Don Byron is the most ambitious jazz artist in the United States of America. He wants it all, and he wants it bad. In 10 years, the clarinetist released eight albums without repeating himself, and took more risks than his major-label sponsors probably wanted him to. From his triumphant debut, Tuskegee Experiments, to 2000’s sophisticated A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder, he has been the very model of taking just enough risks to keep himself on the cutting edge, but never really actually going over the edge.
We’ve had cool-weird experiments like Bug Music, where he tried to reclaim the cartoonish melodies of Raymond Scott and John Kirby for our modern sensibilities, and the notorious Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, which was straight-up klezmer music with a little tiny twist of modernism thrown in to capture our ’90s ears. Overall, Byron is better when he sticks to a concept; I was not that big a fan of Nu Blaxploitation, which seemed to be kind of focusless and too-reliant on the protest slam poetry of Sadiq — but how can you not love a jazz album that covers two Mandrill songs and features a long-ass live collaboration with Biz Markie? Damn: Biz Markie!
So then we have You Are #6, which is subtitled “More Music for Six Musicians” to follow up on his Music for Six Musicians album from 1995. This is Byron’s Latin-jazz group, with Edsel Gomez on piano, Leo Traversa on bass, James Zollar on trumpet and flugelhorn, and anchored by the two stellar percussionists Milton Cardona and Ben Wittman. This is the first time Byron has revisited a concept, and I wasn’t really surprised to learn that a couple of these tracks were from a film and that another was commissioned by the Bang on a Can festival, because some of the songs from Music for Six Musicians were specially commissioned too — this must be his default band for when someone’s handing out composing money.
I don’t mean to put the band down by saying that at all. They are all great musicians and they work up a hell of a spooky groove together as a background for Byron’s liquid clarinet stylings. Byron works very nicely in the Latin idiom — he’s obviously got a love for the form, which is seen very nicely in the first track, Henry Mancini’s “Theme from ‘Hatari'”. Not many people realize the genius of Mancini any more, but Byron’s always been a big fan, and he blends the smooth fake-African groove of the original melody with some new locked-in Cuban grooves that just don’t quit.
But Byron explodes the idea that this is some kind of concept album really quickly, with the two-minute thing that is the title track. It’s cool and all that, but it’s over before it begins, and it doesn’t even end; it just kind of turns into a found-sound snippet from a homeless dude about the politics of getting money from people. Why is it called “You Are #6”? Well, the press release says it’s a reference to the great British TV mind-rape The Prisoner, but you’d never know it from the song or the album packaging or anything. Good thing I’m a critic, huh? This sort-of-song doesn’t even end — it just turns into “Klang”, a freer sambafied piece featuring some truly wonderful solo passages by Byron and Zollar and an expanded horn section. So far, so good: Byron’s in full-on conquer-the-world mode, and it’s a beautiful thing and all, but there’s still something nagging at the back of my mind about why that song, and this album, are named for a song that almost doesn’t even really exist. Did he just give it that title for the gratuitous obscure reference?
No matter: we continue with the hot avant-Cuban jam called “B-Setting”, which uses a completely different expanded horn section and some amazingly f’ed-up vocals by Julie Patton, who needs her own record deal, like, quickly. No idea what she’s scatting about, or why, but she could be the next big thing with her next-level big voice for real. And “A Whisper in My Ear”, dedicated to Afro-Cuban instigator Mario Bauza, does a great job of capturing some of that ol’ Dizzy Gillespie/Chano Pozo fire. Seven minutes passes like three; congas are on fire; you could actually burn up a dance floor in El Bronx with this thing. (By the way: where’s Edsel Gomez’ solo deal? He’s such an amazing pianist that it’s a shame for him not to be breaking out somewhere on his own. But I digress.)
But then things start getting more diffuse: a one-minute deal called “Dub-Ya” which features people just chanting the title; maybe this is supposed to be Byron’s political statement, but it doesn’t work at all — kind of like “Shelby Steele would be mowing your lawn” on the first Music for Six Musicians album — and it breaks any momentum Byron has built up. We get, in short order, “Belmondo’s Lip”, a cute bossa nova that goes nowhere, and a cover of the calypso song “Shake ‘Em Up”, complete with vocals by neo-calypsist Designer. He does this as a tribute to his father, who played bass on the original and plays bass here again. Now, I think that that’s sweet and all, but it doesn’t work at all for me in the context of the record. Maybe it’s sequencing, or maybe it’s the updating of the lyrics to include “With Don Byron on de clarinet / And Pops on de bass” — but I’m not feelin’ it. A whole album of Don and his father would be better, or a further exploration of Afro-Caribbean pop music but not here.
This second-half-all-over-the-place syndrome continues with “You Are #6.5”, which is funky and passionate and — over in two and a half minutes, only to cede ground to the tender/beautiful meditation called “No Whine”. No idea why this cynical title is appended to the piece with the most heart, and no idea why it’s put here, right before “Dark Room”, on which everyone tries to fuse Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions with Miles Davis’ E.S.P. for nine and a half minutes. Again, it’s great, but there’s nothing to fix on, nothing to hold on to. And DJ Spooky’s remix of “Belmondo’s Lip”, which closes things up, does nothing to help.
Ultimately, this is half a great album, but it falls prey to Byron’s wandering mind and refusal to commit to any particular idea. He’s a conceptual thinker who can’t be troubled to settle down into a coherent thought process. And while he is definitely the greatest clarinet player alive, and a true treasure in the jazz world, this is not a big step up for him. It’s just a focusless album that bridges the gap until he comes up with something that can sustain him for a whole hour or so.
I’ll be waiting. But I’ll be playing Tuskeegee Experiments, not this one, while I wait.