Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Paul Austerlitz's Water Prayer for Bass Clarinet

"I am privileged to have spent my life studying world music cultures," begins Dr. Paul Austerlitz on the liner notes for his new album, Water Prayer for Bass Clarinet, and that sets everything up perfectly. Austerlitz, who plays a variety of instruments, has focused squarely on the wonderful, under-represented bass clarinet and how it can slide effortlessly into a number of jazz styles--especially when those genres are specific to a certain geography. A mix of originals and arrangements of originals, this album makes a brilliant case for this beautifully textured instrument, this enormous brute with a kind spirit and a big heart.

From the very first time I heard a bass clarinet sing--I have no idea about the when and where--I loved it. There are some musical instruments that have such a warm and forgiving timbre, and this woodwind has some of the same affable characteristics as the bassoon and contrabassoon, such as range. But the bass clarinet, despite its size, also has that playful tone of the smaller clarinets, a keen sense of swing that encourages everyone else on stage to keep up. By the time this album is over, you'll have a new affection for this instrument--and I think that's what Dr. Austerlitz had in mind the whole time.

Most of these arrangements dive straight in, jazz-wise. Austerlitz is cunning in the way he brings those world music cultures into the mix. The influences are deep and tricky, everything from Haitian "Rara" ("Rara Indivisible") to Finnish folk music ("Finnish Waltz") to Jimi Hendrix' guitar ("Funk-Ay-Be-Sea"). Nigeria, Romania and Cuba are also represented--so much of this man's interesting and rich life winds up on the stage, surrounded by fellow musicians with equally strong instincts and diverse tastes.

This is about jazz, the bass clarinet and world music, and the precise points where they intersect in the universe, and that makes this an album that may prompt you to explore these different forms so that you can learn while you listen. Most of all, this is about the love of a voice, a distinct tone that isn't quite heard enough. This recording sounds fabulous, which means it's very informative in the way it lays out the core bass clarinet sound, its range, what it's capable of doing. I love recordings like this. It's more than education, it's about opening up new parts of your brain and filling it with splendid noises that make your life more interesting.

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