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Clear as a Clarinet

Don Byron
Cori Wells Braun

The Vibe of No-Vibe: On his album "Bug Music," Don Byron rescues some forgotten jazz composers.

Jazzman Don Byron re-creates some big-band concepts and weaves modern improvisations on three eclectic new releases

By Harvey Pekar

DURING THE heyday of big bands (1935­45), top jazz clarinetists abounded. Several--Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman--led highly popular outfits. For some reason, however, clarinet playing fell out of fashion with the rise of bebop and became virtually extinct in modern-jazz contexts until around 1990.

That's when Don Byron began making an impact, and since then, a number of other impressive clarinetists have emerged. In addition to his importance as an improviser, Byron is also a significant composer, with a far-reaching intellect.

In New York City, Byron heard much Latin music as well as jazz, and it had a strong impact on him. He also performed klezmer and classical material at the New England Conservatory of Music. By the mid-1980s, Byron had the ability to play brilliantly in several contexts. He ranks among the major "new musicians," who, by blending various forms, are indeed creating new ones.

On three recent CDs, Byron can be heard in quite different settings. He appears with the Bay Area group President's Breakfast on Bar B Que Dali (Disc Lexia), performing with drummer Click Dark, pianist Dred Scott, bassist Nate Pitts and guitarist Will Bernard.

On this album, Byron is a guest; the group concept is President's Breakfast's. The band's music, strongly influenced by Edgar Varese, features textural and color variation; "it's about timbre: the color of sound, peculiar or distinctive character, quality or tone; the quality given to a sound by its overtones," as the liner notes put it.

Only three of the pieces have any sort of preset structural elements; the others are completely improvised. The group's collective ensemble work places a premium on the musicians listening to each other and playing creatively without getting in one another's way, which they accomplish, producing fresh, coherent performances.

Byron's own quintet appears on No-Vibe Zone (Knitting Factory), playing a varied program. There's a standard, "Tangerine"; a free-jazz piece, Ornette Coleman's "WRU"; a Latin-flavored "Next Love" and the Scott Joplin-like waltz "The Lure of Entanglement." "Tuskeegee Strutters' Ball" contains Thelonious Monkish writing and improvisation based on the "I Got Rhythm" chord progression.

Note on several selections the group's blending of influences drawn from various sources. Not only do Byron, drummer Smitty Smith, bassist Kenny Davis, guitarist David Gilmore and pianist Uri Caine perform impressively as individuals, but their group has a distinctive personality.

Byron's playing is characterized by a pretty, streamlined tone, rhythmic suppleness and melodic inventiveness. As he also demonstrated with President's Breakfast, he sometimes employs unusual, wide intervals and speechlike effects such as screams and mutters.

ON THE ALBUM Bug Music (Nonesuch), Byron's interest in musicology comes to the fore, as he leads groups through re-creations of the Raymond Scott, John Kirby and early Duke Ellington band performances. This concept has as much validity as contemporary performances of Bach or Beethoven, and Byron's attention to detail makes Bug Music far more satisfying than the work of most repertoire groups, such as the one at Lincoln Center.

Before 1935, big-band concepts were in the process of being formed. Ellington did a good deal of experimentation prior to that year with instrumentation and orchestration. Some of Ellington's lovely, unique early work appears here. It's been forgotten, and Byron deserves praise for focusing on it.

Like Ellington, Scott (who influenced Carl Stallings, who influenced John Zorn) and Kirby drew from classical sources. Scott's "The Quintet Plays Carmen" appears here, and Kirby's repertoire included a version of "Anitra's Dance."

The groups differed in that Scott's band didn't feature improvisation and Kirby's did, but both performed music that was light, full of charm and often infectious, lyrical and humorous. There's some resemblance between their work and the French composer Poulenc's, although West Indian composer Reginald Foresythe was an immediate and obvious precursor of both, as his "Dodging a Divorcee," recorded by Goodman, illustrates.

Bug Music serves an important purpose. I hope, however, that Byron doesn't devote excessive time to projects such as this, as his forte is creating, rather than re-creating, music.

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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