Paul AUSTERLITZ: Water Prayers for Bass Clarinet – Round Whirled Records 0083, 60: 20, [9/18] ****½ :
(Paul Austerlitz; bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, tenor saxophone, Benito Gonzalez; piano, Santo Debriano; bass, Royal Hartigan; drums, Isaiah Richardson; clarinet, Rozna Zila; vocals)
Professor Paul Austerlitz has released a first-rate document of his musical and pedagogical work at Gettysburg College. On the cover the 61 year old veteran of jazz studies is serenely standing knee deep in the ocean, his magnificent contrabass clarinet dips into the surf as if taking a drink. In the notes he expresses the watery inspirations behind his musical investigations. “ I traverse waters with my bass clarinet..an oceanic spirit animates my muse. I hope you can feel it. Music is an oral tradition into which we all dip, and I am fortunate to have been surrounded by many transcendent influences.”
As an ethnomusicologist, Austerlitz studies the folk/oral traditions of Haiti and Dominican Republic which are described under the poorly understood term vodou. Here, ceremonial songs, verse, spell and chant are set to a performance framework recognizably jazz, but including meringue riffs and afro-creole singing by Rozna Zila. The first track combines spiritual invocation of African deities reinforced by a potent and low-rumbling bass clarinet solo. An auspicious start to what will be a recording of many surprises.
There follows a processional which takes things down a register with the mighty contrabass clarinet playing overlapping figures which support a electronic bass clarinet which wails and snarls like a Hendrix guitar (which is in fact the inspiration.)
These more experimental pieces give way to a couple of tunes which overtly refer to the musical legacy of John Coltrane. These are perhaps the most accomplished and compelling tracks by the ensemble. In fact, pianist Benito Gonzalez manages a credible facsimile of the pianism of McCoy Tyner while Santi DeBriano and Royal Hartigan achieve that incomparable floating swing of the Coltrane Quartet circa 1961. The leaders deep instrument is fantastically moving expressive, while a clarinet chorus flares up in places to heat things up to the boiling point.
En-art, another Coltrane tribute, is a contrafact of Giant Steps, that is to say, a new melody laid over the famous and devilishly difficult chord changes. The tune itself is referenced a number of times. It is clear that the leader has mulled over the Coltrane legacy and arrived a recapturing the spirit of this giant musician in a way both artistically pedagogically satisfying.
Oriki is a Yoruba song of praise to kings and illustrious ancestors. It is a long form, with a simple oddly shaped and beat-shifted melody. Debriano shines on a long muscular bass solo.. The same is reprised on the last track where it is coaxed into the spell-binding Coltrane groove matrix ina stripped down quartet form. The clarinet choir stirs up a big reedy roar on Bara Su Wa Ya. Vodou spirits are duly summoned and one assumes they would be on the way, especially if they love the combination of ensemble precision and funky multi-voiced arrangements that barely contain a carnival raucousness
The contrabass clarinet is a rare but spectacular instrument. Its range can dip deeper than even the bass saxophone. Austerlitz uses it to good effect on the somber Prayer to a Primal Wind which features the vocal of Rozna Zila on a vodou invocation which, according to the professor’s notes, is an attempt to harness the primal energies to foster equilibrium and all levels of our being.
Funkay-Be-Sea brings back the bass clarinet on a straightforward riff driven piece propelled by snappy drumming anda ‘60s style Rhodes piano. Royal Hartigan enjoys his finest moment on a dynamically nuanced and melodic solo.
There is not a weak track on this fine record. My favorite tune though shows just how far this session ranges. Finnish Waltz, a traditional tune and a superb arrangement, salutes the musicians mothers heritage from that country antipodal to Haiti in every way. It is not surprising that an ethnomusicologist would collect good tunes from all parts of the world. It It represents a considered approach to incorporating a most exotic musical culture into a jazz framework and showcases a remarkable clarinet concept played with consummate authority. This is one of the most innovative and satisfying jazz records of 2019. Highly recommended.
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