RKM Music RKM 014 (rkmmusic.com)
Composer of scores that reflected his twin careers as an academic and notated music composer plus a part-time improvising clarinetist – most notably with his Mills College friend Dave Brubeck – Seattle-based William O. (Bill) Smith (b.1926) gets his just due with this perceptive CD. Organized by young clarinetist Mike McGinnis (b.1973) for his own nine-piece ensemble, the band not only turns in an authoritative version of Smith’s seminal three-movement Concerto for Clarinet and Combo, from 1956, but couples it with McGinnis’ own recently composed Road*Trip for Clarinet & Nine Players.
For a start the ensemble’s reading of the concerto proves that unlike some other jazz-and-classical- mixing Third Streamers, Smith certainly was able to swing. As the stimulating theme modulates through big band harmonic flourishes plus carefully stacked orchestral motifs that take advantage of French horn and trombone sonorities, it references the big band arrangements of the likes of Gerry Mulligan as much as Darius Milhaud, with whom Smith and Brubeck studied. Particularly affecting is the conclusion of the second movement when the others play underlying basso timbres as McGinnis’ spiky lines move upwards. Crucially, score fidelity doesn’t stop the program from being a fingersnapper. By its conclusion admiration is as much for the clarinetist negotiating difficult cadenzas a cappella as for the punchy writing.
By definition more modern, Road*Trip’s performance is a bit murkier and more mellow. At the same time McGinnis’ clean solo execution – sometimes staccato and unaccompanied – plus the rubato interpretation of the initial theme by the entire group sensibly reflects Smith’s pioneering work. Here hornist Justin Mullens’ reflective bleats, trumpeter Jeff Hermanson’s plunger timbres and pianist Jacob Sacks’ supportive comping join with drummer Vinnie Sperazza’s measured beats to concentrate accelerating pressure onto the unrolling narrative. With the band’s ululating tonal shifts framing the clarinetist’s flutter-tongued gymnastics, the sense of achievement that follows the suite’s resolution into an advanced swing structure also makes it one road trip worth taking.