We are on holiday in France for a couple of weeks and there wasn’t room to bring a guitar (nor any necessity since I don’t have a gig immediately on our return) so I brought my clarinet instead. I had some classical training on the clarinet as a teenager but have not played it consistently since, a period of some 30 years, and have never developed a jazz vocabulary on it. Although I haven’t made much progress during this short holiday the process has revealed some interesting analogies and differences with playing guitar.
The first and most obvious difference is the sheer physicality of playing a wind instrument. Picking up the clarinet again after such a long absence revealed the effort of making any sound apart from a squeak or a wheeze. Even with weak reeds I can only play it for a maximum of 15 minutes without my lip and palatal muscles reaching overload failure, and of course the length of every phrase is dependent on the amount of breath I have. This contrasts strongly with the relative ease that sound can be produced from a guitar, the length of time it can be played and the lack of any physical restraint on the length of phrase. This difference can produce some musical deficiencies in guitarists – because they don’t have to work hard for every note they can sometimes play too many notes without much musical direction. Glaring examples of this occurred when guitarists translated bebop phrases onto the fully electric guitar with its relatively flat sound due to lack of upper harmonics (a function of flat wound strings and amplifiers with a mid-range bias). There are many very dull recordings of guitarists running through endless bebop licks with no breaks between them, I won’t name the culprits as 75% of jazz guitar CDs exhibit this. I think that gypsy jazz guitar playing has less tendency to this because the acoustic nature of the instruments, with relatively high string action and thick heavy plectra, do make it more of a physical effort to play, and the arpeggiated nature of many gypsy jazz phrases ensures a rapid movement up and down the fretboard and a phrase has to end due to the lack of any further higher or lower notes.
I have been learning the Django tune ‘Daphne’ on the clarinet which has an A section in the key of E major (when transposed for a Bb instrument such as the clarinet) and a B section a semitone higher in F major. On the guitar the transition between the A and B sections can be very simple – just slide up a fret with the same fingering for most of the tune and any improvisation. On the clarinet it is very different, only two notes are common to both scales (E and A) so the fingering of five notes in the scale have to change with the transition. The E major and F major scales feel completely different to play, the E major scale uses lots of side keys to sharpen the notes whereas the F major scale is the ‘natural’ scale of the Bb clarinet so doesn’t use any side keys, just the open fingerholes. The semitone shift upwards or downwards is a powerful musical device which can be readily perceived by almost any listener whether they have any musical training or not, it give the music a real lift. However the difference in feel on the guitar is not very great if one just shifts up a fret. Perhaps a better way to approach fingering these sections would be to use the same finger on the same fret for the common notes E and A and move the other notes. This should produce the same sensation as the clarinet fingering – I will try it out when I next have a guitar in my hands.
My final observation, at the moment, is the way in which one’s listening focus changes when playing a different instrument. One might imagine that one would listen to music in an even-handed sort of way giving equal attention to all the instruments, or the ensemble as a whole. In reality this is very rarely the case and each listener will have a very different focus when listening to music. For people who don’t play instruments this focus will presumably be selected by sounds that they have found to be to their liking in the past. In many ways the best way to listen to a piece of music might be as a completely naïve listener who cannot even distinguish between the sounds of different instruments – in that way the whole ensemble could be appreciated without any preconceived focus. Unfortunately for instrumentalists listening to music often occurs in a highly focussed and rather conscious manner listening to the instrument which one plays to see what the player is ‘doing’. It was very interesting for me to see how quickly this focus can shift. When listening to gypsy jazz recordings I generally focus on the guitars, and often the rhythm guitar since that is my predominant mode of playing. After only 2 days of playing scales on the clarinet I found myself picking out the clarinet on any gypsy jazz recording on which it is present and hearing nuances of phrasing and tone that I hadn’t perceived before. It has made me even more impressed by some modern gypsy jazz clarinettists especially Andre Donni on Lolo Meier’s Hondarribia recording.