TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In modern jazz and improvised music, there are many single-instrument choirs, such as saxophone quartets and brass ensembles. Also, bands have clarinets. Germany's The Clarinet Trio has been around for about a quarter-century. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the group's new album looks back further than that.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CLARINET TRIO'S "DER BLUES IST DER KONIG")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: That's "Der Blues Ist Der Konig;" in English, "The Blues Is King," a 60-year-old tune by trumpeter Klaus Lenz, as played by Germany's The Clarinet Trio. Their lively new album on the Leo label, "Transformations And Further Passages," revives tunes written by German jazz composers in the 1950s and '60s.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CLARINET TRIO'S "TUNE IN")
WHITEHEAD: The Clarinet Trio on "Tune In" by vibraphonist Karl Berger, who'd move to the U.S. and school umpteen improvisers at his creative music studio in Woodstock, N.Y. To my ears, the 1950s and '60s tunes on the trio's new album don't sound especially Germanic, but there are occasional traces of global musics from the Mideast to Vietnam.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CLARINET TRIO'S "THEME FROM VIETNAM")
WHITEHEAD: Albert Mangelsdorff's "Theme From Vietnam," adapted from a folk song. Mostly, mid-century German jazz musicians aim to write good jazz tunes to improvise on. Trombonist Mangelsdorff's 1962 "Set 'Em Up" sounded like he'd been listening to America's Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Here's a bit of that Mangelsdorff.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT MANGELSDORFF QUINTET'S "SET 'EM UP")
WHITEHEAD: The clarinet trio's version of that tune without bass and drums is more open and slippery. Every time they refer back to the theme, it's like hitting the reset button on their collective improvising. Three clarinets may twine like unpruned vines.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CLARINET TRIO'S "SET 'EM UP")
WHITEHEAD: Catchy as those old tunes are, the main attraction here is the lovely sound of blended woodwinds, the pastel colors and animal yawps of Jurgen Kupke on clarinet, Michael Thieke usually on alto clarinet and bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullman, who spent a lot of time working with Americans in the States. These players aren't the first to notice that clarinets, with their thin, precise overtones, can mimic abstract electronic music. The trio exploit the resonance of the room to really make things hum.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Someone somewhere is always claiming that no one plays jazz clarinet anymore. But there are dozens of ace clarinet improvisers around - these three, for example. It is fair to say the various-sized clarinets don't get enough attention as expressive, robustly woody-sounding jazz voices for our time. And those wood horns do sound great together, as The Clarinet Trio demonstrate all over their salute to some German jazz forebears.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Transformations And Further Passages," the new album by Germany's The Clarinet Trio. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be Eric Holder, who became America's first Black attorney general when he served in the Obama administration. He has a new book called "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past And Imperiled Future Of The Vote." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.