JJ 02/63: In My Opinion – Alan Clare

Sixty years ago pianist Clare thought 'too many of those modern sounds are like the end of the world was in sight' but loved Ellington et al. First published in Jazz Journal February 1963

Alan Clare. Photo by John Hopkins

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

Pianist Alan Clare is very much a musician’s musician, and has long been recognised amongst those who know as a highly talented performer with a fund of musical ideas all of his own devising. He has been playing the piano since the age of 3 and did in fact play his first professional job in a club at the age of eleven. Was with Stephane Grapelly for over three years and also worked with Cab Calloway on all his concerts in this country. But the most part of Alan’s working career has been spent as a solo pianist playing the clubs. His most famous stint was at the Studio Club, a job he held down for 6 years. It was at the Studio that he came to the attention of many who had not previously had the fortune to hear his uniquely individual piano playing. – Sinclair Traill

Kinda Dukish. Duke Ellington – Piano In The Background. Philips SBBL 611
It’s extraordinary but to me everything that Duke plays sounds like a lucky accident! He has such an unerring instinct to play just the right chord, the interesting one, that he is never, never wrong! He is my favourite pianist, because he has more to say, to me, than anyone else – more to say with a greater economy of notes. Nothing, just nothing, is wasted. Of course I like many of the others, but so many of them sound to me more like gymnasts than musicians. Ellington plays so much more music, with such apparent little effort. In fact to me he manages to play more original music in a few bars than do most of the other piano players whilst improvising on a whole tune. I have heard people say that he is a clumsy pianist who can’t really play the piano, but if anyone says that to me, I always suggest they sit down and play just as Ellington does. They can’t do it. He is a wonderful pianist, that tone he gets from a piano, it’s unique, and he has for years now been way out ahead of his time.

Happy Time. Junior Mance. Jazzland JLP 77
That could only be played by a coloured pianist – it’s just right. It certainly sounds happy, and that’s a good thing for I don’t think there is enough happiness in jazz these days. Too many of those modern sounds are like the end of the world was in sight. That can’t be right. I did think that when he reached the end and reintroduced his theme he should have finished then, not gone on again. But I suppose on second thoughts one has to excuse that on account of his obvious enjoyment in what he was playing. He felt so good he just had to go on! Yet I must say I rather think his exuberance dulls his inventiveness a little bit. He was apt to be repetitive, although he does keep it swinging all the time. He has ob­viously been influenced by Peterson and perhaps to a lesser extent Nat King Cole, or one of the early New York pianists. Am I right?

Fascination. James P. Johnson – Father of the Stride Piano. CBS BPG 62090
What a great two-fisted pianist! Try and find a pianist these days who is strong enough to play like that. Like Hines or Tatum you’ve got to be a big man to play that way – that stride is just physically exhausting, it needs tremendous strength. The music is as uncomplicated and down to earth as a hansom cab. There is no snidery there at all, it’s all happy and jolly and pure and unrestricted. And of course to make it as rhyth­mic and bouncy as that, without help of bass or drums, that is really something. Also I would like to mention that tune; as a composition it needs some playing – it’s not as easy as it sounds by a long way.

‘One reason why white pianists don’t, or can’t play stride is because their hands just aren’t big enough’

Blues For Tatum. Earl Hines – Father Hines Solo. (Shortly to be issued on Vocalion)
Well, of course I love Earl Hines and always have done. I remember in the old days listening, over and over again, to those solos of his on Parlophone. Also those records by that big band of his – what a band that was! It was, I think, from listening to Hines that I first discovered a feeling for rhythm – real rhythm playing. He must be one of the most rhythmic (or swing) players ever to have played jazz. I have always felt that Hines never tried to impress anyone. He just plays that way because that is the way he wants to play; and damn anyone who doesn’t like it. He never swanks or tries to dazzle with his technique, for he has been playing that way so long that it’s as natural to him as walking. As pleasant and sincere as was the music of James P. Johnson. And that terrific left hand! One reason why white pianists don’t, or can’t play stride is because their hands just aren’t big enough. To play stride like Earl, Fats, Tatum or Johnson, who could all play tenths all over the piano anywhere with no trouble at all, you have to have big hands. A white man has to open his hand to play that way and has to edge onto the chord; he has to stretch to it so far that it doesn’t usually come out cleanly. And it’s not often that he can make it at speed as do these fellows. So I am sure that’s why not many white pianists play stride – they can’t, it is more or less physically impossible.

Lady Is A Tramp. Erroll Garner – Dreamstreet. ABC-Paramount ABC 365
Garner is the most uninhibited pianist in the world – to start with. People play as they are, if you understand me, and he sounds a happy, uncomplicated little man. Anything he thinks of he just plays, without a moment’s hesitation – there is no hindrance, anything that comes into his mind he can at once transcribe to the piano. Wonderful! Inhibitions make for hesi­tation, and that in jazz is fatal. Mind you I have a fancy that Garner would like to play a lot more piano than he can at present. His musical knowledge is limited, he hasn’t the know­ledge that Tatum had for instance. If he wants to get from one chord sequence to another he won’t find a legitimate way to it, he just ploughs right through the wall. His methods are his own, but one can forgive him anything for his approach is so rhythmically exciting all the time. Powerhouse playing with enormous swing. That he doesn’t read music must be somewhat frustrating for him I think. You can hear it in his playing at times, in the way he just thrashes his way along regardless. I think that spells frustration. Of course he’s arrived at the only possible way to play the piano without using stride, or without using the stabbing left hand. The only possible way to play a steady four beats is to keep on putting the four down with the left hand, the way he does, it is the unique Garner style. No one else does it, they daren’t, be­cause the minute they start to play that way, everyone says Garner! And so it’s his trade mark for ever. It’s the logical way to play without using stride, it suits him to accompany himself that way, and the way he plays it it doesn’t date, as stride tends to do. It’s a kind of guitar bass he uses for his left hand, and for him it’s the right and only way. It never has, and never will, become the style of an era, as stride was – it has become the Garner style.

It Don’t Mean A Thing. Thelonious Monk – Plays Ellington. Riverside RLP 12-201
I think it takes a long time for most people to realise what Monk is looking for. So much of that ‘in-between-the-cracks’ noise that Monk achieves doesn’t sound right. Whereas Elling­ton can play like that and make it sound just right all the time, Monk seems to be searching for what he wants. Duke finds what he wants with every bar he plays, Monk only finds it once in every eight bars. When he does find what he is looking for it’s grand, but so much of the time when he is engaged looking around for something his playing is very ordinary and uninspired. I always get the feeling when listen­ing to him, ‘when are you going to find one of those?’ When it comes off it’s usually well worth while, but to my mind he doesn’t find those interesting and unique chord sequences quite often enough. Ellington can find that kind of stuff like magic, but Monk hasn’t got the gift. Mind you I’m firmly of the opinion that, and I don’t mean only on this record, I really think that Monk tries to play like Ellington.

‘Bill Evans has such apparent sincerity in everything he does, and his approach is so extremely melodic and just right musically’

Peri’s Scope. Bill Evans – Portrait In Jazz. Riverside RLP 12-315
That’s very beautiful playing – so clean, so intelligent, and so extremely musical. His playing is very rhythmic, although of course he doesn’t swing quite as much as a lot of the coloured pianists. I love that thing he does – he kind of plays a chord up, and then down again, like a wash behind a speed­boat. He kind of throws the sound around, makes it ring. I love that! It’s the way he hits the undamped notes in the treble clef, it’s a noise unique to him. Bill Evans has such apparent sincerity in everything he does, and his approach is so extremely melodic and just right musically. Probably, as an all-rounder, and of course excluding Ellington, he is the best pianist playing today. He has everything the others have got, plus that little something extra. Incidentally, reverting to Ellington for a moment, he’s got three of my tunes. Billy Strayhorn came and looked me up at a little club at which I was playing, quite recently. We got on like a house-afire and he took away three of my compositions – Mirage, Luxury Flat and Duke’s Joke. What a thrill if Duke ever plays them!