Some albums are not easy to review. This is especially true in genres that reward a great deal of inside knowledge such as opera, jazz, or indie rock. God forbid the reviewer ignore the soprano’s nods to Maria Callas, the wayward Raincoats cover, or the faint soupçon of early Sun Ra suffusing the latest and greatest release to cross your desk. Furthermore, I believe it is the job of a good reviewer to educate, and it is difficult to do that when you yourself have to learn as you go along. None of us are omniscient even though we would all like to be. But I suppose that if learning as I teach is good enough for the Baltimore public school district, it’s good enough for me.
My only firsthand knowledge of jazz clarinetist Don Byron comes from his work on Bill Frisell’s excellent album Have a Little Faith. On that record, Frisell remade various landmarks of American music in his own image: Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” Aaron Copeland’s “Billy The Kid Suite,” and John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post March” all got the Frisell treatment. In my opinion Don Byron was a major reason that album worked. In his hands, the clarinet was by turns dark and comic, regal and frivolous. He made the “Washington Post March” into a kid’s parade and Copeland’s “Open Prairie” into an empty and contemplative quiet before the storm. It was far more than I had come to expect from jazz clarinet, whose practitioners generally have to struggle with avoiding lazy comparisons to Benny Goodman.
But Don Byron doesn’t have to worry about sounding like the Father of Swing. His music contains nods from everything from klezmer to the militant spoken word funk of Gil Scott-Heron, and (appropriately, considering these two influences) he has been for years a mainstay of the New York City downtown jazz scene. He has played with everyone from The Duke Ellington Orchestra to Vernon Reid and counts Stravinsky among his key inspirations. Although he can pull out a good old diatonic line when he wants to, his playing more frequently splits the difference between cerebral post-bop complexity and Loony Tunes.
On his new album, Ivey-Divey, Byron tackles the music and legacy of the great saxophonist Lester Young. Taking a cue from a bassless trio Young played with for a time, Byron recorded much of the album with young piano wonder Jason Moran and telepathic drummer Jack DeJohnette. Freed from the stabilizing effect of a bass player, the trio are free to range from swing to clouds of notes at will, which they do with impressive ease. On a few tracks the trio are joined by bassist Lonnie Plaxico and trumpeter Ralph Alessi, additions that complement rather than blunt the trio’s impulses toward loose swinging.
That’s a funny word, “loose,” because at no point on Ivey-Divey do the players lose the beat or lay back into a groove. Instead, the players are loose like a great double-play combo are loose: everything locks into place in a ballet of perfectly timed split-second moves that look effortless but are in fact halfway superhuman. This is fitting, because Lester Young was the master of loose. A player of enormous talent and discipline, he played often softly, usually gracefully, and yet always forcefully. The surface attractions of his style masked a deep cerebral side that only emerges when you look closely at the careful composition of his solos. Moreover, Young seemed to make things fun for everyone playing with him, even when he played ugly.
Fittingly, Ivey-Divey is a fun record. On the four tunes taken from the Lester Young repertoire, “I Want To Be Happy,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “I Cover the Waterfront” and “I’ve Found a New Baby,” the trio dig in with verve and wit, with Moran scattering harmonies underneath Byron’s fleetfooted lines as DeJohnette holds them both together. On these selections, Byron sticks to a relatively tonal Lester Young script for the most part, only moving into growly harmonics and outside sounds on “I’ve Found a New Baby” and an alternate take of “Somebody Loves Me.” But where Young would have laid back Byron steps into space, transforming lines reminiscent of Young into energetic outbursts. For all Byron’s pyrotechnics, all four Young pieces are anchored by Moran and DeJohnette to a sense of lighthearted and generous… fun.
The rest of the album revisits Lester Young’s legacy from varying points of view. But more than simply being a lesson album: Don Byron Plays The Great Lester Young, the band bring Young’s influence to the table as just one ingredient of their sound. Sometimes the connection is literal: Byron picks up the tenor saxophone to lay down some lines a la Lester on “The Goon Drag” (which Young recorded in 1941). But on other cuts like quartet readings of Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” and “In A Silent Way,” the group walk a line between Davis’ chilly cool, Young’s gentle beauty, and Byron’s own playful mania before taking off in unexpected directions. “In A Silent Way” also features Byron on the bass clarinet in a groovy turn that evokes Bennie Maupin’s work on Davis’ Bitches Brew. (Jack DeJohnette actually played on Bitches Brew and helps out by hinting at the “chakaCHAKAchakaCHAKA” groove he laid down on cuts like “Pharoah’s Dance.)
Also intriguing are the four Byron originals. “Leopold, Leopold” is an homage to long-time Loony Tunes conductor Leopold Stokowski (and to Bugs Bunny) that chugs along with manic energy contrasts nicely with the gently swinging “Lefty Teachers At Home.” Both of these cuts also appeared in the PBS documentary “Strange Fruit.” The other two originals, the contemplative “HIMM” and “Abie The Fisherman” round out the collection.
While I am not necessarily in a position to pass judgment on the finer, obscurantist points of Don Byron paying homage to Lester Young, I can definitely pass judgment on the album as a whole. As the man said, “I know what I like.” Since I am not a hardcore jazzhead, one trio record can often sound pretty much like the next, but Byron and company have made a distinctive and original album that stands head and shoulders above the crowd. I’m sure the hardcore are already hard at work elucidating for me what I’ve missed and what I’ve gotten wrong, and I apologize in advance for any sins of commission, but the bottom line is that Don Byron makes music that, like the old Loony Tunes shorts, stimulates the fun zone and the brainy zone at the same time.
This post also appears at the Ministry of Minor Perfidy, where all sentient beings get their daily fix of culture, zombie defense plans, and kvetching. Giant space robots need not apply.