Clarinet Factory Meadows
Review by Lee Blackstone
Clarinet Factory is a band that absolutely defies categorization. My initial impression upon receiving their latest CD, Meadows, was that this was going to be a chamber-jazz project that occasionally riffed on folk themes. I could not have been more wrong.
Originally calling themselves the Czech Clarinet Quartet, Clarinet Factory's mission remains the crossing of borders. The group features four clarinet players – Jindřich Pavliš, Luděk Boura, and Vojtěch Nýdl, plus Petr Pepíno Valášek on bass clarinet. Nýdl also provides lead vocals on many of the album's songs. All the members of Clarinet Factory have a classical background, and this is more than evident in Meadows' frequent nods to the minimalist genre. For example, “Bolek I Lolek” (see video below) motors on a repetitive pulse, lulling the listening like the soft swaying of a train through the countryside (an effect that is magnified by what sounds like rail tracks passing by under the melody, whistling sounds, and the occasional snatches of birdsong).
But apart from the classical tradition, Clarinet Factory delve into electronic experimentation – both ambient, and dance-oriented. The ten selections on Meadows are all distinct mini-movies with a pop sheen. Opening track “Gore” begins with a low clarinet tone, and Nýdl's beautiful voice. The clarinets then join, swaying together; the music parts, and suddenly, it's almost as if the spirit of Laurie Anderson has entered the room. The music pulsates; a female choir joins in, and clarinets improv solos. What sounds like an industrial pump provides percussion, and an out-of-tune radio picks up on a broadcast. The female Choir Grunik also joins Clarinet Factory on another song, the funkily urgent “Lúky Zelené/Meadows,” which is given an added boost by the clanking percussion and drumming of Daniel Soltis. We're not in Kansas anymore – this is the Czech Republic.
“Hikari” finds the band settling into a groove on bare instrumentation, while Nýdl provides hypnotic vocals. “Luda's Dance” provides an intricate, slowly developing piece which starts over handclaps; the clarinets lace and play around each other, as the melody is played faster and faster, the low drone of the bass clarinet thumping away. Another delight is “Jordan,” which features Anna Ficelová on koncovka flute (an 'overtone' flute); the sound of the koncovka flute bears similarities to Swedish traditional flute playing, and it lends yet another color to Meadows. “Caravan” is a tune that enters on the sly, skulking and lurching while percussion breaks around the stepping clarinets.
“Una Mattina” and “Dark Park” both revive Clarinet Factory's fascination with bird song. Both are meditative, quiet pieces, but “Dark Park” closes out Meadows with a hint of dusky menace, and Vojtěch Nýdl singing in English. About two-thirds of the way through the composition, the music drops away into an ambient drone, and the birds emerge to call out of the dark. Nýdl calls back softly, and a clarinet quietly serenades the evocative moment.
On the band's website, Jindřich Pavlis states that Clarinet Factory seeks to work in 'inter-genre' projects. “We want to be an ensemble which has something to say. Not a museum!” Indeed, Clarinet Factory's music is more than mere modern classical playing; it is funky and mysterious, ambient and playful. The element of surprise is always around the corner in these Czech pieces for liquid days. – Lee Blackstone