Mort Weiss: Mort to Come
Except that, for Weiss, "settled" could not be without music forever. He hung up his axe, but still practiced after some years. Practicing and making the occasional recording with other people got so it was not enough so, almost 40 years after taking his "break," he came back in 2001, and then annually for several years after, he released CDs, all of which received positive reviews. Weiss realized he was still able to produce some of the best music around. His playing had, if anything, improved and he felt inspired. In 2010, he released the acclaimed solo album Raising The Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss (SMS, 2010), and in 2011, Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe (SMS) came out, to critical acclaim. Weiss was backand how.
Few musicians could take such a long break from the scene and return with such success, but Weiss is a musician who still has a great deal to offer. He has lost none of his acuity or passion for the jazz he plays and the industry has welcomed back one of its most talented players with open arms. Now Weiss has a new album out, I'll Be Seeing You (SMS, 2012), which holds within its silver disc, some of the most mesmerizing clarinet playing possible. Fourteen tracks recorded over five or six hours on a summer's day combine to make a wonderful treat. Weiss has made one of the coolest and most varied collections around.
Although Weiss played tenor sax in the '50s and '60s, he now plays solely clarinet. His playing has been described as "amazing," "ncredible"all the clichésbut in Weiss' case, clichés are not quite enough. He has something to which only a few clarinet players ever get close. His fingers move at the rate of knots; he seems never to breathe; and he places the clarinet centert stage. Sidney Bechet, Goodman and Bilk can all create a sound around a clarinet, but Weiss is the clarinet from the moment he leans forward playing with the band to the final solo, when he plays the last note of the last bar. His clarinet speaks the emotions within.
Regarding what he feels when he plays, Weiss says, "While waiting in the wings, while the announcer introduced me at a jazz festival I headlined in Portland, Oregon, I developed a way to bring a thousand people (which there were at this event) mentally down to a single person that I play to. I've emptied many an auditorium. I play with my eyes closed and I am acutely aware of the cats on the stand with whom I'm playing at that moment. When I record I won't go into an isolation booth. I need to be right up close and personal with the cats I'm playing with. Recordings today are layered with multiple tracks and intonation adjusters, but not for me. I am very old school on many thingsnot least being truthful and honest, especially in my work. On all ten of my recordings since 2001, there haven't been any rehearsals beforehand, and no over dubs except on my solo album, Raising the Bar. Where I talk over the song 'My Way,' and on my new album only the crowd sounds were overdubbed on the track called 'Gots the Horn in My Mouth Blues,' on this one I sing and shout an original blues tune (that I wrote) singing and accompanying myself simultaneouslyanother first!"
Asked whether he prefers playing in a small group or a bigger band, Weiss comments, "I prefer small group playing. When you are playing jazz in a group not larger than eight people, it's the closest in thought, action, creativity and being of the same mind that we humans can reach. You can hear the results if someone falls out of the loopit's a wrong tone/sound/dissonance of thought and reaction. When you play and everything falls in place and the pocket/groove is upon you, there is no greater feeling of happiness, joy or nirvana that would make me want to seek another outlet for whatever creative experiences life must have to offer." He then adds a typical Weiss observation: "Small groups are also easier to book."
Because Weiss can be evasive when discussing his philosophy, it might seem as though he takes nothing seriously, but he has a lot of interest in the spiritual connections made by people through music. He talks of " the Tao of jazz music" and " the combined spirituality created by and from inner feelings," and adds theories about "understanding the vast singularity of rebirth as so clearly laid out in the delineated work of Uspensky the Tertium Organum, the 1920 publication exploring universal mysteries and logic." Describing his beliefs, Weiss describes himself as an "Orthodox Digresser."
Asked about what inspired him with his new album, and what is there about it which is definitive Weiss? His reply: "The devil made me do it. What inspired me? The need for money and more recognition. What is on there that is essential Weiss? My name." He then elaborates, "The question is analogous to asking any serious artist what makes them breathe and why they do so. I'm not trying to be flip here, but just giving you the answer that comes to mind without going into a whole freakin' dialogue about expressing myself regarding the human condition, and wanting to share my innermost feelings with my fellow man so that I can rest easy, knowing that my artistic efforts made visible/audible have given him a moment's pause to reflect on the glory of a baby's cry and the wheels that are in constant motion in this (as some call it) clockwork universe that we find ourselves in sync with the songs and glories of the cosmos. To sum it up, everything that I do is the essential Weiss." He goes on, " All seriousness aside, what came down that day at the Voice of the Arts Studio [where the recording was made], I strongly feel is and will be looked uponmy solo album Raising the Bar. Notwithstandingas my magnum opus, as long as there are people that dig pure jazz, since the numbers are in great decline."
Weiss is adept at throwing up screens, misting the atmosphere and sidetracking, but underneath is a man as sharp as a pin, whose passion, talent and simple love for his music is his testimony. Weiss has a lot to say and it is important, but he still does not quite believe in himself, but he believes in people still in spite ofor, maybe, because ofthe many things which have happened to him. Weiss has a passion that comes from living the experiences about which he plays. He genuinely connects with people because he canand doesrelate to them.
Weiss once admitted that he finds opening up difficult, yet has persisted because he feels it makes the music make sense. As he says, "I've lived a multifaceted life, done many things and worn a lot of different hats, and the driving force behind it all was to play the music."
He recently said that, "You don't learn how to play a ballad from a book unless you wrote it"and he has had his share of ballad-worthy things happen to him. His mother committed suicide in 1962 on the same night as Marilyn Monroe, and when Weiss decided to take his break from the scene in 1965, he was broke financially, physically and mentally. At the time he had a five year-old daughter and three year-old son, both by a high class prostitute, still married to her husband. His son went on to a successful career in law enforcement, but his daughter committed suicide at the tender age of 32. Weiss took jobs driving an ice cream van and selling equipment to bands like Jefferson Airplane and Iron Butterfly. He worked in Wallich's Music Store and lived in boarding houses and (briefly) in jail. Whilst coming home from the army by train in the '50s, still in uniform, he met another young man of the same age: Elvis Aaron Presley was his name. When they got off at the station, the other young man rushed to the newspaper stand and held up a paper with his picture on the fronthis first cover page. Weiss, who had grown up making music with some of the jazz greats, been in films as an extra and grown up around Hollywood, was not really impressed, though he liked the young man a lot. Oh, and, importantly, just over 38 years ago, he met and married Jeanne.
The most recent ballad-worthy event was that five years ago both Weiss and Jeanne were told, within five months of each other, that they both had cancer. They both underwent treatment, including surgery and medication, and have been in the clear for the past four years. Typically, Weiss sees this as just another life lesson. In a rare serious mood, he comments, "If taken properly these little bumps in the road of life are, in reality, just that: reality checks that serve to enhance your appreciation of the next sunset, the look in someone's eyes that tell you that you're not alone in the allness of this universe and being. At my age you look back to where you have been and how and why you have reached this place in timeI've been places that most people never return frombut having done so I'm strongly aware of the wonderment that surrounds us: the next breath. the next song, the next goodbye, the next homecoming. In life, as in all things, there is a recipe, and the ingredients that go into the final outcome are what make the sum total of existence." Life for Weiss was never preordained or scripted; like he said, all first takes.
"Weiss insists his latest album is his magnum opus, but it's a good bet that there will be more to come. Tracks like "Here's That rainy Day," "Touch of Your Lips" and "Spring is Here" provide moments of reverie and musical amazement few will find again in the near future. Like Weiss said only recently, "Enjoy the day and live in the momentfor that's all there really is, isn't there?"
Mort Weiss, I'll Be Seeing You (SMS, 2012)
Mort Weiss, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss (SMS, 2010)
Mort Weiss Trio, The Three of Us (SMS, 2004)
Mort Weiss Quartet, Mort Weiss Quartet (SMS, 2003)
All Photos: Steve Gugerty