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Clarinetist Darryl Harper discovered jazz as a teenager in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of the artist)

'The Edenfred Files': Darryl Harper's Blues-Infused Jazz

Jul 30, 2013 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Kevin Whitehead

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In jazz, the clarinet went into eclipse for awhile, drowned out by louder trumpets and saxes. The instrument has long since made a comeback, and the modern clarinet thrives in settings where it doesn't have to shout to be heard.

Take "Spindleshanks," a little out-of-sync boogie-woogie for Darryl Harper's clarinet and Kevin Harris' piano. It's from Harper's The Edenfred Files. In his long-running Onus Trio, the spare unit Darryl Harper features on most of his new album, he can sing softly as an owl in the night.

Harper and his simpatico colleagues cherish that great renewable resource, the blues, which is itself rooted in 19th-century field hollers: music of the cleared woodlands. Harper's woody clarinet timbre makes the connection. The trio plays Julius Hemphill's "Kansas City Line," a modernized blues that's 10 bars long instead of the usual 12; it seems to end in midair. When they play the melody twice, the beginning of the second time through sounds like the real ending. The musicians add to the playful ambiguities by messing with the tempo here and there.

Harper likes his blues with a twist, with some way of tweaking its form or rhythm or feel. The blues isn't all he plays, but on The Edenfred Files it's rarely far away. In bassist Matthew Parrish's "Sirens Calling," a spiky melody and rhythm have the easy flow of an intricate folk dance. Drummer Butch Reed makes it roll.

The Edenfred Files is modest in a good way: a short program for two small combinations, ending with a solo piano Coltrane ballad that's somehow a fitting close to a clarinet recital. It's a musical chapbook or novella, and the scale suits Darryl Harper's pointedly focused music. Sometimes, a small helping hits the spot better than a jumbo platter.

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