photos by Albert Brooks
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DON BYRON QUARTET
University at Albany Performing Arts Center
November 21, 2008
by J Hunter
Okay, Ill admit it Ive become a typical alum of the University at Albany: I live and die with the Danes in basketball and football, and rant loud and long when budgets are cut and tuitions are raised. But only the b-ball teams first America East title made me prouder than when I heard Don Byron had become an adjunct professor at my alma mater. The renowned reedman is now a member of the faculty, and his show last Friday night at UAlbanys Performing Arts Center was definitely an education.
Byron turned 50 on November 8th, and hed celebrated with a multi-night, multi-band stand at the Jazz Standard, reviewing various creative stages in his career. The most well-known phase is Byrons tribute to Lester Youngs bass-less masterpiece Ivey-Divey; still Byrons also done everything from working with lights like the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Allen Toussaint, to fronting his own klezmer ensemble. Although the PAC program was billed as music inspired by Young and Eddie Harris (another artist Byron has previously examined), Byron told the mostly-student crowd that this group was my forward thing.
Things got started almost a half-hour late, with Byron leading his quartet onstage about 8:30; I was told by a PAC staffer that a band member had flown in from Portugal that same day, so jet lag was probably a factor. Byron rewarded the crowds patience by assaulting their brainpans with a quicksilver take on Ornette Colemans WORU. If any of Byrons compatriots was running on empty, it sure didnt show as they blasted through thick-and-fast changes while Byron flew his clarinet into the higher register a place he repeatedly visited when he wasnt discussing Lil Abner, the Marx Brothers, or the fact that Dick Fosberry revolutionized the High Jump but never gets any credit for it. (The man was dissed, Byron emphatically declared.)
Byrons clarinet brings such a different character to tunes where the soprano sax would be just as appropriate; the range is approximately the same, but the clarinets sound has a shape and a tone thats fuller and more distinctive, whether Byron is howling on Monks Evidence or waxing wistful on the standard I Cant Get Started. Sadly, Byron didnt bring his legendary bass clarinet along, choosing the more traditional tenor sax as his secondary instrument, but he played that tenor to distraction on the Chamber Music America-commissioned Joe Btfsplk and on a group of etudes based on Bartoks The Micro Cosmos. On the latter tune, Byron commanded the audience to Gimme that soul clap! And they did, for almost all 15 minutes of a piece that seemed less about Bélá Bartok and more about Ramsey Lewis.
Drummer Billy Hart is a fighter not a boxer, but a fighter. He goes inside like George Foreman, working his kit the way Foreman worked the heavy bag, until you expect the drums to implode from the stress. Harts not bombastic like Jack DeJohnette (who Hart replaced in Byrons Ivey-Divey Trio), but Hart was up in the musics grill all night long. Horizon keyboardist Edward Simon was Byrons primary tether to this planet: Although Simon certainly got freaky on WORU and Evidence, his solos and fills had more of a traditional base, particularly on the Byron compositions Fosberry Flop and Basquiat. Kenny (the Penguin) Davis kept it simple on bass (Simply phat), though he did get to funk it up during his solo on Btfsplk, much to Byrons approval.
The only thing that beats a great jazz concert is seeing anew generation of listeners watching a great jazz concert, and thats what happened at Byrons forward thing. I know RPI has a hiring freeze on right now, but when it thaws, I encourage them to follow the lead of UAlbany, Skidmore (Terence Blanchard), Williams (John Menegon) and CSR (Lee Shaw), and add a nationally-recognized jazz artist to their music program, even if its just on an adjunct basis. Its not only as big a draw for musicians as a winning sports team is for athletes, but occasionally you get hot shows like this one!
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.