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The Boston Phoenix Points of View

Don Byron's new "Romance"

By Ed Hazell

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Last year, when clarinettist Don Byron was in Boston with his Bug Music repertory group to play the Regattabar, he ended one of his witty between-song monologues with an epigrammatic pronouncement that has stayed with me. "Remember," he said, "this music [jazz] always has a point of view. Always."

There's rarely any doubt about Byron's own point of view -- he's one of the most outspoken and iconoclastic players in jazz today. Whether he's getting at the musical qualities and social subtexts of artists usually dismissed or ignored by critics -- as he did with Raymond Scott and the John Kirby Sextet on Bug Music, and before that with Mickey Katz on an album of klezmer music -- or venting his political spleen -- as he did on Music for Six Musicians (Nonesuch) and Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note) -- he always approaches his work with an unsentimental clarity. Like that of bassist Charles Mingus before him, Byron's muse, which possesses a wide romantic streak, seems to thrive on anger as much as on humor.

The new Romance with the Unseen (Blue Note), a quartet album that reunites Byron with guitarist Bill Frisell, draws on the clarinettist's outrage, irony, and historical awareness, all of which inform his progressive attitude toward the jazz tradition. It's an attitude that allows him to toy with that tradition, expanding the basic vocabulary of a familiar language, and still swing. It also helps him and his band -- rounded out by drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Drew Gress -- take fresh approaches to tunes by Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock, infusing the old with something new, yet never betraying the essence of what made the tunes classics to begin with. Byron learns about the past the better to engage in the present.

Romance with the Unseen emphasizes the fundamentals of jazz performance -- individuality of voice, attentive ensemble interplay, and working with the ground rules established by the compositions. But each player finds a way to bend those rules. On his reworking of the Ellington classic "Perdido (Pegao)," Byron's lines establish forward momentum and a relationship to the underlying beat that you recognize as swing. But in the sheered-off, angular phrasing, the shape of his embellishments, the zigzag path the music takes, you're hearing something that is informed by bebop, not simply a re-creation or imitation of it. Similarly, Byron's silken improvisations on Lennon & McCartney's "I'll Follow the Sun" and his own "Basquiat" display an appreciation for the songwriting itself -- for the structure of the composition -- without boxing in Byron and the band.

Frisell, who appears on a Byron CD as more than a guest for the first time since the clarinettist's 1992 debut, Tuskegee Experiments (Nonesuch), provides a perfect foil for the leader, and the contrasts between them enrich the music. On Ellington's "A Mural from Two Perspectives," Frisell subverts the straightforward flow of ideas with a montage of Americana guitar licks, lyrical scraps of melody that go sour with flatulent low notes, and wistful little improvisations that flower into bebop filigree. Byron's approach is more linear -- his long, leisurely lines roam comfortably around the clarinet's midrange as they poke here and there, picking their way into the upper registers like a rock climber up a cliff face. On "Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur and Me," Byron creates both tension and coherence with slithery lines composed from two- and three-note phrases while Frisell manipulates overtone-saturated notes until they resemble a cross between a jet engine and an overheated buzz saw.

DeJohnette is the sort of powerful drummer that Byron has always favored, and he adds his own layer of emotion to the material. Thundering powerfully on "Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur and Me," he sweeps the band along before him with a flood of percussive wrath. He can be a sensitive orchestrator of his instrument, too, kicking Byron forward with a steady hi-hat beat, then switching to the ride cymbal behind Frisell. Bassist Gress is blessed (or cursed) with the ability to make choices so apt that he's easy to take for granted -- he's so good, you don't notice him. On the two Ellington tunes, his inventive harmonic choices enliven solos that alternate springy walking lines with rhythmically freer flights.

Byron clearly encourages each member of the Romance with the Unseen ensemble to express his own ideas. And each has something unique to say about the material. But they all come to an implicit agreement on one crucial issue: jazz is a medium that can accommodate any number of different viewpoints as long as one honors the fundamentals. And that's a very compelling point of view.

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