Mort Weiss – A Giant Step Out And Back (2013)

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The statement on the front CD cover announces what this music is about: “A Free Jazz Recording By The Undisputed Master Of The Jazz Clarinet.” Brash, yes, but as I’m reminded, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

Mort Weiss, that undisputed clarinet master, is one of jazz’s remarkable stories of making up for lost time: zero albums under his name in the first sixty-six years of his life and now, eleven over the last twelve. Each with a different configuration, presenting his amazing facility on the blackwood in a different way. For the second time, Weiss is going it alone, with no one else accompanying him, and seeing how well that turned out the first time, there could be not harm in undertaking another solo clarinet album.

But there are some unique twists to A Giant Step Out And Back — as they are with every Weiss album — and to borrow from the title of that prior record, Weiss raises the bar once again. As you may have guessed already, this faithful adherent to the bop tradition is stretching out, and he walks the tight rope with no net: all first takes, no edits, no rehearsals, no even listening to music for six months prior to this five hour recording session; he walked in and cut these tracks cold, then flew back home.

For some of the tracks, like the first one “Trane Of Thought” (YouTube above), the song didn’t even exist until the tape rolled. At first blush, “Trane” appears to be a departure into whack jazz wilderness, but Weiss never compromised his basic principles. Listen close enough to it, and you’ll find the flow, the rhythm, and a harmonic shape. It’s the essence of Mort Weiss that always bleeds through, even when he’s stepping outside. The closing number “Warm Up” is similarly a series of somersaults that result in Weiss landing squarely on his feet each time.

For the sturdy standard “All The Things You Are,” Weiss introduces yet another new tact, dubbing over himself. Within a magical two minutes, Weiss is fluttering up and down scales hitting all the critical notes of the melody along the way so you can’t miss it, and then he does it again, as if a second take was playing alongside the first. Except, that both of these “takes” are in perfect congruence with each other.

“Allegory,” “Jivin’!” and “Soliloquy” are sort of combinations in approach of those first two songs: made up on the spot, but later dubbed over. For these cuts, Weiss was required to rely on his ear this time instead of memory to make the overdubs work on these pure improvisations.

Other standards such as “Fair Weather,” “Dark Eyes,” “Straight No Chaser” and “Summertime” are performed without the overdubs, but are played a little quicker and with a little more abstractness than the way he tackled the standards on Raising The Bar. Bill Evans’ gorgeous “Waltz For Debbie” is hastened and somewhat reharmonized, in what must be the most radical remake of that song, ever. However, Weiss never, ever loses sight of the underlying harmony.

Weiss’ most way out song of this collection ironically doesn’t even involve a clarinet: “Talkin’ About it” is vocal scat made up on the spot lacking a melody but still possesses rhythm and progression. One might call it a human beat box with swing.

As a whole, A Giant Step Out And Back can confidently be named Weiss’ most daring work. At a time in his life where his peers are slowing down, playing it safe and retreading the same ground, he’s still looking for ways to extend his art to the outer limits. Adventurous jazz isn’t necessarily a young man’s game, but it does belong to those young at heart. And that kid Mort Weiss made a record not for the faint of heart, but in many ways it’s very rewarding for those who are as open minded as he is.

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A Giant Step Out And Back is out this month on SMS Records. Check out his unique perspectives and reminiscences of the world of jazz on The Mort Report at All About Jazz.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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