Joys of the Bass Clarinet

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Bennie Maupin discusses his love affair with the bass clarinet. This story is part of our spotlight this month on musicians who play instruments tuned in the lower frequencies.


This month we're featuring a series focusing on music set in the lower frequencies. Today we put the spotlight on the bass clarinet. If you're not familiar with the instrument, just picture an ordinary clarinet stretched down to the floor with its bell curved upward, or a giant peace pipe with its bowl on the ground. It sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BENNIE MAUPIN (Musician): Let me see something here for a second.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: That's the lowest tone that I can play.

CHIDEYA: That's the virtuoso bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin. He played with Herbie Hancock on the seminal electric fusion band, Headhunters. But the first time Maupin played the bass clarinet on a record was in 1969 for Miles Davis on the groundbreaking album “Bitch's Brew.”

Mr. MAUPIN: People ask me about it all the time wherever I go.

CHIDEYA: At the time of the “Bitch's Brew” recording, Maupin was primarily known as a sax player. Bass clarinet was fairly new to him. A friend sold him the strange-looking woodwind for 100 bucks. Here's Bennie Maupin on the beauty of the bass clarinet.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: If I bring the bass clarinet out and I haven't played it, they just look at it and say, what is that? From the very first time that I played it I realized that I loved it because I love the low frequencies. The fact that you can hear very clearly the overtones and you can also hear very clearly the undertones.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: I became fascinated by that and I practiced it and practiced it a lot, and then I started to come out and actually play it. At that time was a member of McCoy Tyner's group.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: One night when I was playing with McCoy, Miles came and he heard me play it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: “Bitch's Brew,” this recording that created so much controversy in the late 60s, is the very first recording where I actually played the bass clarinet. And so when I got this call from his office to come be at Columbia Studios at a certain day, I thought it was going to be for the saxophone but it was not; it was for the bass clarinet.

And I think one of the reasons that Miles liked the bass clarinet is because it represents the exact opposite end of the sound spectrum from the trumpet. And that enables you to have a tremendous amount of contrast. Plus, it's just a totally alien sound. You just don't hear it in that way.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: Miles never really said anything about what he wanted. One morning he said something to me, it was kind of shocking. He looked at me and he said, why don't you play? I can't think of anything. And this is Miles Davis saying this to me. You know, he would just motion to me, just go ahead. Just play whatever you like. And he loved it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: Once I heard that recording, then I realized that I was totally free to do whatever I like with the instrument, and it was the perfect instrument to experiment on. And I glad that it happened the way it did, because career-wise I established a totally unique voice for myself.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: I think because it is made from wood that has a lot do to with it. The resonance is what really sort of captures you. In a lot of the music we hear on the radio we hear high frequencies a lot. They use the soprano saxophone or the alto saxophone. And of course you hear guitar. But it's the low frequencies that have this tremendous power to really pull you in. They automatically force you to listen.

The beauty of it is there are these centers in your body that the yogas call the chakras. The chakras are places where there are centers of energy. And once I started playing the bass clarinet, I realized right away that something was going on inside my body because of the vibration of the horn itself. And I think that when people hear it, they also connect to it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAUPIN: I tend to think that the bass clarinet is really from the future. It just is. It enables me to paint musically in a way that none of the other instruments that I play can do. It's just totally wide-open for exploration, and that's why I say it's from the future.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Words and music from bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin. Bennie's latest CD is called “Penumbra.” Next time our series on the lower frequencies turns to the acoustic bass, interpreted by virtuoso Christian McBride. Our series is produced by Roy Hurst.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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