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Jazz Review

Don Byron, Lord of the Clarinet--and Improv

March 29, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The clarinet was one of the premier instruments in jazz for the first half of the 20thcentury. Vital to New Orleans music, it was the instrument of choice for such major swing bandleaders as Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman.

The instrument fell on hard times after bebop arrived, however, surfacing occasionally via the work of Buddy DeFranco, Jimmy Giuffre and a few others. But more recently the clarinet has finally returned to a somewhat higher level of visibility, most notably via the eclectic work of Don Byron. Voted jazz artist of the year in 1992 by Down Beat magazine, he has nonetheless consistently refused to be overcategorized, his work ranging easily from jazz to klezmer to swing to classical.

At Tuesday's opening set of a weeklong run at the Jazz Bakery, Byron seemed primarily concerned with fairly straight-ahead, but determinedly contemporary, jazz improvising. Leading a quartet that included pianist Edward Simon, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Ralph Peterson, his capacity for musical invention was in the spotlight from the first note he played.

Moving easily from offbeat metric playing (7/4 in one case) to a lovely, time-suspended duet with Simon, Byron used every resource--and there are many--of the clarinet. Playing soft, almost sotto voce in some passages, he moved easily into whiplash runs across the instrument's three distinct registers, countered by boppish bursts of rhythm.

Byron's playing was far and away the high point of the program, in part because the ensemble never quite seemed to get in sync as an integrated musical unit. Perhaps because it was opening night, perhaps because it can be so difficult for groups to adjust to the peculiarities of the Bakery's acoustics, there was rarely any sense that the Byron quartet was a group that was listening and interacting with one other.

At times, in fact, Simon seemed to be musically abandoned by the others. Too often this resulted in a high-decibel overwhelming of Venezuelan-born Simon's dexterous blend of bop phrasing with Latin rhythms.

Still, it was, after all, an opening set in an unfamiliar venue by a major artist who rarely appears in the Southland. One hopes that familiarity with the room will produce better results as the week continues--results more consistent with Byron's multiple skills and the high-level abilities of his associates.

*

* Don Byron Quartet at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. Tonight through Sunday at 8 and 9:30 p.m. $22. (310) 271-9039.

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