Don Byron
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 10, 2003) – In his concert at Club Helsinki on Sunday night, clarinetist Don Byron led his Music for Six Musicians ensemble through a selection of original compositions based in Afro-Caribbean styles. Soloists explored themes over interlocking rhythmic patterns, carving out elaborate shapes and spaces with precise, strong architectural detail.

Byron began softly, playing the dreamy theme to Henry Mancini’s score for the film “Hatari,” before the band kicked in a lively Cuban dance groove. He followed with “You Are #6,” the title track to his latest album featuring this ensemble, a piece built atop an angular, Thelonious Monk-style piano riff by Edsel Gomez and irregular rhythms laid down by bassist Leo Traversa, drummer Ben Wittman and conga player Milton Cardona, atop which Byron and trumpeter James Zollar sailed their long, single-note line solos.

Several pieces were long, extended suites of Ellingtonian proportions. His first set closed with a half-hour long exploration built upon a calypso groove and featuring a twin-line head arrangement for clarinet and trumpet. Byron and Zollar played together with the finesse of ballet dancers, singing in unison, veering off toward harmony, and then coming back together again. The easygoing, lazy strut gave the soloists plenty of room to sway, but pianist Gomez kept things tense with periodic bursts of block chords.

“Belmondo’s Lip” had a Brazilian feel with some New Orleans funk, built on a tasty, descending modulation that was passed around from piano to bass to the lead instruments. Byron’s playing was lighthearted and fleet, and the musicians experimented with leaving plenty of space for an almost reggae/dub-like effect.

A few pieces veered off in very different directions. Byron dedicated a lyrical, trio piece for clarinet, bass and piano to the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. His playing was almost pastoral, with a vague hint of Stevie Wonder’s melody from “Too Shy to Say,” built of long, circular scales and melodic loops. It was a showcase for Byron as player, carving out carefully placed ledges upon which he rested blue notes and vibrato.

The players seemed remarkably in tune with and excited by each other, and the interplay among them was palpable. Equally striking was the way in which Byron’s clarinet – not typically found in this sort of music – sounded utterly seamless and logical, yet full of surprise. It was at once fresh and exciting, its piercing trills cutting through the density of the dance-based arrangements, yet then just as smooth and organic as butter.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 12, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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