Don Byron: Ivey-Divey

Don Byron
Blue Note

I have been unduly harsh to Don Byron. I hereby apologize. I don’t think Ivey-Divey is the greatest album of the year, but it’s better than I was going to say it was.

I was going to praise this album’s central premise and then criticize Byron for abandoning it – but who the hell am I to assume that I know what the central premise is? He starts out with four songs by Lester Young, the smoothest saxophone-playing son of a bitch that ever walked this earth, and even uses the same instrumentation as his favorite Young tracks: a bassless trio! And Byron hires all-time great Jack DeJohnette on drums and young superstar Jason Moran on piano, so it’s kind of like three generations of jazz Next Big Thangs all playing together.

They cook through “I Want to Be Happy” like they’re trekking through the jungle: it’s beautiful sometimes, then sometimes it gets rough — I love Byron when he turns melodies on their ear and beats them up a little or a lot — then sometimes you’re lost and you don’t know where you are and you despair (“do any of these musicians actually know what song they’re playing at this point? are they even listening to each other?”), and then glimmers that this is all planned because oh that drum hit is related to ooh that chord and hey Byron just echoed a part of Moran’s solo from a couple of minutes ago and then: aaaah, the light breaks through, the melody is back, it’s beautifuller than ever.

The Young theme is fascinating because Byron is fascinated by him. “I Cover the Waterfront” is fairly straightforward; slinky and sexy and hardly dissonant at all, even when Byron intentionally overblows the shit out of things and when DeJohnette starts whacking the wrong drums to wake us up. And “I’ve Found a New Baby” goes from martial minimalism to bebop (Moran doing a wonderful Thelonious Monk impression) to something more free and wild and rollicking.

But after four songs, Byron moves on. Here’s where my criticism was going to start. Why does he always move on? Why can’t he stick with his own concept? He used to, early on: Tuskegee Experiments and Bug Music and his klezmer album all had a central theme, more or less, and they sounded tight as hell. But some of his more recent stuff, especially You are #6, has been so all over the board… how am I supposed to get a handle on that?

Well, duh, idiot me, by grabbing on and going for the ride. Because the second “movement,” if you will, is just as rich and original as the first third of this 72-minute album. Byron gets original here, and things get more pretty. “Himm (For Our Lord and Kirk Franklin)” is reverent soft hushed chuuuuuuch music, Moran pushing pretty modal chords for a good 1:45 before Byron’s plaintive clarinet voice comes into it. It sounds like Charlie Haden, it sounds like grown-up Benny Goodman, it sounds like love.

Of course, Byron being Byron, he slips in “The Goon Drag”, a slow funky walker by Sammy Price. He also brings in Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Ralph Alesso on trumpet. So much for the bassless, so much for the trio, so much for a unified field theory for this album. But who cares, it’s awesome.

A couple of these original compositions sound much more Don Byron-ish than this one: “Abie the Fishman” is twisty-turny through-composed film music with fascistic timing and a whole lot of heart. “Lefty Teachers in Love” starts with filigrees of woodwind madness and walks through the neighborhood like a pimp. And Byron hits the funk thing with a tune called “‘Leopold, Leopold…'”, simultaneously invoking Stokowski, Bugs Bunny, and, with Alesso back to wail out some great trumpet lines, Miles Davis’ On the Corner.

So when he returns to go full-scale Miles with covers of “Freddie Freeloader” and “Nardis”, I guess I’m supposed to officially go over the top and say DON BYRON CANNOT MAKE A COHERENT STATEMENT TO SAVE HIS LIFE and a bunch of crap I don’t believe. But I won’t say that, not anymore. Because this is just great jazz music. The former goes from smooth and pretty to insane and anarchic, just the way I like it. And the latter is nine minutes of struggle with what it meant to be Miles, to be Bill Evans, to walk through the jungle and confront your demons, to kick some ass and forgive the ones whose asses you kick. It’s lovely in a way that I cannot describe.

Listen: Don Byron is a talented and intelligent man. He’s the best clarinet player we will ever hear, he’s a reckless and adventurous composer, he’s got 58 ideas whereas other musicians only ever have one or two. These are all good things. Plus, his politics are great, he’s a musical internationalist, and he’s funny. These are all awesome things. He is hereby exempt from having to make pithy album “statements”. He hereby never has to try to “tone it down” or “shape it up” or “do what other people would do”. Fuck that. He walks his own path — it’s a meandering and sometimes dangerous path, but it is his own. Walk with him: see what he sees: listen to what is there rather than what “should be”.

Maybe this is one of my favorite records of the year after all.