‘When it hits a low C, it takes you to another dimension’: the musicians in love with obscure instruments

Why settle for a recorder when you could wield a contrabass clarinet – or something you invented yourself? Meet the players drawn to the unusual

In the 2022 film Alice, the titular heroine – a slave living on a 19th-century-style plantation in Georgia – discovers that she is really living in the 1970s. The soundtrack reflects the latter period, an age of afros and Blaxploitation, through songs by Stevie Wonder, Willie Hutch and Chaka Khan, but it is peppered with interludes that feature an instrument that was first heard in the days of plantations: the contrabass clarinet.

The instrument is played by James Carter, a 54-year-old musician from Detroit who has been a significant figure in jazz since the early 90s. “I just loved the ‘muddy earth’ sound it has,” he says. “All that air flowing through it made you feel like you’re the lord of the underground. The contrabass clarinet has such expressive range; it reminds me of bullfrogs in the night, yet it is also a kind of wise old sage, it’s so commanding.”

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