Don Byron: Ivey-Divey

Matt Cibula

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.

Don Byron


Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2004-09-21
UK Release Date: 2004-09-20

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.