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.