Clarinet Tone Talk: Jazz vs Classical

benny goodman jazz clarinet Image Credit

How does jazz clarinet tone differ from classical? An audio journey through the variations.

Just as many classical clarinet players differ in tone from each other, so do many jazz players. But the goal of classical tone is different from jazz, in that classical requires more soft playing, more blend with other instruments, and more clarity in articulation to achieve its goals, while jazz needs to project and take center stage with a more relaxed articulation.

The following sound bites attempt to trace a path between the two styles, demonstrating similarities and differences between classical and jazz clarinet tone.

Eddie Daniels is probably the best known jazz clarinetist in the past 2 decades, and he is also well known for his ability to play classical music with alacrity. Larry Combs, retired principal clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony, has a well known classical clarinet tone.

The first excerpt features the Combs/Daniels duo playing some classical style music. Note the “square” and very short articulation style, and the blended tone.

From Crossing the Line, Eddie Daniels and Larry Combs, Amilcare Ponchielli “Divertimento for Two Clarinets”-

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Here we have the same duo playing in a little more “relaxed” style, but still classical in detail.

From Crossing the Line, Eddie Daniels and Larry Combs, Bordon Goodwin “Leblanc Suite, “With Humor”-

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The next excerpt features Benny Goodman, the consummate jazz clarinetist and the original “crossover” player to classical. His classical reputation led to several seminal classical works being written for him, most notably Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. But he also recorded the Mozart Clarinet Concert, K622, numerous times. He studied classical clarinet with legendary British clarinetist and teacher Reginald Kell.

From Goodman plays Mozart “Rondo” form concerto-

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The 4th excerpt blurs the lines between classical and jazz clarinet playing. Despite a more refined sound, both players begin to push the sound “open” a bit more, and the articulation style becomes more appropriately wide and lazy.

From Crossing the Line, Eddie Daniels and Larry Combs, Gordon Gooman “Leblanc Suite”, “Ragtime”-

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This next snippet shows Daniels and Combs in full jazz tone, a wide and sprawling style and sound.

From Crossing the Line, Eddie Daniels and Larry Combs, Bud Powell “Hallucinations”-

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The next 3 samples are real jazz clarinet playing. Two samples of Artie Shaw, known for his beautiful “jazz” tone. And finally, we end with an sample from Let’s Dance with Benny Goodman wailing in his powerful and piercing jazz tone.

From Artie Shaw “More Last Recordings”, “Back Bay Shuffle”-

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From Artie Shaw “More Last Recordings”, “Autumn Leaves”-

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From Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, “Let’s Dance”-

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After listening to all these excerpts, perhaps you will agree that the difference in tone is not as great as some would say, and that style accounts for the greater part.

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16 comments for “Clarinet Tone Talk: Jazz vs Classical

  1. Rob4
    April 14, 2011 at

    Another interesting one is Eddie Daniels doing the Weber quintet. His tone on the Weber, as far as I can tell, barely alters from jazzy pieces I’ve got of his, for instance on his album Mean What You Say. In both situations Eddie has a tone that works beautifully, in my opinion. However his interpretation of the Weber is distinctly more lively than for instance that of Kalman Berkes. It got me thinking that, as you say David and others here have suggested, the music can take it, and there’s no evidence to say Weber wouldn’t have approved!

    It’s such a subtle thing. The average person on the street probably wouldn’t notice much difference between Eddie’s and Kalman’s respective sounds.
    Nevertheless, tone is worth paying attention to for us players because it’s subtle things like this that make great music great!

    • Rob4
      April 15, 2011 at

      Sorry fairly obvious comment that last bit…

      • April 15, 2011 at

        Not at all, Rob. The obvious is often in greatest need of being said. Too many musicians do not consider their tone, call it their accent, if it were a language, especially when playing with others. If all the various “accents” do not blend, their occurs a sort of loony cacophony of consonants! Tone is dependent on each acoustic, each group of performers, each piece, to strive for the perfect circumstantial coordination of colors, articulations, releases.

    • April 15, 2011 at

      Rob- I think your point about the Daniels performance of Weber drive another one home. You imply, slyly, that the Daniels recording is preferable (“distinctly more lively”) and that is what feeds my musical soul these days, the possibility that MORE freedom (at least more imagination…) ends up serving the music BETTER.

  2. March 22, 2011 at

    Hi David. Interesting post, and I agree the differences aren’t so large intrinsically: it would be interesting to hear the same piece played straight and jazz to eliminate differences due to style of piece. Regarding whether you have been perjorative about the jazz sound, surely what matters on either side is *control*, and having things sound as you want? Maybe classical players get a bit sniffy because jazz playing can seem to accept raucous aspects of the instrument that one often fights to eliminate in classical playing. But as long as it’s done by people like Daniels who clearly have that control, fine. Regarding Goodman, I don’t think his Mozart is poor stylistically, but it’s just not a very nice sound.

    And finally, let me be the odd one out: I preferred the old design. The new one seems cluttered somehow, with too much stuff on one page, and too much plain white background. But I’ll get used to it!

  3. Rob4
    March 12, 2011 at

    To me, Benny Goodman playing Mozart in your clip here sounds almost like a very good student who hasn’t quite got it 100% right. Yes, all the notes are there, but somehow he can’t escape sounding ‘swing’ and most definitely not classical. I think it sounds hilarious!!

    • March 12, 2011 at

      I agree. But Mozart’s music can take it, really. I bet Mozart would have liked a little swing in it. The tone is too “loose” for me, but he did study with Kell, a Brit.

  4. March 9, 2011 at

    Great post. I used to play clarinet back in my school orchestra days. That was many moons ago.

    Maybe I’m totally off base, but for me classical and jazz are such different sound worlds that I can’t reconcile them in my mind. So there is also for me a whole emotional world i can experience in classical music that i cannot find in jazz, and vica versa.

    So i would in no way even think that a classical clarinetist is in any way inferior or limited to his/her jazz counterpart.

    • March 10, 2011 at

      Thanks for your comment Paul. I have been thinking about it, and classical players have just as wide a range as jazz, and vice versa, but classical players have to use extreme control and contrast on command, no choice, just do it. Jazzers can use the sound they want when they want. I can sound jazzy instantly if need be, but a jazzer probably cannot sound classical on a whim.

  5. March 8, 2011 at

    Excellent post, David! In order to really understand the possibilities of the instrument in their hands, it should be imperative for every clarinetist to study different styles, both passively and actively: Jazz, klezmer, bulgarian etc. I don’t think classical music needs to accept a wider range of sounds or allow for more improvisation. I think the room is there for the performer who dares go in there, and on the way go from notes to music, to paint out pictures in tones. Only the best performers can do this, and that is what we aspire to do. Myself I often think of the Joik tradition of the Samí people here in northern Noway, which is a kind of ethnic song. They have a Joik (ethnic song) for everything – reindeer, houses, people etc. That is also the way in which music needs to be connected with the real world, instead of being mere notes. Who wants to read a book about the author sitting by his desk writing?

    • March 8, 2011 at

      Hi Joar! Nice to see you. I fixed your typo, no problem.

      I completely agree with you. One must experience (actively or passively) all forms of clarinet playing to find the essence of expression on the instrument.

      Thanks for your insightful comment.

  6. March 7, 2011 at

    I can’t help but notice how many of the words you use to describe jazz playing seem pejorative: “wide,” “lazy,” “sprawling,” “piercing.” I don’t think that’s really your intent, but it does seem that “classical” musicians tend to talk that way.

    As a musician who tries to do both jazz and classical music, I find that in many ways (not all ways, of course) it takes more focus, control, and attention to detail to play jazz. In a jazz setting, I need, for example, all of the delicate, subtle articulations that I need for classical playing, plus a whole world of stronger, crisper, more energetic attacks that classical musicians shy away from.

    To me, jazz music, on the whole, is more accepting of all the expressive possibilities of an instrument or voice, while classical music demands a narrower range of sounds–what a jazz musician might see as a more “closed-minded” approach, or what a classical musician might see as a more “disciplined” approach.

    P.S. I like the new design, too.

    • March 7, 2011 at

      Hey Bret- Excellent comment, and the sentiment is appreciated. Point well taken about the implications of pejorative descriptions. I was searching for descriptions of a freer style in general, and those words are not intended as necessarily negative in meaning, just examples of greater freedom.

      I do think, however, that jazz clarinet tone is more brassy and flabbier than classical, which may in fact be more “honest” about what the clarinet’s expressive possibilities are.

      By the time I had finished writing this post, and had listened several times to each audio sample, I had to at least add the last mitigating sentence where I say “After listening to all these excerpts, perhaps you will agree that the difference in tone is not as great as some would say, and that style accounts for the greater part.”

      But you drive the truth home very effectively. And you’ve got me thinking, how players like Stoltzman pushed the boundaries of classical playing to a jazz complexity. Perhaps classical performance practice needs to return to its more improvisatory and expressive roots! What about Giora Feidman? His alluring style is some the most beautiful clarinet playing I know of.

      Thanks for visiting. And I am glad to be introduced to your excellent blog. I’ll add you to my links list.

  7. Dean
    March 7, 2011 at

    Love you new design. Sharp, clean.

    Enjoyed this post. Interesting to see the similarities and contrasts.

    Thanks.

    • March 7, 2011 at

      Thanks Dean. Glad you enjoyed the post, and the new design.

Comments are closed.