May 212013

In Concert #1 of the Tribeca New Music Festival 2013, held in Chelsea’s beloved intimate home for the performing arts The Cell, composer and wind instrumentalist Michael Lowenstern made a convincing case for the undersung’s bass clarinet’s place in the rock idiom.

He played four pieces that night, all of which I filmed — You’ll get to see/hear two of them in just a few minutes.

For worse or for worse, rock/pop music simply doesn’t showcase the bass clarinet.

Jazz aficionados have many opportunities to relish the bass clarinet in its full power and glory, thanks to the capacious lungs and capable hands of Eric Dolphy, Bennie Maupin, Herbie Mann, Michel Pilz and others…

But rock has only offered the slimmest of pickings. You can get a novelty/nostalgia taste in The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four, and there’s that declicious moody dirge from 4:15 to 5:15 in King Crimson’s Epitaph but, in both instances, the bass clarinet is merely used to add some texture to the B♭ clarinet parts.

Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica 2LP features two bass clarinet players, (the Cap’n and Victor Hayden), but the instrument is generally featured only in fragmentary bursts.

The greatest and most consistent source of bass clarinet (and contrabass clarinet) in rock music (jazz-tinged or otherwise) was Frank Zappa, whose Mothers of Invention featured the bold low tones of Bunk Gardner (see, e.g., here and here), as well as Mike Altschul, John Rotella, David Ocker, and Kurt McGettrick. Of course, posthumous releases aside, there hasn’t been any new FZ music since 1988.

As far as I can tell, the bass clarinet has made no further inroads to metal than this (decidedly righteous) Cannibal Corpse play-along.

But in just four short pieces, Michael Lowenstern demonstrated that the bass clarinet has an important place in today’s music — not just as a textural base or a bit of tone color, but as the center of attention.

The first piece, “Trip,” was a jaunty travelogue for bass clarinet, more bass clarinet, Korg Kaossilator, &c., complete with its own mellow techno “filtered synth pad” break:

“Trip” is the opening track on his 2010 album “Spin Cycle,” which can be purchased via iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby and elsewhere.

Next, he pulled XX and XY volunteers from the audience to help him perform “Lost in Translation,” an hysterical recontextualization of British English phrasebook lesson snippets. While he created a one-man Latin dance party in the background (using a Native Instruments Maschine, sampled shaker, and mini keyboard), the volunteers alternated triggering phrases with His and Her iPhones. While none of the actual utterances were off-colo(u)r, the resulting “conversation” was dripping with abstract, physically-as-well-as-syntactically-improbable innuendo:


“Lost in Translation”

In the third number, “My Mouth,” Lowenstern wrought jazz, blues and gospel out of his bass clarinet and blues-harp, against the slow Boom-Bap of pre-assembled bass and percussion samples:


“My Mouth”

The fourth piece, “What’d I Say,” opened with a virtuosic-yet-funky solo for Akai EWI 4000s MIDI Wind Controller. Lowenstern used his Maschine to hammer out loops of bombastic distorted e-piano, funky drums, and the disembodied voice of a certain soul giant… He set the sampled loops a-rolling, and then solo’d over the whole thing, much to the audience’s protracted delight:

What Michael Lowenstern proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that the bass clarinet holds tremendous potential as a featured instrument in a rock/funk/blues/hip-hop context. It’s unique sound, capable of conveying humor, sorrow or malevolence by turns, just needs more people to rise to the challenge and build up their chops and their repertoires.

 Posted by at 1:23 am

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