Ian Mitchell: Isn’t This A Time? American Music For Clarinet

This avant garde CD features Ian Mitchell, who (so our notes tell us) is one of the leading exponents of contemporary music for clarinet.
As its name suggests, the album features work by American composers. These include jazz legend William “Bill” Smith, co-founder of the Dave Brubeck Octet, and Merle Travis, whose Sixteen Tons, recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, sold 20m copies.
Mitchell has picked music that presents musical and practical challenges. He plays a variety of instruments including the double clarinet and percussion. Some of the pieces were not written for clarinet and some sections do not obviously feature clarinet (such as Travis’s Dark As A Dungeon, which features a student clarinet class from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance — where Mitchell is a Fellow — singing).
It’s not an easy album to review as it varies so much over its 55 minutes or so. Opening track Reflection (Smith) was written for Mitchell and features an atmospheric vocal drone and a clarinet; it’s vaguely religious in sound. Sleep is next (Peter Warlock), opening with piano and the tenor of Lynton Atkinson, which is vaguely Renaissance and leads into Sleep, And Then Going On by Barney Childs, which is where Mitchell comes in with clarinet and cymbal. Thus far it’s all pretty standard but it starts to drift to the avant garde with this and the next song, Etude For Barney (Eric EP Mandat, written for Barney Childs), which has the unaccompanied clarinet playing music with a jazz twist. (It reminded me of — no, really —blues rock band Ten Years After, whose live show featured odd moments of scat singing and jazz/classical guitar noodling from Alvin Lee. It has that same kind of improvised whimsy to it, though obviously  a clarinet and an electric guitar do not sound the same).
Then comes Epitaphs (Smith), short pieces for double clarinet, each preceded by an epitaph by the Greek poet Anyte of Tegea.
Elsewhere John Cage features and the album closes with Bedtime Stories, narrated clarinet works.
It’s not an album you can play and relax to but it is interesting and stimulating; you’ve got to approach it in the spirit in which it was made, technically demanding yet suffused with joy at being able to do it.
Out now on Metier (MSV 28553).

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