The bass clarinet is not an instrument that readily comes to mind in a discussion of jazz; indeed, most people have probably not even seen one. This big, curved low version of the standard clarinet is relatively young. Adolph Sax, the same man who created the saxophone, invented the modern version in 1838. It is an extremely versatile instrument, with a broad tonal palette and, in the right hands, a span of four octaves or more, but it is relatively quiet and thus was not often heard in a jazz band before the coming of microphones. Nevertheless, musicians used it in studios as early as the 1920s, when Omer Simeon played a bass clarinet solo on “Someday Sweetheart.” For decades it was used for specific effects, as a double by clarinetists and saxophonists, primarily in big bands, with occasional solo spots. In the 1950s, flutist Herbie Mann and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco recorded whole albums on the instrument, but got tired of lugging the big case around, and remained true to their first horns.
All of this changed around 1960 when the multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy appeared on the scene. Dolphy had an amazing bass clarinet technique; his solos were exciting, with big interval jumps, fast fingering, and a big bluesy tone, often tinged with a voice-like cry. Most important, he turned it into a normal, acceptable instrument, and many took it up under his influence. But while it soon became normal for saxophonists to double on the big horn, very few musicians used it exclusively. The exceptions were people like Walter Zuber Armstrong or Michael Pilz, but they never achieved major status. More recently, one thinks of the German Rudi Mahall. And then there is Jason Stein.
When he enrolled in the U-M jazz program, Stein knew he wanted to play only the bass clarinet, and he never wavered from his commitment. Since graduation he has been living and playing in Chicago, where he quickly established himself on the local scene. Although primarily interested in more avant-garde ways of playing, he is equally at home in the standard jazz repertoire, having learned the ways of bop from the late master saxophonist Donald Walden. He has traveled all over the globe as a member of one of Ken Vandemark’s groups, and now is making a mark on his own. His latest recording, which has just come out, is an adventurous solo outing. This takes both courage and imagination, since offhand I can think of only three other improvised solo bass clarinet records. Stein explores the full potential of his instrument, mixing abandonment with a firmly grounded mastery of technique, but all for imaginative musical ends. He is the opening act of Edgefest on October 14 at the Kerrytown Concert House.