKI: I know. But sometimes it seems a little arbitrary, like “Gee, let’s pick this song and jazz it up.” But it’s interesting. The clarinet player sounds nice. I have no idea who it is. [PAUSE] It bothers me that when you listen to the rhythm section improvising, the bassist is way ahead of the drummer… It’s not a very good rhythm section. They sound kind of heavy-handed and definitely not together. So I feel a little bad for the clarinet player.
TP: It didn’t seem to faze him much.
PEPLOWSKI: No. He’s got a very even sound and even phrasing. I would give it 3½, I think, because I like his playing, but I’m not completely happy with the overall performance. [PAUSE] One last comment. Beautiful sound. Beautiful clarinet approach. I just wasn’t really nuts about the overall record, but he’s a great player.
8. Alvin Batiste, “Banjo Noir” (from “Late,” Columbia, rec. 1993), with Fred Sanders, piano; Elton Heron, bass; Herman Jackson, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: It’s a very nice record. Whoever this is knows how to write for the instrument. It’s a nice groove. He’s playing a lot of stuff that comes right out of clarinet etudes. I know this guy has studied the clarinet. Nice, interesting tune. Good groove. Beautiful sound. He’s a little bit controlled. I wish he would open up a little bit more even during this. I don’t know who it is.
TP: Do you hear any particular lineage in clarinet improvising style?
PEPLOWSKI: On this guy? I don’t know where he comes from. Also, this kind of recording is a little sterile for me — the recording itself. Even if everybody was in the same room, whatever the engineer did, they sound like they were isolated and then remixed by him. There’s a little bit too much of an upfront quality of every single instrument. Especially when you want to have a nice groove like this, it should sound more like a band playing together instead of being able to pick out each individual instrument. That’s not the fault of the musicians. It’s the fault of the way it was recorded. [PAUSE]
This is after you told me who it is. I am pleasantly surprised. When you asked me did I detect any influence, I definitely didn’t detect any New Orleans influence in there. A beautiful clarinet player. I’ve heard a few things of his. That was very nice record. I’d give it 4 stars.
9. David Krakauer, “Africa Bulgar,” (from “Klezmer Madness,” Tzadik, 1995) with Michael Alpert, accordion; Dave Licht, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: I asked first if that was Ivo Papasov. It’s got that quality to it, but we’ll see what happens. [PAUSE] As he got into it, I realized this is more a Yiddish kind of a groove. [TEMPO CHANGE] This is just a wild guess, because I haven’t heard any of this stuff. Is this Don Byron? [TP: No.] [LATER] PEPLOWSKI: I don’t really know who it is. That was nice. I’m not familiar with a lot of the klezmer guys. I love Dave Tarras, the old school, and this has a lot of those elements. It’s nice dance music, it’s kind of fun…
TP: He was very influenced by Dave Tarras.
PEPLOWSKI: Oh. It’s nothing earth-shaking, but it’s fun music and…
TP: You used to play this…well, Greek music.
PEPLOWSKI: I used to play this and polka music. I used to play Polish polka music. It’s interesting to me that this music is so popular now, and people have overlooked that music, which is also a great showcase for the clarinet. I think if I put a polka band together and did a gig at the Knitting Factory, we’d be as popular as anything. I’m not trying to take away from this music because it’s great stuff, and it’s music for the masses. But if you put a little bit of an ironic twist on it and work at a hip club, all of a sudden everybody starts paying attention.
TP: Now, in their defense, that’s just one tune of a whole program of very different pieces.
PEPLOWSKI: I know. It’s a strange time for music, because… I bet I could do that. If I’d put a polka band together and we dressed up in funny suits and worked at the Knitting Factory, and did exactly what I did in Cleveland when I was playing weddings, people would think, “Gee, this is the hippest music I can imagine.” But if that’s a way for people to discover this stuff, that’s great because it is valid music and it’s great music.
TP: This is the Millennium. Marketing is everything.
PEPLOWSKI: We’ve reached that stage where we’re just looking back at everything that’s happened and drawing from all these different sources.
TP: How many stars?
PEPLOWSKI: I would give it 3 stars. I liked it, but I could listen to a hundred of those records — this doesn’t stand out, in other words. I wish he might have played with a little bit more passion in some places and used more of the entire range of the clarinet. He kind of stayed in one little area. But I applaud him for what he’s trying to do, and I can hear the Dave Tarras thing.
10. John Carter, “Encounter” (from “Comin’ On,” Hat Art, 1988) Carter, clarinet; Bobby Bradford, cornet; Don Preston, synthesizer; Richard Davis, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: I like this very much. The writing sounds a little bit influenced by Miles, and I love the use of electronics as pure sound sometimes instead of trying to imitate another instrument. It’s pretty refreshing. [PAUSE]
John Carter. Guessed it. As soon as he started doing the upper register thing, I knew it was him. [PAUSE]
As most stars as I can give, 5-6, whatever. This is very refreshing music to me. I think it’s completely not pretentious. It’s fresh, it’s exciting, interesting writing and playing, and the use of electronics is really well done and really integrated into the ensemble. It’s really great. [PAUSE] The thing that strikes me is that it really sounds like a band playing together. This is the way music is supposed to be. And John Carter is completely unbridled. It’s really open. I have a feeling that he does exactly what he wants to do, and he doesn’t have any limits to what he’s trying to achieve. It’s great. I think his music is as important, maybe more so, than Ornette’s music as far as this kind of thing. The writing is as interesting, and I just love the way they use the electronics. It’s really free and open, and yet at the same time it’s got a structure to it, and everybody is listening and reacting to each other.
TP: Talk about his clarinet style. Is he an innovative clarinet player?
PEPLOWSKI: He’s innovative in the sense that he does on the clarinet what people like Ornette and maybe Eric Dolphy did on the saxophone. He kind of plays completely free and open… You know, a lot of clarinet players sound a little bit too controlled. It’s part of the nature of the instrument. You’re taught from the beginning that you have to play with this rigid embouchure, and the ideal sound on the clarinet is this wooden, kind of round sound, and as soon as you start fluctuating from that, the tone kind of goes. The technique is a little bit difficult. So it’s refreshing to hear somebody that’s gone past some of those restrictions. The only way I can describe is he’s a completely open player, which on the clarinet is kind of rare to hear.
11. Don Byron, “St. Louis Blues” (from “Bug Music,” Nonesuch, 1996). Byron, clarinet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Kenny Davis, bass; Billy Hart, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: It sounds like Dan Block, but I’m not sure that it is. In the beginning there was almost a klezmer kind of influence. It was nice. The band sounds good and tight. Again, the recording quality bothers me. It’s so sterile-sounding. It’s this close, miking, separated sound of everything that kind of takes away a lot from the feel to me. It really bothers me on more modern recordings.
TP: Anything else about the clarinet player?
PEPLOWSKI: He sounded nice. There’s nothing distinctive there that I could pick him out?
TP: Did he sound like he was in the bag of any of the older clarinet players?
PEPLOWSKI: I can’t identify him.
TP: It’s Don Byron.
PEPLOWSKI: Don Byron. Wow. It’s a nice surprise. It was good. Like I say, there’s nothing there that would draw me and say I’ve got to go out and buy this record, but it was a nice record. 3 stars.
12. Buddy DeFranco, “I Got Rhythm” (from “Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin,” Verve, 1998/rec.1954) DeFranco, clarinet; Peterson, piano; Russell Garcia, arranger & conductor.
PEPLOWSKI: An interesting thing is, I recorded this song with almost the same groove and the same tempo, and I haven’t heard this record. That’s not Buddy, is it? [TP: Yes.] It’s beautiful. He’s one of the innovators. Here’s an example of a great recording technique, too. It sounds like the band is playing with a groove, they’re playing together. It’s almost like in the late ’50s-early ’60s they really perfected the style of recording this kind of music, and ever since they’ve been trying to mess with it. This is the way it would sound if you were standing this far away from a band playing. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Instead of the middle of an orchestra.
Obviously, Buddy came from a combination of Benny and Artie, but he forged his own style, and he’s got a unique sound and approach. And he was an innovator. He turned a lot of people’s heads. Because he was the only guy at this time who was playing real more Modern-influenced music. And it’s a great combination to me of kind of Bop-influenced lines and real pretty phrasing. It’s wonderful. This is 5 stars. I love it.
13. Pee Wee Russell, “Wailin’ D.A. Blues” (from “Pee Wee Russell: Jazz Original,” 1997/rec. 1944) Russell, clarinet; Jess Stacy, piano; Sid Weiss, bass; George Wettling, drums.
PEPLOWSKI: Pee Wee. From the first note. A complete original. I love him. Mister Soulful. Strangely enough, in the very early records, he did have a lot more technique — in the real early days. But he just kind of threw everything out. In his own way, as strange as it seems, he’s like the Thelonious Monk of the clarinet. He pared everything down to real basics. But obviously, he understands… He’s not simple player or a primitive player. He understands all the harmonic ideas that are going on around him. Like, he strips his own playing down to just the basics. He’s a very intelligent player in my mind, with a lot of soul. It’s great. I would have to give that 5 stars.
TP: Can you pinpoint this in time.
PEPLOWSKI: Just from the sound of the recording, I would guess it’s got to be somewhere in the mid to late 1940’s.
PEPLOWSKI: There were some pleasant surprises in there; some eye-openers. There does seem to be a little bit of a resurgence in the clarinet, and there are some people trying different things with it, which is refreshing. My only general comments about that stuff is it’s nice to hear people try to break the preconceived boundaries of what the clarinet is supposed to be…
The Bobby Bradford-John Carter was definitely the best thing I heard, because it’s the most refreshing. Frankly, sometimes I get bored just hearing the same things over and over. Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s all been played, and then you hear something like that, and you realize there’s life yet in music. It’s an eye-opener.