Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Teacher Man, Preacher Man

Artist: Don Byron
Albums: Bug Music; Romance with the Unseen
Source: Bought used (Bug); promo (Romance)

Having a mid-June birthday was kind of a drag as a kid, since it fell just after school ended but before camp started. From K through 12, I never got to have the in-class birthday cupcakes, nor the extra canteen treats that a bunk would get for a camp birthday.

But I got mine once I was a bit older. Now, a Solstice birthday means I'm smack in the middle of Jazz Festival Season, and it's been working out in my favor for more years than the cupcakes ever would have. When the date rolls around each June, there's always a cool jazz gig to go to, and someone willing (or at least gently compelled) to take me. Happy Birthday to me!

There are people, however, that this doesn't always work out for: the family members, girlfriends and now wife who accompany me to these gigs. My jazz tastes start in the straight & narrow, but then meander forcefully away from the center. So while some years there's been a festival gig that was easy for my birthday patrons to swallow (Dave Brubeck & Bill Cosby, which the missus made it through just fine), just as often there's a show that clearly only I'm enjoying (sorry about the Marty Ehrlich & Myra Melford duo, Mom & Dad).

Oddly enough, one of the most successful of the Birthday Jazz Shows was a Don Byron appearance at Philadelphia's fest in the mid-90s. On paper, Don's a tough pill for the casual listener to swallow: playing the clarinet, an instrument that isn't often pushed front and center in post-bop jazz, he is a restless explorer who travels the paths of Klezmer, funk and many avenues of the avant-garde. Sometimes playfully melodic but just as often plangently noisy, Byron can't be pinned down to one sound or style, and as a result toils in fields that rarely catch the ears of the mainstream.

But the reason Byron could get my parents' toes tapping is that he adds an important role to his list of player, composer and bandleader: educator. No matter what context or concept he brings to the stage, Professor Byron always arrives with lessons to impart. He explains what he's up to, gives the audience some specific things to listen for ahead of a tune, and comes back at the end to explain a thing or two about what just went down. You could have never heard Byron's name or any of his albums, or even not be overly familiar with jazz in general, but a Don Byron gig invariably turns into a quick masterclass in the music you're about to hear.

So at the Philly gig, in support of the then-new Bug Music, Byron talked about how & why jazz made the crossover into cartoon soundtracks (the album is comprised entirely of music by Raymond Scott, Duke Ellington, et al, which had been used in cartoons) and even went so far as to explain which instruments would be audibly describing certain bits of cartoony action. When I saw Byron do a free gig at the World Financial Center years later, he was exploring the history of Sugar Hill Records with a large funk/hip-hop ensemble; the lessons that day included a backgrounder on the copious use of kazoos in the tunes, and an examination of the sociological effects of the label. When he was leading a quartet at the Jazz Standard a year or two ago, his notes from the stage about a particular moment in Lester Young's career made the unfamiliar music both familiar and familial.

It's hard to be a fan of Don Byron for any particular sound, or even a specific sensibility, since he's typically all over the map. But he's the opposite of Miles turning his back on the audience to solo into the electro-funk miasma - Byron faces front & center each time, the teacher man & preacher man for what can seem like the entire history of music. He's got a convoluted musical map in his catalog, but he makes sure that even someone forced to take me out for jazz on my birthday is able to come along for the ride.

SISOSIG? Byron's tendency toward constant motion makes it a little hard to settle into his body of work; just because you loved the last thing doesn't mean you'll dig the next one. Aside from some of the sideman dates I've got in The Beast, these two discs are the only Byron albums that I've actually acquired (instead of just hearing somewhere or experiencing at a show). Bug Music is a constant fave - it's both cartoony fun and deeply satisfying music. Plus it's got penguins on the cover, which makes Eileen happy.

Romance with the Unseen
, on the other hand is one of the rare Byron discs is one of the few without a formal concept. It seems like he mostly had just assembled a band that excited him (the wonderful BillFrisell on guitar, Drew Gress playing rock-solid bass, and drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette) and put it through the paces. The tunes include originals, more Duke, classic-era Herbie Hancock and even The Beatles. None of it is revelatory, no lessons are imparted, and not all of it quite catches fire...but on the other hand, I'd be loathe to part with anything featuring Frisell, and Romance is still a reliably satisfying listen.

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