What The Heck Is That? Odd Instruments In Jazz
Jazz is strange enough for some listeners. Dig a little deeper and it gets ever so bizarre. Throughout the music's history, particular instruments have risen to challenge of playing improvised music. The saxophone found its greatest calling in jazz, but not every instrument has been so lucky. Several musicians have found their voices on instruments that never caught a wave of popularity. Some were never meant for wide acceptance. But that didn't stop Sidney Bechet from playing the sarrusophone, nor will it forestall the next modern jazz genius of the musical saw.
After a century of jazz, some instruments endure — the piano, bass, drums and various wind instruments such as the saxophone, trumpet and trombone. But every now and then, there's a foreign sound that you never expected to hear playing jazz, including some of the instruments on these albums.
This article originally ran July 29, 2009.
Peeking into Scott Robinson's array of instruments is like entering Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Robinson is an obsessive collector, especially of the woodwind family. Of the nine types of saxophone (yes, nine!), the contrabass saxophone is the largest useful sax. It's dwarfed only by the totally obscure subcontrabass saxophone, an unplayable thing if you can find one (sorry, the Tubax doesn't count.) On "Basso Profundo," itself an obscurity among Duke Ellington's compositions, Robinson plays with gusto. Marvel at the amount of air required to play a 6'4" wide-bore tube so forcefully.
Meet Steve Turre, trombonist and foremost player of marine gastropods. That's right — just cut a hole into the spire of your favorite mollusk, blow some air into it, and use your hand to vary the pitch! Turre carries a suitcase of conch shells from Polynesia, Australia and the Caribbean. When he plays them, these ancestors of the brass family cast an eerily calming effect. Could it be that the shell truly resonates with the same frequency as music of the spheres? I don't know, but that sure sounds cool, right? "Morning" is a composition by the master multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef. Turre plays lead conch in the shell choir (there are four), and Kimati Dinizulu plays the one-string, an early guitar form that amounts to a coffee can, a string, and a bowed tree branch.
Welcome to the part where a black man wearing a Scottish kilt blows some serious improvisation over a pulsating conga rhythm. John Coltrane owned a set of bagpipes, and James Rivers of New Orleans is still a tremendous piper. But Philadelphian Rufus Harley's bag elevates the room temperature to a piping hot extreme. Along with donning the Highland tartans, Harley developed his unique blend of transcendental philosophy and cosmology. Is it a coincidence that he lived in Germantown, the same neighborhood that welcomed Saturn-born Sun Ra? I think not. On "Sufur" — "Rufus" spelled backwards — Harley builds the drone to a climax that even the Black Watch would appreciate. If Rufus Harley is truly the Pied Piper of Jazz, children of Hamelin beware.
Remember the harp on Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic"? That's Dorothy Ashby. Ashby emerged from Cass Technical, a Detroit high school that thrust a number of jazz musicians onto the scene, including Donald Byrd and Kenny Burrell. (Sidebar: Cass Tech is the only school in the city with its own Harp Ensemble). Ashby and another Detroit-born harpist, Alice Coltrane, gave the instrument a distinctive role in jazz. Keep in mind that this is not the easiest item to carry to and from a gig! Jazz harp survives today, thanks to Brandee Younger and Colombian Edmar Casteneda, who pushes the instrument beyond the Colombian folkloric tradition. "Soul Vibrations" is an excursion into late-'60s psychedelia, thanks to the groovy beat and dueling Theremins. Bonus for that. [Note: We could not get permission to stream "Soul Vibrations." In the mean time, check out "The Windmills of Your Mind" on YouTube.]
Producer Hal Willner has a certain flair for the tribute album. He has delivered offbeat salutes to Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota Kurt Weill and Disney movie music, to name a few, but his interpretations of Charles Mingus are the standout. Willner and his band of downtown New York experimenters (including Bill Frisell here) perform much of the music with composer Harry Partch's handmade instruments. This was the first time these wonderful works of art had been used outside of Partch's own recordings. "Canon" is one of the great works of the late-era Mingus. After the didgeridoo intro, Partch's sonic palette takes over — the Cloud Chamber Bowls (think Pyrex bowls on a pot rack), the Chromelodeon II (a modified pump organ), the bass marimba (huge resonating wood blocks you play from a platform) and my favorite, the Cone Gongs — nose cones that Partch salvaged from Douglas Aircraft gas tanks. Need I say more?
Step into the whimsical world of Han Reichel, where absolute genius comes wrapped in a cheesecloth of borderline cartoonish sound. (That's a good thing, I think). Reichel is primarily a solo artist, though he has performed with English rocker-cum-experimental music man, Fred Frith, and the free improv conduction leader, Butch Morris. The daxophone is completely a Reichel creation, and it is as much a masterwork in carpentry as it is an instrument. A block of wood (the "dax") changes the vibration frequency of a wooden blade inside another block with contact microphones. Whether plucked or bowed, these different shapes of wood create extraordinary sounds, many of which sound strangely human. Reichel, ever the tinkerer, has built a number of his own instruments, though none of them speak to awesomeness quite like the daxophone. Enjoy.