There’s a long history in jazz of artists utilising other, less common instruments to bring new colour and sounds to the music.
In this article, clarinetist Simon Wyrsch picks 10 of the great jazz bass clarinet players who, over the years, have brought its deep, earthy sound to the foreground of the scene.
While there’s no shortage of articles about the clarinet in jazz – Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Sidney Bechet, to name just three – I felt it might be interesting to focus on the lesser-used bass clarinet.
It might be ‘niche’ but this larger member of the clarinet family enjoys a lot of admiration from both jazz listeners and among professional musicians themselves – particularly composers and bandleaders who’ve made use of it’s highly original sound.
So, for this list, I chose ten of the most well-known bass clarinet jazz players who’ve brought this instrument to the foreground.
Of course, there are many more unsung heroes out there that could have also taken their place here, so please forgive me for the omissions!
Eric Dolphy is the godfather of jazz bass clarinet!
A lot of current bass clarinetists name him as the inspiration for taking up the instrument in the first place and, for many jazz fans, he gave their first taste of this wonderful sound.
As with so many of the most influential jazz players in history, he achieved a lot in a short life, dying at the age of 36.
He not only introduced the bass clarinet to jazz, but also showcased the range of sounds and extended techniques that could be applied in early free jazz and modern avant garde music.
Famous collaborators in the Eric Dolphy discography include Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard, amongst many others.
Out To Lunch (1964) on Blue Note Records is undoubtedly the most famous Eric Dolphy album, as well as one of the most legendary free jazz albums of all time.
He showcases the bass clarinet in his expressive, avantgarde way: freaky and raw sounds blended with some beautiful melodic lines together with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.
Bennie Maupin has brought jazz bass clarinet to perhaps more listeners than any other in history, playing on two of the most famous jazz albums of all time.
He can be heard on Miles Davis’ 1970 jazz fusion classic Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock’s bestselling record HeadHunters from 1973; two great places to start if you want to hear how the bass clarinet in jazz evolved!
Whilst Bennie Maupin undoubtedly brought jazz bass clarinet to mainstream attention, for me there was always a mystical side to his beautiful playing, especially in the low, airy register of the instrument.
With a career of more than 50 years, there are no shortage of great Bennie Maupin albums to check out in the jazz and improvised groove music sphere.
Our pick today, though, is one of this later recordings – Penumbra – from 2006 which features him alongside Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz on bass and Michael Stephans on drums.
Bob Mintzer’s funky bass clarinet playing, best-known in association with Jaco Pastorius, is classic.
He also uses the instrument on many records with Yellowjackets.
Mintzer is an important figure in the development of bass clarinet in jazz as he was one of the first that used a microphone pickup on the instrument, in combination with a flanger effect as well from time to time.
As a primarily post bop tenor player, Bob Mintzer brings great drive and attack to bass clarinet, which gives the instrument some real conviction. His solo on the jazz standard Donna Lee is well worth checking out for this!
Whilst Marcus Miller is best-known as an electric bassist and a producer, for Miles Davis in particular, he also plays bass clarinet with a unique and soulful sound.
It’s always refreshing to hear someone play the bass clarinet that usually plays another family of instruments completely, and the result is a highly recognisable style and approach.
He uses the bas clarinet sparingly in his live shows – bringing it out only on certain songs – which further highlights the colour that this instrument can add to jazz.
A leading voice on the jazz scene, Michel Portal is also a skilled composer of classical and film music whose playing and writing fuses all these elements together with contemporary and avantgarde sounds.
As with many creative musicians, Portal can be heard in a wide variety of settings, from solo performances to and accordion duo with Richard Galliano to energetic band line ups with rhythm section and other horn players.
For a taste of his jazz bas clarinet playing, my recommended album to check out would be 1997’s Dockings.
This fresh and energetic music showcases Portal’s eccentric side, backed up with a great rhythm section.
Back in the mid 90s Cornelius Boots started using octave pedals and other effects and techniques on the bass clarinet (including circular breathing) to produce very groove-orientated music.
He put these skills to use with a range of project, from rock bands – sometimes taking the role of the bass player – to the Edmund Welles Bass Clarinet Quartet – a unique group that features modern music performed by 4 bass clarinets.
He’s definitely a heavyweight in the history of jazz bass clarinet but also one of the first to introduce that instrument to rock music.
Considered early on as a successor to the great Eric Dolphy, Michel Pilz has dedicated his career exclusively to the mastery of this extraordinary woodwind.
To put in the words of jazz critic J.E. Behrendt: “Michel Pilz, whose sole instrument is the bass-clarinet, has carried the Eric Dolphy legacy into the Free Jazz Era….He is a master of contradictory musical lines, flowing from the strong and furious, to the soft and warm.”
Tim Garland is an English jazz saxophonist who actually started playing bass clarinet at the request of piano legend Chick Corea, with whom he’s toured and recorded with for many years.
He’s a very versatile musician in terms of both playing and composing, and merges the two things seamlessly in his improvisations.
Highly regarded as a jazz bass clarinet player, he uses the instrument frequently (alongside saxes & flute) in Chick Corea’s band ‘Vigil’ and also in his own projects.
These original line ups have included a couple of high profile trios: one with bassist Yuri Goloubev & drummer Asaf Sirkis, and another with Joe Locke & Gwilym Simcock.
You can find out more in this interview I recorded with Tim:
Louis Sclavis is one of the leading voices on the bass clarinet, and also one of the first to mix jazz with French folk music.
Recording most of his albums for the legendary ECM record label, he experimented with various extended techniques on the bass clarinet, including playing the instrument without a mouthpiece; just moving the fingers to create that percussive effect.
There’s a great documentary (in french only) about this fascinating musician.
One of the founding members of the World Saxophone Quartet, David Murray plays the bass clarinet with a dark beautiful sound that is very natural and straightforward.
In ‘Clarinet Summit’ he teams up with three other famous jazz clarinetists to form a quartet: Alvin Batiste, John Carter and Jimmy Hamilton.
His soulful sound and playing on the bass clarinet is very recognisable and personal
My recommended album from the excellent David Murray discography would be ‘Ballads for Bass Clarinet.’
It features very tasty playing and, musically, mixes between bluesy, groovy tunes and ballads.
David never ‘just’ plays a solo: he’s a real storyteller!
Check out his unique vibrato that comes through in the slow passages, usually at the end of a phrase.
Thanks for checking out this guide to 10 of the best bass clarinet players in jazz; hopefully it’s given you some deeper insight into this wonderful musical instrument.
If you’re interested to learn more about the clarinet in general, you should head over to the Youtube channel of Simon Wyrsch who has conducted more than 100 interviews with clarinetists all around the world.
Simon is regarded as one of the best young jazz clarinetists today, with a concert schedule that’s taken him through Europe and North America. As as Buffet-Artist and Endorser for Vandoren, he gives Clinics and Masterclasses about Jazz, Clarinet and Improvisation.