Life, like music, can be at it's most challenging and fulfilling when it blends the spirit of improvisation with the discipline of practical application. When, to put it another way, it has a healthy share of jazz as it core. Bill Kalmenson, whose clarinet is at the core of First Point, demonstrates what such a combination of open-mindedness, hard work and discipline-spanning artistry can yield. He has come to his instrument and his conception relatively late, but his rich and growing experience illuminate his every note. "I grew up in the white, suburban San Fernando Valley, and I rode the tsunami of rock and roll that rolled over my generation and blocked out the 'sun' that was other music," he admits by way of explaining his embrace of jazz. "But in college at [the University of California -] Berkeley, where I was a drama major with a goal of making films, I somehow got a Charlie Parker record; and that record, plus Billie Holiday's music, struck me as a level of reality that was so much richer. I recognized jazz as the first beachhead for a lot of the social progress we've experienced as a nation. It was a tradition I wanted to be a part of." For years, this meant "pinballing my way through record stores, learning as I went," while his creative energies found other, sometime surprising outlets. Before assembling acting credits in Hollywood's film and television studios, Kalmenson had traveled to New York for further study and several stage roles, including what proved to be a life-altering part opposite Milton Berle in the Broadway drama Goodnight, Grandpa. "The experience was great, and the friendship I developed with Milton led me to try standup comedy." As if acting, standup, and the dream of making his own film were not enough, the early '90s also found Kalmenson adding musician to his resume. "My odyssey with the clarinet began when I picked up a kid's horn one day, went out and bought my own the next day, and started to teach myself by studying, practicing and listening. I had never studied music as a child and felt that I had no special gifts, so I was without expectations, playing for the pure joy and love of jazz. At first, the only people familiar with my playing were the neighbors in my Hollywood Hills apartment building, and a few times their complaints brought cops to my front door; but over time my persistence earned their respect and even words of encouragement." These experiences, plus his adventures in comedy clubs and romance, fed what in 1998 became The Souler Opposite, written and directed by Kalmenson and starring Christopher Meloni. The years also found Kalmenson making progress on his horn. "Jazz music was like comedy - something that I never originally thought of as a 'career' where my interest just blossomed. The clarinet gave me a way to communicate with the music more deeply than just by putting a record on, and eventually I got to the point where I wanted a teacher who was not a clarinet player, one who would teach me more about the music. That's where Jon Nagourney comes in. Jon is a veteran of the L.A. scene and a fantastic vibes player, and he has spent years transcribing the works of his heroes, people like Sonny Clark, Hank Mobley and Hank Jones. We shared a love for the Blue Note hard boppers of the '50s, so Jon led and I responded in my way. What resulted was an exploration of what I became convinced was the most elegant and sophisticated music of the 20th Century." A stellar lineup of Los Angeles veterans feels the music as keenly as Kalmenson and Nagourney, with a special nod to pianist Andy Weiner, who contributed the bulk of the arrangements. As for Kalmenson, his instrumental role models are led by Buddy DeFranco, "the first guy to embrace the modern moment on the clarinet," and also include Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Another of Kalmenson's passions, surfing, is referenced in the album title. First Point is a legendary spot north of the Malibu pier where the cover photos were taken, and where Kalmenson and other surf enthusiasts congregate in search of the perfect wave. This First Point is proof that as both musician and surfer, Bill Kalmenson knows how to put himself in a place conducive to success. Bob Blumenthal.
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