Mort Weiss

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Mort Weiss
Mort Weiss.jpg
Background information
Genres Jazz
Instruments Clarinet
Labels SMS Jazz
Associated acts Joey DeFrancesco

Mort Weiss is a bebop oriented clarinet player with five albums as leader to date. On his first album as leader he performed with Joey DeFrancesco on the Hammond B3 organ, featured also on his second album B3 and Me (recorded in 2003 but not released until 2006). According to Scott Yanow, "Clarinet-organ groups are far from common. In fact, prior to Mort Weiss' debut CD with organist Joey DeFrancesco, it is possible that combination had never been utilized before."[1]

Weiss' prodigious musical gifts have been captured on a dozen recordings to date. That quantity of recordings is made considerably more impressive by the fact that all twelve albums were recorded over an equivalent span of twelve years, beginning in 2003 when Weiss was 68 years old.

2002, the year that marked Weiss return to recording, saw the release of a 2-CD set on Weiss’ own SMS Jazz label, No Place to Hide, on which he performed with guitarist Ron Eschete. In 2003, he emerged as a leader in his own right, with The Mort Weiss Quartet (AKA Mort Wiess Meets Joey DeFrancesco). The critical response to those first two recordings provided ample evidence that the talents that Weiss had shelved for nearly forty years were as vital and dazzling as they’d been in the 1960s, when he’d last picked up his clarinet. According to jazz writer Scott Yanow, “Clarinet-organ groups are far from common. In fact, prior to Mort Weiss' CD with organist Joey DeFrancesco, it is possible that combination had never been utilized before.” Yanow’s observation predicted Weiss’ penchant for rising to almost any musical challenge, one which has become a hallmark of his reinvigorated career.

On ten of his recordings, Weiss has performed with a succession of renowned artists, including Bill Cunliffe, Sam Most, Ramon Banda, Dave Carpenter, Roy McCurdy, and Luther Hughes. He has also released two solo clarinet projects: Raising the Bar in 2010, and – in an outstanding departure from his be-bop roots – 2013’s A Giant Step Out and Back, on which he took the concept of ‘free jazz’ truly to heart. The album is all first takes, no edits, no rehearsals (and on one track no clarinet!), captured in a single five-hour recording session. Something Else Reviews concluded that, “As a whole, A Giant Step Out And Back can confidently be named Weiss’ most daring work. At a time in his life where his peers are slowing down, playing it safe and retreading the same ground, he’s still looking for ways to extend his art to the outer limits.”

His way with the spoken word, exhibited on that above-mentioned track (“Talkin’ About It”) is also evident in Weiss’ work as a writer, another talent that has come to fruition in Weiss’ ‘golden years.’ He has written 21 essays for the popular website All About Jazz, with titles ranging from A Brief History of Ragtime to 3/4 a.k.a. A Waltz Through the Cosmic Thought Process to Love... Sorrow... Jazz... and Death, to the most widely read of all : Sex And The Jazz Musician: The Brutal Truth! Written between May 2012 and October 2014, Weiss’ articles have amassed over 162,000 views. He’s currently in the process of creating video versions of some of these stream-of-consciousness pieces, which will be posted on his YouTube channel.

Born in April, 1935 in Pennsylvania, Weiss began clarinet lessons when he was nine-years old. After moving with his family to Los Angeles, he continued playing classical music, and during his teens studied with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's esteemed clarinetist, Antonio Remondi. After graduation and a year at the Westlake School of Music, the precocious teenage Weiss soloed on several T.V. programs with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, a.k.a. “The Band of Tomorrow.”

Weiss' exposure to jazz began with Dixieland. But, when he first heard a Charlie Parker record, he was hooked. He frequented jazz clubs, participating in after-hours jam sessions, and spending many hours in the woodshed honing his craft. Bebop clarinetist Buddy DeFranco became his idol.

At the age of 19, Weiss was drafted into the Armed Services and played tenor sax in the Army band. In the ten years following his discharge, there was a dearth of work for jazz clarinetists and the tenor saxophone became his bread and butter. Weiss' life became lounges, minor jazz clubs, and work in R&B bands.

Enter the 1960s. Travelling in the proverbial fast lane became a rapid trip down the wrong speedway. Weiss eventually found himself in jail, buck naked, his life in “total shambles,” playing the “wrong” instrument to support a dead-end life style. In that moment of clarity, Weiss decided to “put everything down, including playing music.” His love affair with his horn, that harshest of mistresses, was put on hiatus. Still, unable to disassociate himself from music completely, Weiss began working at a music store, and eventually opened his own store, The Sheet Music Shoppe which grew into the largest purveyor of printed music in Southern California. In the summer of 2001, Weiss read an advertising flyer that asked “Do You Want to Play Jazz?” The timing was perfect. It was enough to make him dust off his clarinet case, begin practicing, and soon invite guitarist Ron Eschete to jam. Their collaboration led to a recording session that became the 2-CD set No Place to Hide, the release that launched Weiss'SMS Jazz label.


As leader[edit]

As contributor[edit]


By Dr. Samuel Chell

This review is from: Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe Anyone familiar with the Mort Weiss story is likely to catch the irony of the title. Like so many musicians whose star shone briefly during the putative heyday of the 1950s West Coast "Cool Jazz" scene, Weiss encountered his share of dangerous diversions if not insurmountable obstacles. But unlike his contemporaries, many of whom were totally unprepared for the winds of change that would extinguish their flames by the end of the decade, Weiss was fortunate to put his horn and his chops on the shelf from the early 1960s to the present millennium. What for others became the occasion for a Requiem was for Mort Weiss a wake-up call. He walked away from the waning and unrewarding club scene, and assembled a life. Then some 40 years later he did the unthinkable, dusting off his ax (a clarinet rather than the more embrochure-friendly tenor sax), got his chops together (much as he had his life), and for the first decade of the present millennium has been releasing cutting-edge CDs on a yearly basis, each project more adventurous and challenging if not more impressive, instrumentally and artistically, than the preceding one.

The counsel from Shakespeare's Hamlet--"Be Ready!"—has always served the redoubtable Weiss well. It's his obsessive-compulsive woodshedding that enables him to walk into an unfamiliar situation and simply go with the flow (including the occasional typhoon or tide pool), whether that means a session with the King of the Hammond B3, Joey D. Francesco, or a recording with solo clarinet unaccompanied by any other instrument. Whatever the occasion, it's likely to be unprecedented, another first, which is becoming practically routine with the forever restless Mort Weiss. The man is made of flinty stuff, with no more plans of calling it a wrap than Tennyson's unique take on Homer's prototypal quester, "Ulysses" : "tho we are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,-- strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

With this background, Weiss has elected to start the second decade of the present millennium as only he could: with a session full of surprises, outstanding solos, and esprit de corps aplenty (the leader's occasional verbal outbursts of sheer delight serving to italicize any inspired, serendipitous moment that otherwise might get past the listener unnoticed). Since the '50s the West Coast has attracted an impressive number of all-star pianists—e.g. Previn, Levy, Jolly, Hawes, Freeman, Williamson, Carl Perkins. Bill Cunliffe, with whom Weiss shares top billing, has assimilated practically all of their styles (while producing on his own a worthy sequel to Oliver Nelson's classic "Blues and the Abstract Truth"). From the very first track, he demonstrates why he has become one of the most sought-after pianists on the national scene, improvising over a dazzling sequence of altered "I Got Rhythm" chord changes that are likely to send pianists at home heading for their keyboards (ideally with a laptop plus software program to slow down the tempo). It occurs the 2nd time around on the main chorus (should the listener, heaven forbid, miss it, Weiss' audible acknowledgement of the feat calls attention to it). Elsewhere Cunliffe takes chances, invariably making everything work (as during the building climax of his solo on "Who Can I Turn To?"). "If I Should Lose You," settling into a safe and sane groove, yields something more accessible, with a piano solo that's reminiscent of a Red Garland or Wynton Kelly and more likely to assure lesser piano players with slower fingers that swing alone can get the job done. "What Is This Thing Called Love," on the other hand, is an inspired tour de force by just the featured pair, no assistance from the rhythm section. In his dual role as soloist and accompanist, Cunliffe evokes practically a history of left-hand styles, ranging from stride piano to walking 4/4.

But the latter duet is only one of 13 tracks, each distinguished from all the others in terms of tempo, mood, and instrumentation. For his power plant, Weiss has called on arguably as good a rhythm section as you're likely to find on the Coastal scene: the redoubtable Roy McCurdy (Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley) on drums, who trades 8's on Charlie Parker's "Dewey Square" as if he were putting on a clinic; the rock solid Chris Connor on bass (hand-picked by McCurdy, and definitely a rising talent to keep an eye on). For good measure, Weiss has turned the session into a party (a veritable Norman Granz JATP-in-miniature) by inviting, to quote the album cover, "the Undisputed Father of Jazz Flute," Sam Most, to join him on the front-line. Readers of jazz criticism are in for yet another surprise as Scott Yanow, the prolific and ubiquitous writer of numerous books on music and a familiar contributor to comprehensive jazz sites, joins Weiss for some memorable solo clarinet time on "The Sheik of Araby." What's lacking in facility is readily compensated for by fresh ideas and expressive soul. Finally, the aforementioned quote from Tennyson may be taken as a harbinger of more of the unexpected during this multifarious musical odyssey (remember when jazz and poetry were almost synonymous with 1950s West Coast jazz?). "Readings from Kerouac" will score heavily not only with Kerouac fans but with anyone who remembers the poet laureate of the Beats, Allen Ginsberg, as well as the 1950s' jazz piano philosopher, Slim Gaillard ("Flat Foot Floogie with a Floy Floy").

As should be evident from the foregoing description, "Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe" is a spirited, swinging session and much more: Weiss has recreated the ethos of, and recorded a tribute to, an entire era of the music, while exposing the limitations of slogans and glib epithets like "Cool Jazz." The music on this session is anything but. Still, any review of the album would be remiss without calling attention to Weiss' own development as a player. He certainly has nothing left to prove as a pyrotechnician, or as a master of the language of bebop, or as a musician who has earned the respect of his peers, or as a musical phenomenon who deserves to be listed in Ripley's (who else has deserted this most demanding and challenging music for over 40 years, only to claw their way back to the top, not only regaining but surpassing their previous form?). Anyone who has followed Weiss' extraordinary musical career will hear a musician who, having nothing left to prove, can now afford to make what he DOES play more real, more direct, more authentic, more genuine. Although not the most well-known standard in the Great American Songbook, the ballad "For Heaven's Sake" has caught the ears of some of the music's most storied interpreters. Until now, perhaps the most memorable, highly regarded reading of this hymn to the sublime was that of Billie Holiday ("Lady in Satin"). At the very least, Lady Day's version must now be placed alongside the moving, poignant, haunting version by Mort Weiss. And it won't work to categorize the one version as a vocal triumph, the other as its instrumental counterpart. This time out, the clarinetist erases such a distinction, making his horn sing as never before.

Dr. Samuel Chell, Professor Emeritus Carthage College, continues his activities as a PBS Announcer, Lecturer, Writer and Musician. He is the Host of an NPR (WGTD) weekly 2 hour Jazz Show and former Senior Editor of “All About Jazz”. His education includes: Augustana College, University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois, Stevens Point University, University of Chicago, Berklee School of Music and New York University.