Mort Weiss is a man who’s hard to forget. After listening to most of his releases on SMS Jazz, one can’t help but want to write a few words about the genius that lies beneath all that music, and how captivating it is to know he had been away from music and his instrument for four decades — only to come back about twelve years ago as if it was just yesterday.
When I think about it, and I know he has too, the clarinet has never been an instrument of choice for many when it comes to loving jazz and finding that one musical voice that moves you the most. I personally struggle choosing between trumpet and tenor sax, but the clarinet? It rarely happens, does it? I know it has never crossed my mind. The thing is that love has no rhyme and it sure needs no reason. Love, in all aspects of life, dictates that which we cannot fight, let alone understand, and off we go, trying to never let go. For Weiss, it all happened pretty much like that, music wise. Sure, he made a living playing the tenor sax at one point in time, but the clarinet always waited long-sufferingly for him to have the right determination and the right focus to give his all to his instrument of choice. Even if it took decades …
The story of Mort Weiss didn’t however start twelve years ago, as you have already figured out. His story almost ended in the late 1960s, when he found himself in need of some evaluation time and life-saving decisions — literally. One can indeed have too much fun, and Weiss was having one hell of a blast. Problem was, he could not even remember half of it when it was over. As it has been reported for the last few years, he woke up naked in a padded cell, and for the life of him, he could not remember how he even got there. That was a major turning point. Sobering up took some effort, and just as it usually happens when you put your best foot forward, life gave Weiss one more audition under one condition: he was to pay some very painful and non-refundable dues, and he would no longer play music until all those dues had been fully paid, with interest.
Years went by, life got essentially sweeter with enough love and business success to keep him well balanced and able to hold his promise. Then one day, and by sheer coincidence, a random email about an audition for a jazz band got his soul curious about what it would feel like to play that clarinet again. Eleven albums later, Mort Weiss is a wonder to listen to. His exquisite and yet raw playing is like nothing you ever heard before. His most recent album release, A Giant Step Out and Back (for his own label, SMS Jazz) is a full-fledged free jazz exercise of craziness and freedom. No inhibitions. No second takes. Just like his life used and turned out to be. It all lead him to where he is today.
If you are looking for a traditional clarinet sound, look elsewhere. Mort Weiss has basically reinvented this instrument single-handedly. Scales don’t even exist, or perhaps are just so embedded in his own breathing and articulation that one just sits there, enjoying that air modifying workout of pure magic. He runs his fingers through that clarinet like fireworks in a pitch-dark night sky, and the effect on your heart is just as luminous and mesmerizing. Jazz is dressed in feeling and madness at the same time, and one has the impression that this moment in time — as he is allows us to witness his once-before-dormant talent as it unfolds and grows with each track — is happening to give us the most precious gift a musician can give to those who listen: a whole lot of happiness.
From this album, “Summertime” (the so-often-visited, and yet rarely fully understood Gershwin tune, so very alive and sensitive in his hands), “Straight No Chaser” (fascinating, busy, breathless!), “Soliloquy” (different voices of Mort Weiss, and the same vibrant conclusion: genius) or “Waltz for Debbie” (Bill Evans might have raised his eyebrows in amazement with this one!), “Warm Up” (I just love his heart, his fearless passion!) and “All the Things You Are” (get ready to get lost in his ever changing technique!) would be some of my recommendations to you. Further more, I would invite you to also focus on “Talkin’ About It,” where Weiss fully exposes the essence of free jazz in a mumbling drill of boundless energy.
A true virtuoso who deserves all the praise we can give him, for he has waited long enough.