Of the four concerts I’ve seen thus far, the Buddy DeFranco quintet was easily the best. (If you haven’t read my recent posts, I’m referring to the Ottawa International Jazz Festival 2008.)
Wynton Marsalis was good: perhaps 3.5 stars out of 5. Part of that is just a matter of personal taste, meaning that I’ve never been a fan of big band music. For me, jazz is best when it’s only loosely structured. Big bands necessarily have to be structured and locked into their parts much more than a smaller group. What you get, by way of compensation, is an ability to craft the sound and achieve effects that are impossible for a smaller group. But that doesn’t interest me so much — as I say, that’s just a matter of personal taste.
Marsalis himself was coasting, in my opinion. He let his fellow musicians have the spotlight most of the time, and on the few occasions when Marsalis did solo, I think he was basically going through the motions. Maybe the stoic Ottawa audience didn’t impress him as being worthy of an all-out performance?
The other soloists were terrific. The band was (of course) extremely professional and disciplined. And the arrangements were perfect. So, 3.5 stars.
But Buddy DeFranco’s quintet was awesome. DeFranco was born in 1923 so he’s 85 years old. Ilona commented that, when he spoke, he had the breathlessness of a senior citizen. But when he started playing the clarinet the years just rolled away. He soloed for three or four minutes at a stretch, and never seemed at a loss for breath.
Here’s an excerpt from “As Time Goes By”. After a few bars, the other instruments lay out, leaving just DeFranco and bassist Neil Swainson, weaving melodic lines. This is followed by a second excerpt, from a completely different song, featuring clarinet and piano:
DeFranco started performing professionally at age 13. He joined Gene Krupa’s band in 1941 and later played with the Tony Dorsey Orchestra, the Count Basie Septet, and Nelson Riddle. From 1966 until 1974, DeFranco conducted the Glenn Miller Orchestra, during which period he stopped playing the clarinet for several years.
I assumed DeFranco played straight-ahead swing in the Benny Goodman vein, but I was mistaken. The quintet took me by surprise when DeFranco introduced Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple”, and performed it brilliantly. It turns out that DeFranco is known for having mastered Parker’s oeuvre.
[DeFranco] remains one of the few clarinetists able to transfer the musical language of Charlie Parker onto his instrument. Challenged after hearing Parker, DeFranco attacked the bebop style and mastered it with ease, developing a fluid speed and inventive style that never faltered. “I first heard Parker in the mid forties,” he recalled to Whitney Balliett, author of American Musicians II: Seventy-two Portraits in Jazz, about his conversion from swing and big band to a more modern approach. “It was uptown at some club. He had just come in from upstate — skinny with a mop of hair. He borrowed a horn and sat in. I was completely turned around. I couldn’t sleep for two days. [N.B. Parker had this effect on every jazz musician of that era.] I decided immediately that that was it: I was determined to articulate like that on the clarinet. I changed my reed and opened up my mouthpiece. I’ve worked toward that articulation ever since.”
Here’s one of the highlights of the evening: a lightning-quick piano solo by Bernie Senensky, born in Winnipeg in 1944. He’s “only” 63. Just listen to the speed and force of his playing! This is from the aforementioned “Scrapple From the Apple”.
Lineup: Buddy DeFranco, clarinet; Joe Cohn, guitar; Bernie Senensky, piano; Neil Swainson, bass; and Terry Clarke, drums. If these guys come to your town, don’t miss ’em!