Beth Custer’s Clarinet Thing

Clarinet ThingCry, Want (BC, 2009)

Clarinet Thing, Beth Custer‘s all-clarinet group, has existed for 20 years but only has two CDs to its credit (to my knowledge) and plays only rarely.  When a show popped up at Yoshi’s last week, I figured I practically owed it to the band to show up.

Not as long-form or abstract as ROVA, not as ethereal as Chris Speed’s “The Clarinets,” not as metal as Edmund Welles, Clarinet Thing might have a closer analogue in the World Saxophone Quartet. They do get into some freeform improv and some wild free-jazzy soloing, but it’s all unapologeticly jazz at heart, down to the Duke Ellington covers that showed up on their first album.

Cry, Want draws more on Jimmy Guiffre and Carla Bley for inspiration (the title track is a Giuffre cover).  At the Yoshi’s show, billed as the CD release party, we got treated to lots of original compositions from the new disk, some covers, and a couple of tunes that are apparently being prepped for the next CD, which might be out in just six months.

A few of the pieces from Cry, Want that they played:

“Iluku,” Brown’s piece about his father, who was given that nickname while living in Africa as a boy. Lots of old-time jazzy counterpoint, a pleasant tune.

“Who Died and Where I Moved To,” a Ben Goldberg piece with a playfully sneaky beat, bluesy chord changes, and lots of catchy old-jazz borrowings in the individual parts. A highlight of the show and the CD.

“Polestar,” another Goldberg piece, this time gossamer and lovely.

“2300 Skidoo,” a Herbie Nichols composition that shows how he straddled contemporary and future jazz traditions in his time.

And versions of “Night in Tunisia” (stunning) and “Crepuscule with Nellie” (during which Custer lost her place and couldn’t locate the proper sheet music page in her folder — an experience second only to the time she forgot to put a reed in her clarinet, she said).

As for the newer stuff, Custer trotted out two parts of a five-part suite inspired by Buckminster Fuller.  It started out nicely enough but without the abstract or geometric aspect I’d expected, considering this was the guy associated with geodesic domes and buckminsterfullerene.  But then they kicked into some wild improvising and a quirky riff that kept reappearing.  Better.

The group also did a waltz, “Sweeping Staircase,” that comes from one of Custer’s silent-film scores. And the show closed with a bit of Brazilian choro music by Pixinguinha.

As for the lineup of Clarinet Thing: Custer, Sheldon Brown, and Ben Goldberg are still around from the previous quintet formation (which put out the album Agony Pipes and Misery Sticks in 2005).  Peter Josheff and Ralph Carney are out, replaced by longtime local jazzster Harvey Wainapel. The four of them sat in the usual arc formation, like a string quartet would, and they took turns introducing their songs on the mic. It was a casual show, a fun air.

Goldberg spent most of the night on the contra-alto clarinet, which resembles a one-legged tuba (it’s got a stick to help the performer hold it at mouth level). The other players covered nearly every other type of clarinet between them, including a lot of bass clarinets.

Fun concert overall, and a nice CD that of course has a similar sound.

And if you want to hear what they sounded like live on KPFA a couple of weeks ago, click here, but do it fast — that archived show will expire Thursday, Nov. 26.

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