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Don Byron, Jack DeJohnette

Don Byron

Jason Moran, Don Byron

Jack DeJohnette

Don Byron

Jason Moran

Jason Moran, Don Byron

Jack DeJohnette, Don Byron

photos by Albert Brooks

click here for more photos

Swyer Theatre @ The Egg, Albany, NY
March 24, 2006

by J Hunter

Before he began, reed player/UAlbany professor Don Byron mentioned that his wife Susan, a fellow educator, was not in attendance because she was presenting a paper at Princeton. As such, Byron said he would have to mentally “call her up” in order to be able to play part of Ivey-Divey (Blue Note), Byron's most successful disc to date. “You know you met the right woman,” a smiling Byron confided to us, “when you play incredibly sentimental music and really mean it!”

Well, okay, songs like “I Found A New Baby” and the set-opener, “Somebody Loves Me”, could be considered “sentimental”, given their respective lyrics. However, the arrangements for these tunes were heavy on deconstruction, exploration, and reinvention. A more cynical listener would look at this interpretive approach and say that this line of attack squeezed out sentimentality like an elephant stepping on a grapefruit.

According to Webster's, “sentimental” means “Marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism.” That definitely applies to the love Byron has for Lester Young, and for the original recording that inspired Ivey-Divey. Byron explained that his students know this love “because they have to look at (Lester's) picture, listen to him, transcribe him…” Byron also said Prez was “in modern-day terms, a rock musician,” because he primarily played with the Count Basie Orchestra, major hitmakers of the time. However, even in that regimented, commercial outfit, Byron described Young as “the X Factor. Anything cold happen.”

Anything could - and did - happen when Byron played, whether he was on clarinet, tenor sax, or bass clarinet. While it surprised others that he closed the first set with Coltrane's “Giant Steps”, it makes perfect sense in retrospect, and not just because Moran's percussive playing style easily evokes visions of McCoy Tyner. While not a Young tune, Prez' work is at the root of all improvisation, including Coltrane's. Also, listening to Byron solo reminded me of 'trane on the recently released One Down, One Up (Impulse). Idea after idea flows like a river from the bespectacled reedist, knees bending and eyes closed, head occasionally popping as if to clear his mind of too sharp a thought.

While Byron's solo lines match up favorably with 'trane's, Byron's use of the clarinet gives the music the same tone while giving it a completely different texture. He used this same approach to great effect on the 2nd-set opener, the Miles Davis meditation “In A Silent Way”, evoking Wayne Shorter this time while making the piece his own, and doing it in breathtaking fashion. Byron's emotional idealism is not limited to Prez, as he waxed poetic after intermission on Miles. Davis was great, Byron said, “because he changed so much.” To show us Davis' range, he spent the rest of the set on Davis tunes from two completely different Davis eras; “Silent Way”, which was a harbinger of Bitches Brew, and “Freddie Freeloader”, part of the coolest jazz disc ever, Kind Of Blue (Columbia).

It could be argued that DeJohnette was the real star of the evening, given the depth and breadth of his performance. Subtle as brushes on a high hat one moment, literally exploding like thunder the next, DeJohnette was a giant on this night. He is primed to join that exclusive club of jazz drummers over age 70 who still kick legions of butt. But he was also part of a two-man percussion section - the other half being Moran.

Just like on the original Young recording, the piano acted as foundation-maker, and Moran was more than up to the task. At one point during “I Found A New Baby”, Moran held down both the bass and the beat with his left hand, while his right hand sat quietly in his lap. Moran and DeJohnette playing together was as color-filled as any Byron solo, and Byron stood between the two of them more than once, head moving back and forth like at a tennis match, and smiling all the while. It was all so… sentimental.

Per Webster's, “sentimental” also means “having an excess or affectation of sentiment or sensibility.” There is no affectation about Byron, either in his music or his opinions. It's the real deal, Neal. I do hope he has excess, though, because that means there's plenty more where this came from.

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), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.