Click here to [close]

Friday, July 5, 2024

The Straight Horn of Rudi Mahall (Two Nineteen Records, 2024)

In 1961 Candid released the Steve Lacy album, The Straight Horn Of Steve Lacy, where the legendary soprano sax player led a quartet with baritone sax player Charles Davis, Double Bass player John Ore and drummer Roy Haynes, playing compositions by Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, with a liner notes by Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff.

The Straight Horn of Rudi Mahall, obviously, nods to Lacy’s classic album and its iconic artwork. German clarinetist Mahall (of Globe Unity Orchestra, Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra and Die Enttäuschung fame) focuses on a different straight horn, the B-flat clarinet (with a motto by Benny Goodman: “It’s an awful lot of work playing the clarinet. You have to practice!”), is joined by the Paris-Berlin Oùat piano trio - pianist Simon Sieger (alternating on the trombone, also in the current line-up of the Art Ensemble of Chicago), double bass player Joel Grip and drummer Michael Griener (who was responsible for the recording and the insightful liner notes), which focuses on swinging bebop verities, and already evoked the sound of brilliant eccentrics like Elmo Hope, Herbie Nichols, and Thelonious Monk on three previous albums. Now this quartet offers its own interpretations of popular jazz standards from Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington to Jimmy Giuffre and Eric Dolphy.

Mahall has a sound of its own on the clarinet (and the bass clarinet), and maintains a disciplined daily practice routine focused on the jazz standards but claims that “Everyone hates the clarinet. It was then, and still is today, a pretty much out-of-favor instrument in jazz music. You can't get anywhere with the clarinet”. Like Mahall, Oùat is well-versed in the legacy of jazz and is a perfect partner to this wise, often provocative moving musical journey into iconic pieces that shape jazz as we know it today and the role of the straight clarinet in these pieces.

Side A of The Straight Horn of Rudi Mahall begins with one of the first iconic bebop pieces, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” from 1944, interpreted in a similar powerful, fast and almost chaotic manner like its original version. Tadd Dameron's playful and driving “Good Bait” highlights Mahall's beautiful solos that according to Griener, keep “the tactic of compressing and stretching the time against the rhythm section, resulting in rhythmic overlaps that could possibly be explained by Einstein's theory of relativity”. The following “Sechseinhalb Brüder” melts Giuffre’s 1947 “Four Brothers”, a tribute to the saxophone section of Woody Herman's second big band based on the chords of the Harry Warren composition “Jeepers Creepers”, Mahall’s “Vier Halbe” (four halves in German, from Die Enttäuschung album by the same name, Intakt, 2012) and Gerry Mulligan's 1949 “Five Brothers”, and turns this imaginary sum of six and a half brothers = “Sechseinhalb Brüder” into a wild ride. The interpretation of Ellington’s “The Mystery Song” from 1961 nods to Lacy’s version of the song (from Evidence, with Don Cherry, New Jazz, 1962), with more room for improvisation over the 16-bar form. This side ends with a composition of another pioneer of the straight horn (clarinet and soprano sax) Bechet’s iconic “Petit Fleur” from 1952, after moving to France, and having a French pianist in the quartet seemed perfect. Mahall explores the full expressive potential of the clarinet, from the most traditional jazz to the free jazz.

Side B begins with “Unbewusst im Puff” (Unconscious in the brothel), merges cleverly Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” (slang for brothel) and Lee Konitz’ “Subconscious-Lee”, both are abstractions of Cole Porter’s "What is this thing called love", to show that "hectic" bebop and "cerebral" cool jazz have a lot more in common than jazz critics would have you believe. Pee Wee Russell’s signature piece “Pee Wee's Blues” allows the double bass and clarinet to introduce it in free pitches before singing the familiar theme. Mahall’s bass clarinet playing has earned him many comparisons to Dolphy, and in 1992 he and Griener played in a project of pianist Rolf Sudmann, and later he recorded with pianist Aki Takase Duet for Eric Dolphy (Enja, 1997), which opened with “17 West” (a former Manhattan address of Dolphy) with Mahall performing it on the bass clarinet. Now with a “normal” clarinet, this piece receives a free, urgent version, with Sieger's piano solo is reminiscent of early Cecil Taylor. This beautiful album concludes with “ In-stable Mates, an adaption of Benny Golson's “Stablemates”, a little less stable version of Golson’s piece with its unusual structure”, that highlights the strong individual voices of this great quartet.