Writings about Music

Tantric Melismas

Benny Goodman

The tantric melismas of Benny Goodman, relatively new to me, continue to astound. I'm now feeling he is the jazz instrumentalist who comes closest to the human voice in feeling and nuance, elevating the clarinet beyond measure, including uncannily precise intonation in the upper stratospheres. Awestruck fellow musicians said Benny was incapable of playing a bad note. I once wrote something similar about Zakir Hussian and tabla strokes.

Benny Goodman performing

Prior to Benny Goodman, my favorite clarinet music has been the Claude Debussy Première rhapsodie, the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A, the Francis Poulenc Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, and the Igor Stravinsky Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, while also loving the playing of Artie Shaw and Barney Bigard, whose name recalls the person who introduced me to jazz, Barney Bragin.

More so, my very first composition, Promenade des Tortues, is for clarinet and piano, as is my last composition for acoustic instruments, Demesne, prior to composing exclusively for meruvina. I recall Lee Konitz and Harold Danko attempting unsuccessfully to sight-read Demesne at Lee's apartment, the music obviously requiring practice and rehearsal time. Lee was perplexed at the time, saying I had composed a "legit" piece, while he expected a jazz work. Actually, Demesne would be perfect for the free improvisation he originally recorded with Lennie Tristano in the late forties.

Tan is the Sanskrit root of tantric and tantra, meaning "to weave" in the context of a dialogue between a god and goddess, or Shiva and Shakti. In music this becomes the complex and subtle interplay between melody and rhythm, or raga and tala, one embodiment being the richly tapestried clarinet improvisations of Benny Goodman interpreting what became jazz standards together with blues forms, here simultaneously alluding to his impassioned vision of Shringara rasa.

At the same time, its limiting to describe music with words, so having done so here, I'm also inclined to forget what was said so that the music of Benny Goodman may continue to be a free, undiscovered adventure each time we listen.

- Michael Robinson, March 2023, Los Angeles


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Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.