the m’pingo suite

my clarinet teacher (click on title to play)

i’m still trying:

i’m still trying

dizknee justice abounds (click on title to play)

M’Pingo is a Tanzanian word for a tree that grows in their forests. This tree produces a wood with the rather unromantic name of ‘African Blackwood.’ European (Portugese, actually) clarinet manufacturers rechristened this wood with the romantic moniker of ‘Grenadilla.’ M’Pingo is the wood used to make clarinets. It’s a word that I like and it refers to an instrument that at best I feel ambivalent about.

I never asked to play clarinet. Literally. In sixth grade, after giving up piano and trombone, I decided I wanted to play the saxophone. My parents decided instead that I would play the clarinet. This decision was partly economic (cheaper rental fee) and partly aesthetic (my mom hated the saxophone). I went along with this and pretended the clarinet was a saxophone. I did this so I could stick with clarinet long enough to get a real saxophone (something my parents promised me if I showed some discipline). Consequently, I became pretty good at an instrument that I never really wanted to play. And so my plan backfired. Getting good at an instrument made it harder to convince my parents that I should be allowed to quit so I could instead play a different instrument. But after five years, I finally did get a saxophone. And even though I’ve studied the saxophone diligently, I’ve never developed the natural affinity for it that I have with the clarinet. And even though I’ve tried to quit the clarinet several times, excellent composers like Darcy Argue have stipulated that to be in their band, I need to play (bass) clarinet. So here I am, thirty years later, still playing the clarinet.

This is why I describe my relationship with the clarinet as “ambivalent.”

The M’Pingo suite is written to the three people who believed in me on this instrument and kept me going on it long after I would’ve stopped. They are Joe Vettori, my mother Wendy Sinton and Darcy James Argue. Whatever small ability I have on this instrument is due to their diligent belief.

 “my clarinet teacher”

Joe Vettori was my clarinet teacher. One of only two I’ve ever had in my life (including bass clarinet). He was the more important of these two teachers, yet he still didn’t teach me what I wanted to learn during the time I was his student. Honestly, that wasn’t his fault. I was an adolescent when I studied with him and I really had no idea how to communicate what I wanted to study. That’s the tragedy/problem with adolescence: you think you’re being so goddamn clear about everything when in fact you make no fucking sense to a sane person. Looking back now, I realize that like any kid, I wanted to play cool music. And even though this cool music didn’t have clarinet (or saxophone, usually), I still wanted to find a way onstage with this band, this guy, this band, this band or even this band. That was the music I wanted to learn to play. Instead I learned to play this and a little bit of this. So “my clarinet teacher” is a piece that I wrote to my younger self. A piece that contains so much of what I wanted play back in the 1980’s. But it also contains bits of what I actually struggling with musically at that time.

Formally, the piece is pretty simple: there’s some written material upfront that Jon Irabagon solos over. When he’s done soloing, he plays the written melody twice and then we move on to the group improvisation. To get out of that, I start playing the phrase I wrote for myself for the ‘B’ section. Eventually we all fall in line with our composed parts, Jon plays his melody twice and we go back to the ‘A’ section which we play once and we’re done. But it’s the details of this piece that I spent the most time on.

My opening line is built on the interval of a ninth. This was my only concession to my present-day self. In 2009 I was on the tail-end of an obsession with ninths and I tried to jam them into whatever context I could. But everything else about this opening bit was from my fevered adolescent imagination: the flanger-effect on the bass clarinet, the quasi-Talking-Heads guitar line, the thumping bass drum (which my adolescent-self equates with rocking out), the bass line. All of these are things my 11-to-13-year-old-self definitely considers cool. I just told Jon to have fun on top of this weird burble-babble. For the group improvisation, I told everyone to play whatever they wanted, but it had to be material from when they first started learning their instruments. So then you get the “Star Wars” quote, the clunky scales, the patriotic tunes, the Casio ‘Samba’ best (still cracks me up), the Bach for beginners, etc. It’s a stupid mess yes, I know that, because that’s what I wanted. I still find it pretty funny.

I wrote this piece for Mr. Vettori because I wanted to thank him. He never pushed me (he would correct me), he encouraged me and he tried really hard to patiently understand me and what I was trying to do. And despite my best efforts to the contrary, he really did teach me how to more-or-less handle a clarinet.

“i’m still trying”

This is the song written to my mother Wendy Sinton. I love my mother and she loves me. We have a very difficult time getting along. Fights break out often when we’re in the same room. Neither of us are happy about this, but sometimes things get into a rut. This was the piece I wrote to her, so it a.) had to be pretty and b.) had to be tough, because that’s who my mother is and that’s what my relationship with her is. And as tough as she is, she always told me how much she liked to hear me play the clarinet.

I locked myself in my study for three days trying to think of the best way I could audibly communicate “i’m sorry” and “i’m not sorry.” [note, I would really not recommend this if you want to stay on good terms with your wife/husband/parmour/housemates. This shit will make you crazy in an extra-special-cranky kind of a way.] I finally came up with this entire melody in one piece. I then crunched together (literally) notes from the melody and from that I came up with the chords that bookend the piece. Formally, I decided to do a simple head-solo-head arrangement. The chords used to introduce the piece were used again by Jon and Jonathan during my solo to let me know that I should wrap things up. I didn’t tell them when they should play the chords, that was up to them and their musical instincts. Sonically, this is the most ECM sounding song on PB and that’s because ECM records were probably among the first instrumental records that both my Mom and I liked. It only made sense.

“dizknee justice abounds”

I really admire and respect Darcy Argue. Admire because of the tenacity of his musical thought and the surety and clarity with which he executes it. Ever since I’ve known him, I’ve always recognized his musical voice. It’s utterly distinctive. Respect because Darcy is incredibly demonstrative about the things and people that he loves. He doesn’t just say that human rights are vitally important, he tries to do something about the lack of human rights in the world as well. He has a compulsion to point out to anyone who will listen, the wrongs of the world and to courageously state over and over again that these wrongs can not stand. To know of a person so fully committed to their musical vision as well to other human beings is a rare and beautiful thing. To actually associate with such a person is an intense kind of luck that I hope never to take for granted. I’ve been really fortunate to meet and work for Darcy and “dizknee justice abounds” is the best way I could thank him.

In “dizknee justice abounds” I attempted to combine two things that Darcy introduced to my musical world: musically expressing moral outrage over the wrongdoings of the U.S. Government and Miles Davis’ music crica 1970 (specifically the album Live Evil). Simply put, the alto/bass clarinet melody is the moral outrage while the pulsing bass line is the Live Evil. Similar to “i’m still trying,” I took the melody and crunched it together to create the chords and notes of the intro. After the intro, the melody is played twice, once in octaves and the second time with a counter-line. This leads into an improvised duo between myself and Jonathan Goldberger. At my signal, we play the last phrase of the opening melody and that launches us into the ‘B’ section. The bass line changes here (it’s in 15/4 instead of 4/4) and Jon has a solo over this. When he’s done soloing, he signals by beginning a line built from the intro line (which in turn was built from the ‘A’ section line) in conjunction with Jonathan. He plays the line three times and it quickly spirals into the abrupt ending. I did try writing a counter line for myself for Jon’s solo section, but I was never able to get it to sound correct, so I axed it in the mixing booth. I also spent a fair amount of time tweaking Jon’s sound so that initially it sounds more like a guitar. Again, what I’ve been attempting to make here is a great recording. To my ears, that means I can use whatever means necessary even if that results in jettisoning a ‘natural’ sound.

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