Don Byron: Don Leaps In

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Don Byron
By Cori Wells Braun
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Don Byron
By Cori Wells Braun

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In mid-spring 1946, tenor saxophone legend Lester Young entered a Hollywood recording studio and laid down some of the first tracks of his postwar solo career. His partners were Nat "King" Cole, one of the era's most successful entertainers, and Buddy Rich, popularly regarded as the world's greatest drummer. No bassist was employed on the session, the results of which were issued by Clef and repackaged years later by Verve. A mere footnote in most biographies, The Lester Young Trio has long been an unassuming highlight of Young's catalog.

In late-spring 2004, another trio of musicians entered another studio, this one in upstate New York. Recording several of the same standards picked by Young, they readily invoked the spirit of their predecessors. But what clarinetist Don Byron, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Jack DeJohnette produced together is no time-capsule exhumation. Ivey-Divey, Byron's latest for Blue Note, retells Pres' trio tale in an ultramodern language. And close examination of the album's backstory yields a host of lessons-not only about Young and Byron, but also rhythm sections, repertory and the innovations of jazz's last 60 years.

"Let me just turn down the music here," says Byron, moments after answering. "It's just getting to the good part." An Elliott Carter string quartet coruscates in the background, the aural equivalent of a lightning storm on the horizon. The music peaks, the storm passes, and Byron returns to the phone.

It's a moment so perfect as to seem preconceived. But over the course of a decade or so in the public eye, Byron has proved the sincerity of his artsy eclecticism many times over.

Born and raised in a multiethnic neighborhood in the Bronx, the clarinetist spent his formative years inundated with classical music (his mother was a pianist), Latin and Caribbean music (his father played bass in calypso bands) and many strains of jazz (Dizzy and Miles were early favorites). He studied classically in high school and attended the New England Conservatory, where he apprenticed with Third Stream originator George Russell and served on the frontline of Hankus Netsky's Klezmer Conservatory Band.

Byron's name has been more or less linked to klezmer, a strain of Eastern European Jewish folk music, since the 1993 Nonesuch Records release of Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz. Although it was the clarinetist's second effort as a leader (after the acclaimed Tuskegee Experiments, also on Nonesuch), the Katz album served as his introduction to a mass audience. And once the initial frisson wore off-yes, Byron has dreadlocks, and yes, he's pattering in Yiddish-perceptive listeners recognized the musical acuity of his homage. Leading a band of similarly broad-minded players, including the then undervalued Dave Douglas and unknown Uri Caine, Byron managed to bestow dignity on his subject without casting him in bronze. Katz was edified but not deified, and his music lost not an ounce of its punch-drunk high spirits.

Radical repertory became a Byron trademark, as the clarinetist continued to draw inspiration from within and beyond jazz traditions. Bug Music (Nonesuch) harnessed the exuberant swing of bandleaders John Kirby, Duke Ellington and Raymond Scott; Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note) offered a revisionist ode to '70s funk, balancing three tracks by the band Mandrill against spoken-word vignettes featuring poet Sadiq Bey and rapper Biz Markie. A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder (Blue Note) referenced a truly dizzying cross-section of composers-not only Robert Schumann and Giacomo Puccini, but also Stephen Sondheim, Roy Orbison and Stevie Wonder. Such unobvious juxtaposition is also at the heart of Byron's artist residency at New York's august Symphony Space. The first show of his Contrasting Brilliance series there paid tribute to Henry Mancini and Sly Stone; the second paired Igor Stravinsky with Raymond Scott. Last October he placed Earth, Wind & Fire alongside Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass.

But it would be a mistake to peg Byron as merely a clever conceptualist. Before he was recognized for his vision, he was hailed for his prowess-all the more impressive given the choice of an instrument relegated to the dustbin of jazz history. Byron's clarinet virtuosity distinguished him in such trailblazing early-'90s ensembles as Marc Ribot's Rootless Cosmopolitans and the Ralph Peterson Fo'tet. As a leader, he's balanced his repertory projects with improv-enabling excursions; one major example is Music for Six Musicians, inspired by Afro-Cuban and Caribbean music. Another is the 1999 album Romance With the Unseen (Blue Note), on which Byron weaves through a multihued tapestry of tunes, aggressively and sensitively engaging with DeJohnette, bassist Drew Gress and guitarist Bill Frisell. Here as in all of Byron's albums, the clarinet commands center stage even when an idea, or another instrument, takes the spotlight.

Ironically, it was another instrument that pulled Byron in the direction of his latest infatuation. "I had decided to put some Coltrane in my playing, and I wanted to have my tenor around for it, so I got my tenor back," he recalls. "And somehow Lester Young just started playing stronger with me. After a while I wasn't working on any Coltrane, I was just looking at this Lester Young stuff and trying to figure out how somebody who played like that practiced."

Byron's reappraisal of Young quickly extended beyond the study of the tenor saxophone, ranging into the more general area of jazz technique. "There's a discipline afoot in [Young's playing] that at that moment was really easy for me to hear," he attests. "It's overhauled all the instruments I play, in terms of my technical command. And yet when people first listen to his music, that's not the impression they get at all. It's about a guy sounding relaxed, sounding like he doesn't care. Sounding like he might get to the next note, or he might not. He likes to put that feeling out there. But the reality of his playing was something much more stringent." This gentle contradiction is never clearer, Byron maintains, than on the trio record he discovered during his recent sweep; the record he's now bringing into his orbit.

One of the many prevailing myths about Lester Young is his precipitous musical decline in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Young did suffer untold traumas during his Army service, which ended in court martial. And his postwar recordings do reveal methods far removed from the surging epiphanies of his tenure in the Count Basie Band. But Young had started changing his approach before the Army stint, and his postwar style shimmers with emotional expression. It's a quality evident on "These Foolish Things," which comes from the first session of Young's return to civilian life. It's a quality that suffuses the '46 trio recording no less.

In some regards, the date actually found Young at a peak. Thanks largely to Norman Granz's barnstorming Jazz at the Philharmonic, Pres was a figure of some celebrity. At the time of the session, some movie theaters were likely still showing the 10-minute short film Jammin' the Blues, which portrayed Young as a literal icon. Jammin's artsy opening shot peers down on the crown and concentric brim of Young's porkpie hat, shrouded in cigarette smoke. Panning to eye level, the camera captures a bemused expression and the trademark tilt of a tenor saxophone, as Pres begins "The Midnight Symphony." Writing in Metronome, Leonard Feather praised the performance, and for good reason. Although highly stylized, it's a moment unequaled in the jazz filmography. To find a more arresting screen entrance, you'd have to look to Orson Welles in The Third Man.

According to Douglas Henry Daniel's Young biography, Lester Leaps In, the saxophonist's income in 1946 was roughly $75,000-not too far down the scale from the top-shelf $100,000 brought home by Nat "King" Cole. And that wasn't the only thing that brought the two artists into the same league. Young and Cole had played together on numerous occasions, recording a well-received album in '42. For their studio reunion in '46, Cole sidestepped his Capitol Records contract by recording as "Aye Guy"-a ruse that probably fooled no one. Rich, meanwhile, was operating as a free agent at the time. No stranger to either of his session-mates, he fit himself into their equation with an unobtrusive but active hand. The results were effervescent, whether the trio is heard swinging "I Want to Be Happy" or finessing the ballad "Mean to Me." On "I've Found a New Baby," Rich's propulsive brushwork sparks a rhythmically aggressive streak in Cole, which in turn nudges Young toward solo phrases of sparkling wit. It's a highlight all the more striking given what's missing from the mix.

"You don't really notice that there's no bass there," Byron says. "Which means that everybody is really contributing to the feeling of the form of the song. And I think when you're missing something like bass, it just makes everybody have to work harder. But there's also something really orchestral about that record. Some of the duet stuff between Buddy Rich and Nat 'King' Cole really shows an orchestral way of thinking. It's not about playing jazz where there's a racket that goes on all the time, and you just do your role in the racket. It's people really thinking about the sounds that they're making, in a way that's different than if there were more people around, or if they were in a different situation. The communication, something about it...." He pauses for a moment. "You know, for me, the way 'avant-garde' people play and the way straightahead people play aren't really two different things. On that record, you see both things coming together. Because some of what they're playing, it's not like these are normal voicings or normal things to play; they're really playing into the sound."

The idea resonates deeply with Byron, even though his own methods are markedly more contemporary. He doesn't shy away from explaining the difference. "It's the degree to which you can be not playing chords but still feeling harmony, building on the recent history that we've had-post-Ornette, post-Coltrane, post-AACM, post-whatever-and combining that with a real sense of chords and song form that's maybe older than 1960."

Such are the forces at work on Ivey-Divey.

Among the many terms coined by Lester Young, "ivey-divey" was among his personal favorites. Although its definition was mutable, the phrase usually implied reconciliation with one's circumstances-an attitude Albert Murray has strongly identified with the blues. "The blues," Murray writes, "is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." It's hardly a stretch to apply the definition to a post-Army Young, and to The Lester Young Trio. Byron's appropriation of the term decades later capitalizes on its ambiguity. Jason Moran suggests as much when he alludes to a conversation between Young and French journalist Francois Postif recorded in 1959, mere weeks before the saxophonist's demise. "If you heard Lester Young say 'ivey-divey' in that interview," says the pianist, "you would understand the entire attitude of this record."

Moran had never heard The Lester Young Trio when he got Byron's call. But he found an original LP copy on eBay, and quickly fell under its spell. "Everybody was taking their time," he marvels, "really comfortable with where they were as musicians. Hearing how Nat 'King' Cole was navigating those tunes, and how Buddy Rich played the time, and how Lester Young phrased the melodies-it was amazing, absolutely amazing. So I was very curious as to how we were going to address this piece, because they had done it in such a way that you might call perfect."

Much of that perfection had to do with Cole, whose nimble pianism often implied the ghost presence of a bassist. "On a lot of those tracks, he's walking bass lines," says DeJohnette, who has admired the album for years. "And he's doing it so smoothly and effortlessly, just like the way he sings. It's very fluid. You hardly even notice that there's all this harmonic and polyrhythmic stuff going on, and that he's phrasing over bar lines. It's very sophisticated, what he's doing. It still sounds fresh." Byron offers another perspective: "He goes little stretches playing the bass. But he also uses a lot of moving voicings without really playing four-on-the-floor every minute. There's just some way he's orchestrating the thing that implies steady bass."

So Moran was inheriting quite a challenge on this project. Fortunately, it was one for which the pianist is uniquely suited. "If I'd had my druthers," muses Byron, "I would have made this record some years ago and Jaki Byard would have played on it. I like Jason's playing and I responded to that thing he has that's like Jaki: kind of old-timey and new-timey at the same time. Then I found out that he had studied with Jaki. And I was like, 'All right. That's it!'"

Moran's comportment on Ivey-Divey does reflect glints of his flirtation with stride piano. But he rarely sounds like a facsimile of Cole, which may be due in part to a fortunate mistake. "When I was driving up to the studio," Moran recalls, "I thought I had brought a CD of the album with me. I said: 'OK, so I'll listen to this when I get up there, just to be reminded of what that sound was.' But I had left it at home. So I couldn't remember what Nat was doing; I couldn't remember any of that stuff. I could remember what Lester was playing, how he phrased and things. But I couldn't remember what my part was!" He laughs. "So the music became a lot fresher than I had wanted it to, which was great."

While Byron and DeJohnette are veteran collaborators, Moran had played with neither of them before this year. In January, Byron set up a quartet date at New York's Village Vanguard with Moran and a rhythm section, including bass. But DeJohnette couldn't commit to the gig. So the Ivey-Divey band first convened shortly before their session, playing a rehearsal and a casual gig in Woodstock, New York.

What resulted was a decidedly contemporary chemistry. The absence of bass is just as irrelevant on this recording as on the original, but Byron and his cohorts pursue a different kind of compensation: elasticizing time, responding to the moment, applying the techniques of a half-century's avant-garde. DeJohnette, whose career has encompassed all manner of unusual groupings, explains the exercise as a matter of the mind. "If you're thinking about a trio and you say, 'There's no bass,'" he explains, "you need to think in terms of 'What is the trio?' So you don't miss what's not there. Without a bass you listen more attentively to the trio; everything is more exposed. And then you really start to hear the fullness. The fact is, there is no hole. There is no empty space."

Ivey-Divey begins with a bass clarinet invocation that dances around and then clearly states the interval of a major third to a perfect fifth. That two-note figure forms the crux of "I Want to Be Happy," a tune whose swinging cadence is obvious as soon as drums and piano enter the fray. Simple at first, the rendition accrues both complexity and fire. By the conclusion of an almost nine-minute track, Byron, Moran and DeJohnette have articulated a litany of smart digressions without ever abandoning the theme.

The next few tunes are also borrowed from the original recording. Byron and Moran play a kind of sly peek-a-boo on "Somebody Loves Me" and wax seemingly nostalgic on "I Cover the Waterfront." The trio rumbles through "I've Found a New Baby" like a Model T with twin turbines. Then, a twist: "Himm" is an original duet for clarinet and piano that may as well be Byron's requiem for Young. Things take another unexpected turn with "The Goon Drag," a minor-key ditty from Young's early-'40s confab with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price. What's striking about the song in this rendition is its performance by a fleshed-out quintet, with bassist Lonnie Plaxico and trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Just as surprising is Byron's statement of the theme on tenor saxophone-the instrument's only appearance on the record. Despite a shift in dynamic and tone, the song complements the Lester-philia of the preceding performances. Frontloaded on the CD, these half-dozen tracks suggest an imaginary LP's side A.

Were this true, side B would lead with "Abie the Fishman," a head-bobbing original inspired by a Chico Marx routine. Performed in full quintet mode, it evokes the sharp-cornered harmonies and start-stop cadences of postmodern jazz-funk. That vibe is reprised a few tracks later in "Leopold, Leopold," another Byron tune. The rest of the disc consists of a quartet version of Byron's loping "Lefty Teachers at Home" and a double dose of Miles Davis, "Freddie Freeloader" and "In a Silent Way."

In other words, side B doesn't explicitly reference Lester Young. "It's not a repertory record," Byron declares, adding that his Pres investigations were never intended as fodder for an album. "I just ended up making a record about it. It was like the kind of thing that Sonny Rollins would do to himself, just to give himself a challenge. A lot of my records are influenced by that and have their own specific challenges. But I think this is the first specific challenge record that's about my playing." He further posits that the ghost of Pres hovers over "In a Silent Way," the atmospheric electric opus composed by Davis and Joe Zawinul nearly a decade after Young's demise. "I'm not an impressionist," Byron cautions. "But the lines that I'm playing there, they just sound the most influenced by Lester. I can hear myself thinking like that-thinking in the ways that Lester Young thinks."

It's far from an obvious connection. But it's a very Byronic one. It's not a stretch to contemplate Ivey-Divey as a bridge between the repertory strain of Bug Music and the straightforward blowing of Romance With the Unseen. "In a certain kind of way," Byron allows, "it brings together the study of the two streams that I've been doing." He pauses. "Maybe it brings everything together."

Originally published in October 2004

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