In a blog at the beginning of 2019 I welcomed the re-appearance on disc of clarinetist Don Byron in a beautiful duo album with pianist Aruan Ortiz (Random Dances and (A)tonalities) on the Swiss Intakt label. I described the interaction between the two players as ‘exquisite’. I also noted that Byron played three of the tracks on tenor saxophone with a tone reminiscent of the sound of the tenor in the 1930s. You can read that review here.
Don Byron used to be a regular visitor to UK, touring initially with Bill Frisell, then with Uri Caine’s Mahler Primal Light project, and finally with his own projects, Nu Blaxploitation, Music for Six Musicians and the New Gospel Quintet. He toured as a sidesman with Jack DeJohnette in 2012, but, as far as I am aware, we have not seen or heard him in UK since. I suspect he has reached that stage in his career when touring seems less attractive and he is looking for projects that keep him in the USA.
Don Byron is the clarinetist who more than anyone else brought the instrument into contemporary jazz; he has complete mastery of the instrument and a beautiful tone, and adds to those attributes an ability to create long flowing solos in the more contemporary jazz idiom. We hear this particularly strongly in his first album Tuskegee Experiments. On this album we hear Byron as a brilliant performer on the bass clarinet as well the straight clarinet and also as an excellent curator of an album that has a refreshing range of offers; as well as the quartet and quintet tracks, there is a solo clarinet track, duo tracks and performance of a classical piece, Robert Schumann’s Auf einer Burg. This liking for the inclusion of a classical piece is a feature of many of Byron’s albums. You can listen to the title track here.
This openness and liking for variety becomes apparent in the range of albums he has curated since that first album. We have albums re-visiting the music of the Jewish musician and comedian Mikey Katz, the music of three popular bands from the 1930s, the R&B of Junior Walker and the small group playing of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. In addition, we have albums that focus on the Latin music of New York, the hip hop and neo-soul of the New York scene, then albums that take a classical theme and another a gospel theme. He collaborates with the Bang on a Can contemporary music ensemble. Most of his albums have a theme or even a hypothesis that the music on the particular album exemplifies. So, for example, his A Fine Line album posits the argument that many pop anthems such as Roy Orbison’s It’s Over have much in common with classical arias.
In amongst these ‘concept’ albums Byron also recorded a number of albums without a theme in which his own writing and playing are to the fore. A live album with a quintet with the title No-Vibe Zone recorded at the Knitting Factory in 1996 is an excellent example.
It appears that not all critics are comfortable with the range of the music presented and with his enthusiasm for ‘cross-pollination’ of music. Some have called Byron a ‘chameleon’, others have referred to him as a ‘jazz nerd’. Surely these criticisms are unfair. I see Byron as a fiercely independent and intelligent person with a wide interest in different forms of music and, more generally, in current affairs and history. I remember him telling me that he was going to stay in London after a tour to find out what really happened during the Second World War. The interest in Mickey Katz is fascinating; not only is he in Byron’s view one of the major American musicians, but his music is key to understanding what was happening to music in the USA in the rather strange period between the big bands and rock ‘n roll in the early 1950s. Then his interest in the John Kirby and Raymond Scott bands of the 1930s illuminates another unexplored area of music history. The revisiting of the music of the Lester Young Trio in the Ivey Divey album is yet another example of a totally refreshing and absorbing way of paying respect to an important tradition.
Let’s look at the albums in chronological order:
1992 Tuskegee Experiments
Discussed above, you can also listen to Tuskegee Strutter’s Ball here.
1993 Don Byron Plays The Music of Mickey Katz
This is one of my favourite albums of Byron’s. He grew up in the South Bronx area of New York and was surrounded by Jewish families and klezmer music. He played in various klezmer groups eventually joining the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Two things attracted Mickey Katz to Byron, the first was that he was a brilliant clarinetist, the second was that he was a very popular musician, bandleader and comedian in the period 1945 to 1955 that Byron describes an interim period between the big band era of the 1930 and 40s and the arrival of rock ‘n roll in the mid-50s. The album really captures the energy and fun of Katz’s music. Listen to the track Haim Afen Range, Katz’s version of Home On The Range here.
1995 Music For Six Musicians
Byron will have been surrounded in his youth, not only by klezmer music, but also by Latin music. On this music he brings together jazz playing with Latin rhythms, but the focus is rather more on the jazz. The later album You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians, see below, seems to have more of an authentic feel of New York Latin music with relaxed rhythms and vocals.
1996 Bug Music
In this album Byron pays tribute to three bands that were very popular in the 1930s, the early Duke Ellington Orchestra, John Kirby and his Orchestra and The Raymond Scott Quintette. Byron regards the early Ellington band as one of his absolute favourites and is fascinated by the way the Kirby and Scott bands responded to the challenge of finding a niche between the jazz of Ellington and classical music. Raymond Scott’s music was very influential on the music that accompanied film cartoons, and Byron developed an excellent programme for children based on Bug Music that came to Midlands Arts Centre in 2002,
1996 Don Byron Quintet: No-Vibe Zone
A live recording in which Byron plays with a great quintet, Uri Caine on piano, David Gilmore on guitar, Kenny Davis on bass and Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith on drums. There is no theme to the album and they play a number of originals by Byron and a show tune by Johnny Mercer Tangerine. It’s a fine album with great playing all round and good opportunity to hear what a fine soloist in a more straightahead contemporary jazz context Byron can be.
1998 Nu Blaxploitation
In this album Byron engages with hip hop and spoken word. In my opinion this is one of his less successful albums, but it has a brilliant track, Dodi, in which vocalist Sadiq sympathises with Princess Di’s fated lover. You can hear this track here.
1999 Romance With The Unseen
This is another of Byron’s albums without a theme, just a series of versions of songs written by Ellington, Lennon McCartney, Herbie Hancock and some originals by Byron. They are played by a great quartet with Bill Frisell on guitar, Drew Gress on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. On the gentler songs we get to hear what a beautiful sound Byron has on clarinet.
2000 A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder
Here the hypothesis is that pop anthems have much in common with classical arias and lieder. It has a brilliant version of Ladies Who Do Lunch by Cassandra Wilson which you can hear here.
2001 You are #6: More Music For Six Musicians
This album captures the true atmosphere of Latin music in New York and, as stated above, I prefer it to the earlier Music for Six Musicians.
2004 Ivey Divey
A wonderful album in which Byron develops his interest in music from earlier periods. The inspiration is an album made by Lester Young with Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums and the trio formed for the recording with Jason Moran on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums provides a brilliant example of how to engage with the jazz tradition and create something fresh and interesting. On one track Byron plays tenor saxophone with a sound which relates to the gentler tone of Lester Young. There are also very original versions of two Miles Davis tunes: Freddy Freeloader and In a Silent Way
2006 Do The Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker
Here Byron and groups of various sizes engage with old school R&B and the Motown music of saxophonist Junior Walker. The group is really tight and funky, and Byron plays some really hard hitting saxophone with a harder tone than on the Ivey Divey track mentioned above. I love hearing a group playing this genre with really slick ensemble work and solos of a quality that one does not always get with a regular R&B band.
2012 Love Peace and Soul
Byron engages with gospel music on this album; as ever, he has done lots of research and comes up with a fine interpretation of that genre that both revisits it and takes it forward. Vocalist D.K. Dyson and pianist Xavier Davis are key to this interpretation of a genre that Byron has described as ‘the unifier of African American identity’. It is interesting to note that also in UK many Afro-Caribbean jazz musicians have a background in gospel music. Some years before the recording in 2009 Byron had led a tour of UK with this project playing a brilliant set at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
2018 Random Dances and (A)tonalties
The duo album with Aruan Ortiz discussed above.