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Weiss returns as if not a day has passed

January 14, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The amazing thing about Mort Weiss is not so much that he plays the clarinet with such joy and enthusiasm, but that he plays it at all. After his life became a shambles in the early '60s, he set the instrument aside, and didn't pick it up again for 36 years.

That kind of layoff would seem to be enough to slow down the muse in most players, but Weiss -- who became a successful entrepreneur, the owner of two music stores, in the interim -- has returned to action in high gear.

He's started his own record company, released three CDs and played a string of gigs with such high visibility jazz luminaries as vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and organist Joey DeFrancesco.

On Thursday night at Charlie O's, Valley Glen's hip and cozy jazz spot, the 70-year-old Weiss showed up in similarly fine company -- guitarist Ron Eschete, bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Roy McCurdy -- performing a set which included such ancient classics as "Poor Butterfly" and John Lewis' jaunty "Afternoon in Paris."

Weiss names clarinetist Buddy DeFranco as a primary influence, and there were numerous passages in which DeFranco-styled bebop licks coursed through his solos.

More often, however, the name that kept coming to mind during Weiss' performance was that of iconoclastic clarinetist Pee Wee Russell.

Like Russell, Weiss offers solos less impressive as sheer clarinet playing than as accretions of sound, color and emotion.

In the opening passage of "All the Things You Are," for example, he tossed undulating, Jackson Pollock-like swirls and blotches of melody around Eschete's beautifully tailored harmonic clusters. Even a romantic standard such as "Stardust" contrasted moments of quiet with sidebar flurries of notes.

Weiss' musical adventurism was firmly supported by his associates. Eschete's backing, as well as his soloing, featured lush chording, often enhanced with the movements of subtle inner lines. Carpenter, one of the Southland's most versatile bassists, played the melody of "Desafinado" in a superb trio rendering of the bossa nova classic. And McCurdy's drumming, as always, was a model of rhythmic subtlety.

Between songs, Weiss was an amiable, often witty host. But it was in the sheer love of jazz present in his playing that his remarkable life story fully came to life.

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