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Clarinetist Don Byron mixes playfulness and politics

Wednesday, Oct 24 2001
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Don Byron may be the most culturally relevant clarinetist since Benny Goodman, but he's also one of the most eclectic and downright playful jazz players ever. He's unashamedly hooked on pop culture, from the Beatles' sweet jangle (his loose and lovely 1999 version of "I'll Follow the Sun") to Raymond Scott's screwy cartoon jazz (heard on 1996's Bug Music). While his work does recall the accessibility of '50s exotica, it can also carry the thematic weight of that apolitical genre's civil rights­era antithesis, free-jazz. Sometimes Byron's politics are overt, as in the tune "Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur, and Me," in which the pattering discord suggests a nightmarish train ride right beside New York's "Subway Vigilante" and his victim/ assailant. But often, they're implied, as in Byron's '93 album Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, which featured the perceived spectacle of a young black man from the Bronx covering Yiddish novelty music from the Catskills. His response to the ensuing critical scrutiny -- that the album represents little more or less than one clarinetist's interpretation of the work of another -- is itself a commentary.

Such playfulness and politics have never been more present than on Byron's new album, You Are #6, a collection of 12 Latin-flavored tracks featuring trumpeter James Zollar and percussionist Milton Cardona. "Theme From Hatari!" revises the ersatzy title score to John Wayne's "Dark Continent" film by using actual African and Latin percussion, while the loopy, angular number "Dub-Ya" has a female vocalist spookily taunting a certain president, as if she represents his estranged conscience. An effervescent, carefree party vibe infuses other tracks, such as the calypso workout "Shake 'Em Up," on which Byron teams with his father, bassist Don Sr. Like all of Byron's work, the album is a celebration of the kaleidoscopic cultural reach of an instrument with a limited range of notes and a seldom-tapped potential.

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Andrew Marcus

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