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It's no surprise that clarinettist Don Byron bemoans the musical conservatism of the 1980s "young lions jazz movement. New York has always been richly cosmopolitanmusically and otherwise. It's also no surprise that for A Ballad for Many, his first album to focus almost exclusively on composition, he has collaborated with the intrepid new music ensemble Bang on a Can. With its unorthodox instrumentation and repertoire, Bang on a Can has always been an unusual collective, but it's perfect for Byron's multidisciplinary writing.
Byron's six-part suite written for the Ernie Kovacs video "Eugene should also come as no surprise. More than a comedic innovator, Kovacs was also a musical eclectic, using everyone from Bartok and Stravinsky to Bechet and Ellington to accompany his work. Byron's suite is equally catholic. The abstruse first part, initially driven by David Cossin's tick-tock percussion, devolves into greater cacophony. Part two also features a strong percussive pulse that's uncharacteristic in new music, and long-form development that could be a setup for improvisationbut in this case isn't. Part four episodically blends an avant-garde edge with cellist Wendy Sutter's brief but lyrical duet with pianist Lisa Moore. A strange mix of highbrow art with lowbrow humor, "Eugene is a soundtrack suggestive of the off-kilter imagery fundamental to Kovacs' comedy.
A series of unrelated pieces act as intermission between "Eugene and the nine-part "Music from The Red-Tailed Angels. The persistent seriousness of "Blinky Blanky Blokoe belies its absurd title. "Spin may only last 95 seconds, but it's brimming with ideas. "Basquiat is darkly elegant, with guitarist Mark Stewart's graceful simplicity and clarinettist Evan Ziporyn's lithe melodism ultimately converging for greater dramatic impact
"Red-Tailed Angels revisits Byron's ongoing interest in the Tuskegee Airmen. But while Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992) used improvisational edge to make its points, "Red-Tailed Angels relies on a detailed series of miniaturesfrom the 29-second "Fortunately to the two-minute "Credits to create its emotional arc. "450 Tuskegee Airmen and "Finally in 1941 are militaristically cinematic, while the soaring "Silver Wings one of three tracks on which Byron performsis a lovely jazz-informed trio for two clarinets and cello, harkening back to a time of deceptive innocence.
The closing "Show Him Some Lub demonstrates the ensemble's full breadth. Moore's brooding opening leads into interweaving contrapuntal clarinet and cello lines supported by Cossin's funky stance, Moore and bassist Robert Black's insistent riff, and Stewart's aggro guitar work. All the while responding verbally to Byron's questions about ethnicity, it's a confessional that fits in perfectly with the diverse yet personal aesthetic of A Ballad for Many.
Track Listing: Eugene: I; II; III; IV; V; VI. Fyodorovich; Blinky Blanky Blokoe; Spin; Basquiat; Music from
The Red-Tailed Angels: Integrity; Silver Wings; Despite a Barrage; Explanation; 450
Tuskegee Airmen; You Can Fly; Finally in 1941; Fortunately; Credits. Show Him Some Lub.
Personnel: Robert Black: bass; David Cossin: drum set, percussion; Lisa Moore: piano; Mark Stewart: electric guitars; Wendy Sutter: cello; Evan Ziporyn: clarinet, bass clarinet; Don Byron: clarinet (10, 12, 19).