Clarinetist Don Byron is much like one of those ducks in a carnival shooting gallery; just when you've drawn a bead and think you have him in your sights, he quickly disappears, only to pop up somewhere else, safely out of range. For the ducks, the purpose is survival; for Byron, it's the unrelenting pursuit of wider musical horizons.
On his latest release, Ivey-Divey, Byron has chosen to traverse the placid musical landscape of the late tenor saxophone master, Lester "Prez" Young; more specifically, Young's exemplary mid-'40s trio featuring pianist Nat "King" Cole and drummer Buddy Rich, with Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette sitting in for Nat and Buddy, respectively. It's an admirable plan, but there's a world of difference between Byron and Young, and even though Byron's a superb clarinetist (who doubles on tenor on "The Goon Drag"), his trio's tenor (pardon the pun) and temperament are for the most part far removed from that of Messrs. Young, Cole and Rich, perhaps coming closest on the peaceful "Himm." Elsewhere, there's simply too much sound and fury, the antithesis of Young's pensive and easygoing manner. As Byron says of Young, "Always soft, relaxed, graceful"three essential qualities that Byron and his companions too often let slide. On the other hand, no one wants or expects clones.
Removing Prez from the equation, what we have is a strapping contemporary trio session with forceful blowing throughout by Byron, Moran and DeJohnette (amplified by trumpeter Ralph Alessi on "Goon Drag" and "Leopold, Leopold..." and bassist Lonnie Plaxico on five selections). The "Lester Young connection" rests largely on five numbers"I Want to Be Happy," "I Cover the Waterfront" "I've Found a New Baby" and two versions of "Somebody Loves Me." The other tracks are more cutting-edge, encompassing a pair of themes by Miles Davis ("Freddie Freeloader," "In a Silent Way"), four by Byron ("Himm," "Abie the Fisherman," "Leopold, Leopold...," "Lefty Teaches at Home") and Sammy Price's "Goon Drag."
"I didn't want this just to be 'Don Byron plays Lester Young,'" the clarinetist explains. "It's the first record I've made that really reveals the challenge of what I'm working on as a musician, what I'm exploring in my playing." A press release accompanying the album neatly summarizes the outcome: "While the trio uses Lester Young's music as a jumping-off point, the group lands squarely in Don Byron territory." That it surely does. While fans of Lester Young may not find much of interest here, those who are familiar with and partial to the wide-ranging perspective of Don Byron (not to mention Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette) should find ample reason to smile.
Personnel: Don Byron, clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano; Jack DeJohnette, drums; Ralph Alessi (6, 9), trumpet; Lonnie Plaxico (6-9, 11), bass.