Low down but not so dirty: the wonder of the bass clarinet

The bass clarinet often gets overlooked. Lacking the visual elegance of the usual clarinet, not considered a melodic instrument like its sibling, it often sits at the back of the orchestra unloved and forlorn.

A shame, because, in the right hands, it is more than capable of holding its own against its smaller cousin.

If those hands belong to British jazz multi-reedsman, John Surman, the bass clarinet is transformed; here it is adding a graceful, lyrical bass-line to ‘Roundelay;’

Or there’s the murky opening to Tansy Davies’ brilliant Wild Card, premiered at last year’s Proms, where the instrument blows raspberries in the background; the piece represents a journey through a deck of Tarot cards, and the opening ‘Devil’ card is full of implied menace as the bass clarinet looms and lurks underneath.

Jazz player Benny Maupin is another king of the instrument, as he demonstrates in the ominous opening to ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ on Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion masterpiece, Bitches Brew;

The bass clarinet’s darker-hued colour appealed to Ravel, who uses it in the opening to his orchestral dance of death,  La Valse, his paean to the vanishing world of the Viennese waltz.

The bass clarinet: subtle, lyrical and wondrously colourful.

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