As an African-American musician, clarinetist Marcus Eley says he's in a perfect position to champion the works of African-American composers, and that's precisely what he's does on his latest release titled But Not Forgotten. "One of the things I wanted to do in this recording is to salute the unsung heroes of music composition by people who are African-American," he explains. "And this recording is dedicated to those composers that I've had the pleasure of working with or those composers that I've admired over the years."
This recording actually came together about three years ago, while Marcus Eley was performing at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa. "And luckily for me, the emphasis of that festival was the music of the Diaspora," he says. "And I thought, I've done similar recitals before in the past of African-American composers. But I wanted to, in this case, do something unique. I need something to hook the audience to the recital, to encourage them to come, as it were. And I said a world premiere would be great. So that's how one of the pieces I put together on the CD happened."
That world premiere piece was Soul Bird by Todd Cochrane, a contemporary composer from San Francisco who's also a film composer. Eley says he and Cochrane had in-depth conversations about this "soul bird," represented by the clarinet, as it rises from the ashes very much like a phoenix. "The life begins with the bird flying away, being free, and its life begins to develop and expand. And before the bird can really realize his freedom, something happens — the bird decides to land again and realizes that it's the end of its life. So this is basically a big arch: the beginning of the life, the apex of the life and the end of the life."
When Marcus Eley first started playing clarinet, he was intrigued by Benny Goodman and other distinctive jazz clarinetists like Alvin Batiste. Batiste and Marcus Eley became close friends after first meeting in New Orleans in the mid 1990s. On this recording, Eley features a short piece by Batiste titled Episodes. Eley says it comes from a larger chamber work. "But this piece shows Alvin at his creative best, as I think. It's a very fast-moving piece. It has elements of jazz in it. It works well on the instrument. It's something that, as short as it is, captures your attention and then leaves a lasting impression."
The two best-known composers on this recording are William Grant Still and Scott Joplin. Marcus Eley features a transcription of a piece titled Romance, by William Grant Still, originally written for alto saxophone. "It's a song without words," Eley clarifies, "and it's something that, because of the nature of the instrument, is free flowing, a very songful type of composition."
Marcus Eley also highlights one of Joplin's lesser-known rags on this new release, "This piece is not played a lot, surprisingly enough. You hear The Entertainer and you hear The Maple Leaf Rag and so on. This particular piece I chose to arrange because it's out of the norm of what people think of Scott Joplin." Eley is careful to follow the composer's instructions for this piece, not rushing the tempo, so you can hear the Weeping Willow, sway in the breeze as the piano and clarinet alternate between the syncopated melodies.
The clarinet repertoire tends to be dominated by works by Mozart, Weber, or Brahms. On this CD, we can enjoy works that may be less familiar, but which, thanks to Marcus Eley and pianist Lucerne DeSa, are not forgotten.