The Baddest of the Bass Clarinets: A New Trilogy from Paul Austerlitz

paul austerlitz cd cover

Tonal lows that shake the earth below your feet emerge when Finnish-born bass clarinetist Paul Austerlitz breathes jazz into his instruments. With “Water Prayers” (the first CD of his world-music-inspired trilogy) just out, Austerlitz creates wicked good music that is tinged with the impossibly deep-dark blues from his bass or contra-bass clarinet, adding in to great effect wonderful, mournful and moody vocals, and drums that skitter and glitter way above those basement-level ranges. Even within his own voice there are fascinating contrasts, as with the bottom notes playing swiftly and deftly to drive the music engine forward in tracks that touch light as a feather.

Was your first instrument the “regular” clarinet?

Actually, the violin but I didn’t like that very much. Then I had some piano lessons, it was cool but I ended up playing by ear. Then I played guitar by ear. Then I took clarinet lessons and started playing sax and bass clarinet in college.

What was your first experience with the contrabass and why did it beckon you?

My first exposure was when I was about 18. I saw Anthony Braxton play a paperclip [curved or looped] model in Carnegie Hall and thought it was a cool instrument. I didn’t think about it for many years then about 15 years ago I became interested in it and said “Wow man, I could play bass lines on a clarinet.” Rayburn Music in Boston had a good one on sale. I like it for its rhythmic capabilities.

More traditionally thought of in a classical context, how do you feel is it versatile enough to play jazz?

Yes, the bass is very versatile, Eric Dolphy proved that- also the ranges are so contrasting with the high, middle and low ranges you can play lots of different sounds. I think low instruments are great in jazz. I love low sounds.

What was the biggest challenge learning this gentle giant?

Bass clarinet: a many decades-long process. I started on clarinet. When I went to Bennington College to do my undergrad work I was fortunate to work with two great mentors, Bill Dixon and Milford Graves. Bass clarinet has an important role in the music of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.

The beauty of playing a lesser-known instrument is you don’t have all the baggage of the greats before you. It’s really become my voice.

Talk about what you got out of your early music education vs. what you were able to teach yourself?

I took clarinet lessons in high school then I played free improv in Bennington. Bill had started a program on improvised new black music. Also at Bennington, I studied with Milford Graves in world music with spiritual black music, world drumming and music as a healing agent. After I graduated college I studied with Barry Harris and learned the bebop language. Then I studied ethnomusicology: Afro-Caribbean cultures, especially Haiti.

What instrumentation do you like best when performing?

I like a quintet – piano, acoustic bass, drum set, percussionist and myself.

Would you say it’s redundant to add an upright bass or is there room for instruments that share the same range?

The contrabass is a similar register, it creates a conversation. I love that that they are similar timbres.

What is your favorite jazz composer’s music to adapt to the bass clarinet?

Eric Dolphy is my favorite jazz composer and performer on bass clarinet. I like playing everything: Dizzy, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bach. I especially like in “A Love Supreme” the interval of the 4th.

How did the musicians you worked with in this new trilogy make these projects shine?

On the “Water Prayers” CD are musicians I’ve known for a long time: drummer Royal Hartigan, whom I lived with for eight years when we were in grad school. Santi Debriano, our bass player, attended the same grad school, Wesleyan University. Benito Gonzales, pianist, is such a great musician. He’s so easy to play with, so welcoming and supportive.

The “Dr. Merengue” CD personnel I’ve been working with off and on for 25 years, I guess that’s why we are so close.

The “Vodou Horn” CD I don’t know them so well but we hit it off. These vodou [voodoo, as an incorrect term] drummers have not played jazz before but they understood jazz. It’s helped that I’ve studied the music of Haiti and trying to learn about the spirituality and the rhythms and melodies of Haitian music.

The most challenging part of being a jazz artist today?

The business. It’s really hard to find enough gigs and promote myself. But nothing worthwhile is easy to do.

I love the jazz scene today but it’s not as amazing as it was in the 40’s and 50’s…but there is a great jazz scene in Mezzrow Jazz Club, in Brooklyn with the free improv scene I’m part of, and in Europe I’ve done some playing in festivals there.

Did you really submerge your instrument for the CD cover?

I took the photo of the sea during a spiritual pilgrimage in Haiti. The contrabass in water was by photographer Giovanni Savino who superimposed the images.

What was the most exciting part of producing this CD?

Everything! I laid down the tracks with the musicians in one day; some we did in one take. Then we did the post-production with an amazing recording engineer, Randy Crafton in New Jersey.

Talk about the “trilogy” aspect of this project?

There are three albums: “Water Prayers,” “Dr. Merengue” and “The Vodou Horn.” They all call upon my ethnomusicology work. “Dr. Merengue” will come out in April 2019, and Vodou Horn is being released in Haiti.

Favorite track?

“Rara Indivisible” came out really nicely. I’m also in love with Jimi Hendrix and was able to put some wah-wah effects on my clarinet. The “Rara” remix is a clarinet ensemble. Also “Prayer for the Primal Wind” featuring fantastic singer Rozna Zila.

Name one thing you hope listeners take away from your music?

I hope you can see some colors in your head; I hope it transports you for a little while. Maybe it’s going to make you dance, make it will free you and make you feel connected to the universe.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Paul Austerlitz.
© Debbie Burke 2019


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