A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Compared to most instruments we associate with jazz, the clarinet is awfully small. Its case isn’t much larger than a typical handbag; there are no loping curves or tangles of tubing. But in the hands of a talented player, the rather diminutive instrument can slip into musical cracks that a burly tenor sax cannot—the cracks that separate jazz from other styles.

Clarinetist Mike McGinnis is one of those players who can slip through those cracks and come upon new subterranean styles that no one has yet discovered. Through his work with groups like The Four Bags and DDYGG, McGinnis has created a style where collective improvisation and delicate composition not only coexist but also feed off each other to create music that is greater than the sum of its parts. On his most recent album Road*Trip (RKM Music), McGinnis reaches back toward a genre-bending, clarinet-playing forebear, Bill Smith. On the record, McGinnis not only performs Smith’s “Concerto for Clarinet and Combo” (first recorded by drummer Shelly Manne’s group with the composer in 1957), but also a new original composition “Road Trip” that takes the techniques pioneered by Smith into the 21st century. We caught up with Mike by phone this week to talk about the particular challenges of Smith’s work and how playing the clarinet can help someone cut through the noise of today’s jazz world and find a personal voice.

The Jazz Gallery: The first piece on your new record is called “Concerto for Clarinet and Combo” by the composer Bill Smith. He’s not exactly a jazz household name, so can you tell us a bit about who he is? 

Mike McGinnis: Bill Smith is an 86-year-old clarinetist and composer. He was born in California and studied clarinet at Juilliard before being burned out by New York. He was studying classical clarinet during the day, then during the evening he had this steady gig at the club Kelly’s Stables. He’d be doing late night gigs until 3 or 4 in the morning and would have to get to school at 9 a.m., so he burned out and then also heard that the composer Darius Milhaud was teaching at Mills College. He went to Mills and that’s where he hooked up with Dave Brubeck, and got into this group of Milhaud’s students that were jazz guys but wanted to enhance their compositions.

In addition to being a trained composer—he went to Europe and studied at different times—he was this great clarinetist who was this great innovator in regards to extended techniques and harmonics. He would put different things in the clarinet, attach different things to it, play the clarinet into computers, play with tape loops…

He’s written a lot of music that solo clarinetists play, and pieces with computer, and he wrote this great five-movement orchestral piece that’s completely atonal with an improvising clarinet soloist. He’s still playing and he’s still composing and he’s widely regarded in classical clarinet and new music circles as a major guy.

TJG: It’s surprising to me that he’s done all these cool groundbreaking things mixing jazz and concert music, and yet isn’t as well known as, say, Gunther Schuller. Do you think it’s just an East Coast bias thing?

MM: There could be some of that. It’s still that way today if you look at record reviews and readers’ polls. I think part of it is that from an early age Bill wanted to make a lot of different music. He didn’t just want to survive by touring with bands; he was more interested in his own musical research that he knew wasn’t going to be commercially viable, so he looked for teaching jobs. He told me that he wrote like sixty letters to colleges and got rejected every time until he got this job in L.A. He then hooked up with the guy who ran the label Contemporary Records named Lester Koenig, who commissioned the concerto and a piece called “Divertimento” that Smith recorded with the vibraphonist Red Norvo. He was pretty much teaching all the time, and so if he had been on the road and in New York all the time and kept on playing with Brubeck, he would have totally been more known.

TJG: How did you first come across his music and what about the music pulled you into it?

MM: David Garland is the WNYC host of “Spinning on Air” and he knows more music than anyone. He had Bill Smith on his show and did a profile of his music. He played about a minute of the clarinet concerto, but just from hearing that minute, I was so into it. I thought it was really melodic and fun and he found a way to use this language of what people label “cool jazz” or “third stream” that went beyond those labels. When people say “third stream,” to me that implies people consciously trying to make something that fits into that label, whereas I don’t feel that it’s all that organic. Bill’s concerto doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be classical—it’s swinging and it’s improvising and it really grooves. To make the form longer, he uses a lot of these traditional classical techniques, like reversing and inverting and canon, but you don’t really notice it. It gives it this cool structure and forward motion, but it’s not like, “Oh! Here’s the development!” or “Look! He did that in a canon!” That’s how I think it blends styles in the best way.

I consider the four pillars of midcentury jazz clarinet to be Jimmy Giuffre, Bill, Buddy DeFranco, and Tony Scott. They had a lot of technical facility, they explored a lot of different music. Bill can stand alone in that category and then he can stand alone among classical composers like Robert Dick. When Bill plays his music, it doesn’t sound like some guy “swingin’ the classics” or something. Because of the way he uses harmony, and the way he colors and voices things, you could totally convince someone that it was written in the ’80s or ’90s. He’s also doing this stuff with phrasing across the bar lines that doesn’t sound inorganic at all.

That’s why when I heard it, it was like BAM—I wanted to hear the rest of it. I saw that it was published, so I got it. I saw that the clarinet part was all chord changes: you have to fill in the gaps. The first time I played it, I felt that I didn’t even know what I was doing and I was running into phrases different ways—it was like I didn’t know how to drive this thing. It sounded like this really cool piece with someone on top of it messing it up.

Then I got a chance to meet Bill in Seattle. I said I was trying to play the concerto and so we went and he played the piano; I had the part and we just went through the whole thing. He didn’t necessarily say anything like, “This needs to be done this way,” but gave instructions in a way that made me think a little more about how he thought about performing it. Throughout, there are suggestions of what you can do. It’s almost like a series of questions you have to solve, or a little obstacle course.

To learn it, I made these loops in notation software of all the sections so I could practice along to it. I could make different choices for each section—what if I played this with a more eighth note-y feel, or a more angular line? What if I keep ascending and descending, or what if I play half notes? As you take different approaches, it gives the piece a different flow. It’s fun—it’s like you’re completely improvising in a free way, but somehow not.

TJG: So, trying to improvise against a very particular, fully-notated part stretches very different improvisational muscles than improvising with a rhythm section that can react to you.

MM: Yeah. It’s really fun and challenging because you never get bored. I was never someone who liked to solo over a vamp, and I didn’t like tunes that don’t go anywhere harmonically. I guess because of my aversion to this stuff, I like to make things that still have a melodic quality, but have all these things the melody can bump up against. I used to have a video game obsession and this thing is kind of like a musical video game.

I think the main function of improvisation in a large compositional piece is to give a sense of many different journeys within the same landscape. In some ways, this concerto is very traditional in the old school classical sense where performers would improvise within them. The harmony changes in these unexpected places in the piece, so it’s not like learning a tune and just blowing millions of choruses on top of it. You have to always be on point and thinking ahead. To be creative within that is really fun and really hard and it’s pushing me in ways that my music hasn’t done before.

TJG: Bill Smith’s concerto has clearly pushed you as a clarinetist in a lot of ways. How did it influence your new piece “Road Trip,” which is also on your new record?

MM: I met Bill and got to learn about how he wrote his piece, but I was also studying traditional harmony and counterpoint with this guy named Paul Caputo, who’s a great teacher—a lot of people are studying with him. Because of doing that, I was able to understand a lot of the techniques that Bill was using, because he studied with Milhaud and with Roger Sessions—he had all that traditional background. I started analyzing the concerto and made a composite of all the themes of the first movement. All the way through the movement there was some bit of thematic material that was going. It gives this underlying sense of continuity.

Then I thought, “What if I can write a piece using these structures and these tools, but not having it sound like Bill’s piece and use my own language?”

I wrote this theme and then different versions of the theme and then all these counterthemes against it, and then tried to make a longer form that had different larger sections, and finally create this dialogue between the clarinet and the band. So the first part was very brooding, where I made all these Schoenberg-ian harmonic processes, but paired them with my more modern jazz sensibility. Then in the second part, I wanted to create more of lulling feeling, so I decided to write something that swings in 3/4 and has a Count Basie-esque shout chorus because I thought that would be fun.

I wrote the last part after I had recorded this opera with Anthony Braxton. Seeing the way he worked made me think very differently about my process. He’s not afraid to try different things—he just goes for it. If he thinks of something in the shower, he’s going to try to put it in the piece. This meshed with what Bill Smith told me (something he learned from Milhaud), which was to get away from the piano when you write: the piano will limit your imagination because you’ll be limited by what you can play.

I went to this area of Prospect Park called the “music grove” where they have all these composers’ busts—they have Mozart and Beethoven and Grieg and Webern. I went there and kind of wrote the final piece in the park. And I wanted to write something that was really Thad Jones-Mel Lewis swinging, but I didn’t want it to sound like a bad college chart. I was like, “What if I wrote something atonal, but with those rhythmic figures?” So in that whole section, there are only a few times where people have specific notes—most of the notes are improvised, and it creates these thick clusters. It was an experiment and I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. I just wanted to hear what the hell it would sound like. And I think it works! When I first listened back to it, I just started laughing at how it all seemed to fit together.

TJG: I know you studied classical saxophone in college, but have now adopted the clarinet as your main instrument. I think many listeners, for better or for worse, associate the clarinet more with classical music than with jazz. Do you think playing this flexible instrument is a reason for your interest in making music that doesn’t necessarily belong to a single style?

MM: Totally. Well, I would say that the person drawn to the clarinet is also drawn to making genre-bending music. You can look at just about all the clarinetists in jazz history—Benny Goodman was doing that [he commissioned classical pieces from Copland and Bartok], then Woody Herman did that [he commissioned pieces from Stravinsky and Bernstein], and Artie Shaw did that, then Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott. A lot of them put out classical recordings, and a lot of them were composer-players, too. Now, there’s Eddie Daniels, and Don Byron doing his thing with Bang on a Can.

When I started playing clarinet, I started getting a wider variety of calls for gigs. The more I started to bring it out to sessions, the more people were like, “This is cool! Clarinet is awesome!” So more as a result of having to prepare for more gigs, I began to practice it more; especially if you started on saxophone like I did, playing a lot of clarinet completely changes the way your brain works.

Playing clarinet over saxophone is freeing, too. There’s not as much baggage as with the saxophone. You can play stuff on the clarinet that’s crazier and wackier and people don’t have as many models for it. I realized that playing clarinet in this way fits my personality. If I see someone on the street wearing this shirt, I don’t want to go out and buy that shirt, because I want to be the only one wearing it. I definitely keep my influences close, but I never want to show them, and playing the clarinet helps me do that.

Come celebrate the release of Mike McGinnis’s new CD Road*Trip featuring Bill Smith’s Concerto for Clarinet and Combo on Thursday, December 19th. The group features Jeff Hermanson on trumpet, Justin Mullens on French horn, Brian Drye on trombone, Barry Saunders on baritone sax, Peter Hess on tenor sax, Matt Blostein on alto sax, Jacob Sacks on piano, Dan Fabricatore on bass, and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here