Monday, July 6, 2009

Harry Skoler back in the swing of things

By J. C. Lockwood
The last time we spoke with Harry Skoler, and it's been a while, he seemed a bit confused: Didn't know who was calling, didn't know why we were calling. Obviously we had just woken him up. In the middle of the afternoon. Pffft! Jazz musicians, right? No big deal, a couple of minutes to shake the cobwebs free and off we’d go. But, no. We didn't know it at the time, but the Merrimack Valley clarinetist was dealing with sleep issues and real shuteye was precious — and rare — and we had shaken him from a sleep so profound that, to this day, he does not remember the conversation or the interview. Not a bad interview, though, especially for a guy in his sleep.

That was in the late 1990s, when the clarinetist was on a creative tear, releasing three critically acclaimed albums: two with his seriously road-tested quartet, which featured vibraphonist Ed Saindon; the other line-up a much more ambitious affair that included guitars, as well as piano and arrangements by Donn Trenner. Since then, Skoler's public profile has faded, as he not so much retreated from the scene as he embraced family life, which now includes a college-age son and two daughters, both adopted from China — and financial demands that call the tune. Not that he considers the Berklee teaching gig or private students especially onerous, but, combined with the day-to-day with family, they divert the creative spirit to more practical concerns. Again, not that it's a bad thing. Says Skoler, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

But this time, he was raring to go, despite being a bit beaten up by a trans-Atlantic flight. Skoler is just getting back into the swing of things after his recent return from a small tour with a very big profile, a centennial celebration of Benny Goodman, with Felix Peikli, an 18-year-old Norwegian wunderkind, in Oslo. And now, back home, he's in the process of getting the quartet back together and touring to support "Two Ones," his fourth release — and first in more than a decade. The album, with virtually no active promotion, is already making a dent in the charts, one of the top "most added" albums in June, according to JazzWeek’s Jazz Charts — a push predicated, most likely, on the fact that two cuts ("Hope" and "Piazzolla") were featured as musical interludes on NPR’s "Morning Edition" and its audience of 13 million listeners.

Released last month on Soliloquy Records, "Two Ones" is a wonderful (or "Onederful," as one of the tunes would have it) little disc wrapped inside a big concept that is not immediately apparent — like the series of line drawings on the cover that are not visible except in direct natural light. It’s one album, but it’s divided into two, opening with seven pieces performed by a quintet with the somewhat unusual combination of clarinet, flute and vibes, followed by eight pieces with Saindon, switching to piano, and Skoler, playing as a duo. Or, as they used to say in the Skoler family, as “two ones,” the clarinetist explaining that his daughter Amelia, as a young girl, never wanted two of anything, but wanted one in each hand, which she called two ones. Skoler uses the idea as the emotional starting point for “Two Onederful” on the duo side, but the tune also echoes — conceptually, at least — Saindon’s “Two as One” from the quintet side.

The album, which Skoler dedicates to the memory of his parents, is very much about family. Nowhere is that more clear than on "Dad's Clarinet," which opens the duet "side" of the recording. It's a poignant, haunting ballad Skoler wrote for his father, a classical clarinetist in the 1930s, who recently died — a recording all the more emotionally charged because he plays his father's clarinet. In addition to "Two Onederful, which the liner notes show, he dedicates "with all my heart" to his daughter Amelia, the duet side also includes "Don't Say Words," which he decidates "with all my other heart" to daughter Gianna. Two songs on the duet side ("Song for Jessy" and "Jenna's Voice") were inspired by two ones of sisters, daughters of close friends — making them, almost, family. Like Saindon and Skoler, who have been performing and recording together so long that they're like an old musical married couple — they've heard all the old stories, they can finish each other's sentences, anticipate where the conversation is going and get there quickly. But, perhaps more important, like old marrieds, they are so comfortable with each other they do not fear the inevitable silences, which allow the sparse arrangements room to breathe, invisibly underlining the quiet serenity of beautifully enunciated phrases almost whispered in the listener's ear. The songs are lovely, lyrical and hopeful. The interplay between the two musicians is a well-understood, intricate dance.

As different as the quintet "side" is from the duets in terms of form and structure, there should be no big surprises for longtime fans — and that's a good thing. Big surprises often translate into big headaches for families. It's always been about the group thing, about improvisation, about musical conversations, with the pieces becoming soundtracks to little films. Essentially, it's about storytelling — this time with flutist Matt Marvuglio, bassist Barry Smith and drummer Bob Tamagni joining in on the conversation. In this, the two are tied to the five by one song, done two ways: the Saindon composition "Joyful Sorrow" is performed as a quintet and as a duo — two ones, the duality of emotion in the title also hinting at the concept. The disc ends on a sadly upbeat note, the wistful "Hope," which has the feel like a last dance of a wonderful night out — sad for its ending, overflowing with its memory.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Harry Skoler's "Two Ones" can be purchased on iTunes, CDbaby and the usual download sites. For more information, or to get a taste of the new album, log onto

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