If the last word of this title gives you pause, please note the parentheses. Although Don Byron and Aruán Ortiz are not above dancing out to the furthest reaches of conventional harmony, most of what they play here is solidly tonal. At times, as with their understated reading of Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” it’s nearly conventional, so even if the solos tend to favor angular modalities, they don’t do so at the expense of the blues or a properly Ellingtonian sense of groove.
That said, there is some actual atonality—just not in the weird, free-jazz chaos sense of the word. “Numbers,” by Ortiz, is genuine 12-tone music, carefully composed and fastidiously improvised to avoid any tonal center. Yet what Ortiz’s piano and Byron’s tenor convey is an estranged beauty not far removed from the otherworldly melancholy of some of György Ligeti’s quieter works. You almost have to work to hear the atonality.
There’s a similarly quiet complexity to the harmony in “Musica callada, Vol. 1: No. 5, Quarter Note = 54,” which is based on a piece by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou. Byron is on clarinet here, playing so high you’d almost think it was an E-flat horn, his tone sweetly liquid against the quiet thrum of the piano. Nor is that the only repurposed classical piece, as Byron offers a straightforward solo clarinet transcription of a movement from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor. That may seem an odd choice for an album of jazz duets, but having it there makes it easier to note the echoes of Bach in Byron’s “Delphian Nuptials.” As with everything here, the ideas and influences curl back and intertwine.