Mort Weiss – Raising The Bar (2010)

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Imagine a musician who was totally immersed in his craft. Imagine that person setting down his instrument for 45 years. All of those decades away (and I’m sure Mort is tired of hearing about this story), all of that bad living. A reasonable person might think that attempts at a return to music-making would result in either a sad, watered-down facsimile of a former career or a puffy, nostalgia-filled look back. The story did not end that way for Mort Weiss. Collaborations with guitarist Ron Aschete and B3 legend Joey DeFrancesco were similarly stunning.

On Raising The Bar, Weiss puts his solo clarinet directly into the spotlight. The results are anything but cliché’, presenting a musician confident in his abilities and in love with jazz.

Let’s look at the program first, because this is no set of easily digested swing tunes. There gorgeously-rendered jazzified pop standards (“Tea For Two,” “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,” “Alfie,” “Smile”), jazz classics (“Just Friends,” “Sketches, “My Shining Hour”), and some intriguing original material.

The approach that Weiss takes on some of these selections is to take the melodic and harmonic content and explore it’s implications. By this, I don’t mean that he starts out in the usual manner, presenting the melody and then slowly taking it in different directions. Instead, the destination is often presented early on, with the music working it’s way back to more “normal” (read: familiar) confines. Give the classic “Just Friends” a listen. Ideas splatter all over the place as you begin to think “Hmmm…wait, I know this….do I?” Just when you really do begin to doubt yourself, the fog clears and that old friend really does show up. On other songs, Weiss takes a more “traditional out” (Hey, I just made an oxymoron!) tack by laying out the tune before visiting the harmonic possibilities of each phrase. It’s both respectful and exhilarating.

My favorite track here is the incredible take on “Sketches.” My ears were used to hearing the wide sound palette presented on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. Weiss investigates first the searching melodic theme before taking off on a high-speed chase through the harmonic landscape. With music this athletic, it’s hard to believe that Mort Weiss is more than 75 years old!

Wait, maybe that’s not my favorite song. It might be “Blues For Håkan.” It was named for Håkan Rosengren, one of the world’s best classical clarinet players and Weiss’ son-in-law. Weiss mixes in bluesy passages, divebombing chromatic runs, and a little extended technique too. It’s one of the many tracks that makes Weiss’ of return to form so amazing.

I’ve been listening to this record for many, many weeks now, and there’s something about the play that struck me as “different,” though I couldn’t come up with a description that could be held in the hand. This collection doesn’t just sound like someone playing songs. It’s more like a presentation of a life, as in “Hey, this is very important to me…can you listen for a little bit?” You might think that you’d rather do something else but you were raised to be polite. So you sit down… and you’re shocked. You had never met this person before and, after one intimate session, you feel like you know them. What do you call that? Give Raising The Bar a listen and get back to me. Thanks.

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