Clarinetist Joe Licari has been a fixture on the New York scene for a good long time now and he shows no signs of slowing down or of losing his light touch. Tangible proof of this can be heard on his latest compact disc (recorded in December 2010), ALL MY LIFE — a series of duets with the irreplaceable Mark Shane on piano.
The standard repertoire — ALL MY LIFE, BODY AND SOUL, CHINA BOY, I MUST HAVE THAT MAN, and MOONGLOW — would suggest that this is very much in the mood and style of the greatest early Goodman small groups. And indeed it is easy to close your eyes and to think that the King of Swing and Teddy Wilson have come back for a visit to this century. The light touch, the easy, flowing melodies, the respect for the composers’ intentions, the delicate yet convincing swing are all there. The longest track is five minutes and it seems too short. But there’s more here than just another “let’s pretend to be Benny and Teddy” project. This CD is more than Goodman Lite or Tofu-based Swing Era, especially when we move into Django (DJANGO’S CASTLE), a jointly-composed blues that begins with a minor theme that reminds me of KING OF THE ZULUS, a Bob Wilber original and two of Joe’s own compositions — all of the three with simple, haunting melodic lines.
Listened to closely, Licari brings much more than the usual pastiche of Goodmania to his playing. In fact, his woody lower register suggests those two less-heralded masters, Joe Marsala and Rod Cless. And where other clarinetists need to dazzle (or occasionally pummel) us with their facility, running up and down the keys, this is not Licari’s way. He is not overcautious or tentative — he knows where he’s going at every turn of phrase — but he is sparing with his notes and he uses them to construct logical, sweetly balanced phrases that fit in to one another to create fulfilling solos, never getting too far from the melody but enlivening it nonetheless.
And Shane remains a wonder. Yes, his style owes a great deal to Teddy and Fats Waller and Earl Hines . . . but it’s clear that he has also listened hard to the masters Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. This is particularly evident in his unaccompanied introductions, each a four or eight-bar jewel, a little resonant composition that would be complete and satisfying in itself. He never rushes, never drags, never overacts . . . he is the very model of a delicious, fully formed composer-at-the keyboard. And Joe and Mark make a wonderful team: no one steps on the other one’s lines. The CD has a lovely homelike natural sound, and it is thoroughly heart-warming, rather like having the good fortune to hear Joe and Mark in your living room. It is available at http://www.joelicari.com., and I think every house should have not one but several copies.
On that same site, you can find a whole big handful of compact discs Joe has recorded with a wide variety of musicians, and his own book — his delightfully down-to-earth memoir, THE INVISIBLE CLARINETIST. Most memoirs are exercises in self-absorption and self-praise or there’s some wrenching trauma at the center. Not so for Mr. Licari — his book is a series of cheerful tales of encounters with Benny Goodman (on record), Bob Wilber, Wild Bill Davison, Dill Jones, Kenny Davern, Larry Weiss, Bernie Privin, Cliff Leeman, and many more. It’s very entertaining because it’s so unaffected — rather like having Joe come over to your house and tell you stories. A delightful experience — and it’s also available on Joe’s website.
Joe Licari is not invisible: he’s alive and well and playing beautifully.
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