There is no musician playing today – expect Anthony Braxton and perhaps Wayne Shorter – with a world view as fascinating and all-encompassing as Don Byron. This is important, although it does not seem to matter much these days to musicians, critics and listeners alike. But it bears remembering as we as a society progress through some of the most frighteningly and inexplicably regressive times that a very long time ago – during the Medieval Ages in Europe, when the fostering of diversity – among Arab Muslims (the surviving Umayyad’s who rebuilt their great empire in Spain), the Jews and Christians who survived the destruction of Greco-Roman civilisations were responsible for perhaps the time of the greatest exchange of ideas especially in art.
What has all this to do with Don Byron? Three words say it all: “inclusion” and “complete assimilation”. Even a cursory perusal of his repertoire since he came to the attention of us all with Tuskegee Experiments (Contemporary Jazz, 1992), and then such bold missives as Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Elektra Nonesuch, 1993) and others: Nu Blaxploitation (Capitol Records, 1998), A Fine Line: Arias & Lieder (Blue Note, 2000) and Music for Many with Bang on a Can (Cantaloupe Music, 2016). Moving the musical needle seemingly so wildly across the dial was in actual fact a sign that Mr Byron was much more than a consummate musician, but someone who not only held a brave world-view of music (against all of the odds propounded by the refusniks of Jazz); here was also someone who believed –as Mr Braxton often speaks of eloquently – that there is only “good” music and “not-so-good” music. In fact as with Mr Braxton, so also with Mr Byron it is clearly a case of there being only great music.
A sublime technician on both clarinet and tenor saxophone Mr Byron brings all of his rare genius to bear on worshiping at the altar of creativity on these Random Dances and (A)tonalities with another monumental innovator, pianist Aruán Ortiz, co-equal creator in all of this music and together they pay tribute to the fact that music was not only meant to be adorned by melody, harmony and rhythm, but also dance in the purest sense of what music does to the human mind and body, which is to provoke a celebration; a dance of joy – and even of sorrow for which we may consider Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” to be a sublime example of that range of emotions experienced by the African American through history. At the other end of the dance extreme, so to speak, is the bridge between the Second Viennese School that originated with Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and Jazz beyond the Jazz avant-garde as espoused by Eric Dolphy. This, is, of course, something that speaks to the “(A)tonalities” in the original music of Mr Byron and Mr Ortiz – from “Joe Btftsplk” to “Numbers” as well as to the late great Geri Allen’s magnificent “Dolphy’s Dance”.
But there is much more which speaks to the breathtaking musicianship of both these men. And that is the fact that in them – their bodies and their spirit – music courses like bubbling hot blood, carrying the tradition of their art from Bach through Mompou (the successor to Debussy in more ways than one), to Jazz and beyond category as the lines are blurred in such music as “Delphian Nuptials”, “Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose (Spring)” and “Impressions of a Golden Theme”. In all of this the role that played by Mr Ortiz can never be understated. His musicianship and pianism is often obscured by the embarrassment of riches that have emerged from the country of his birth: Cuba. Mr Ortiz has never courted publicity as many of his generation have and never boasted a famous godfather, but his pianism and musicianship – like Mr Byron’s musicianship and mastery of his own instruments – is foreshadowed by his musical brain and his thinking that is far ahead of his time.
Together these two musicians have made Random Dances and (A)tonalities not only one of the most beautiful albums of music to listen to, but also a musical palimpsest that new generations of musicians are going to go return to in order to gain a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of all music as we know it.
Track list – 1: Tete’s Blues; 2: Black And Tan Fantasy; 3: Música Callada: Book 1, V. ([M.M.] crochet = 54); 4: Joe Btfsplk; 5: Numbers; 6: Dolphy’s Dance; 7: Violin Partita No.1 In B Minor, BWV 1002, II. Double; 8: Delphian Nuptials; 9: Arabesques Of A Geometrical Rose; 10: Impressions On A Golden Theme
Personnel – Don Byron: clarinet and tenor saxophone; Aruán Ortiz: piano
Released – 2018
Label – Intakt Records (CD 309/2018)
Runtime – 55:31