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Don Byron/Aruán Ortiz: Random Dances and (A)tonalities (Intakt)

Review of duo album by the clarinetist and pianist

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Cover of Don Byron/Aruán Ortiz album Random Dances & (A)Tonalities
Cover of Don Byron/Aruán Ortiz album Random Dances & (A)Tonalities

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.

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