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Jazzing Politics | The Nation

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Jazzing Politics

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Byron first. Articulate and funny with a sarcastic wit that can annoy or offend, he says, "I don't think everything I do has to be explained. That's one of the weak parts of this era: Everything has to be literal, you have to get it right now. I often end up having to justify what I'm doing in interviews: Something about me rubs up against their belief systems."

About the Author

Gene Santoro
A former working musician and Fulbright Scholar, Gene Santoro also covers film and jazz for the New York Daily News...

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Twenty years ago, studying clarinet at the New England Conservatory of Music, he discovered Mickey Katz, whose klezmer music, which featured intricate possibilities for clarinet, was pretty much forgotten. Byron revived it and inadvertently became a novelty act that was extremely smart and musical. The elderly Jewish couples who came to Manhattan's old Knitting Factory years ago for his shows loved it, maybe even more because Byron is dreadlocked and black.

Byron is generally credited with bringing the clarinet back into jazz as more than an instrument for sax players to double on. Stiffer, less able to flow and bend notes and sounds than the saxophone, the clarinet stopped being crucial to jazz's mainstream around the time of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, despite subsequent technical extensions like Buddy DeFranco's bebop clarinet. During the 1960s and 1970s, it was mostly avant-gardists or nostalgic traditionalists who picked it up.

Byron's clarinet, which carries this history within its sound, is at once ancient and modern. His licorice stick moves from dry woody piping to edgy squeals to hiccups and vocalizing growls, and his penchant for chromaticism, polytonality and hanging odd passing tones in unexpected places doesn't engage in nostalgia. His circuitous, unexpectedly jumping lines are stamped with his harmonic knowledge and melodic invention, informed by Bach and Schoenberg, Armstrong and Trane. And his rhythmic sense is sharp: He can make any two notes dance. A tireless experimenter, he's played silent-movie accompaniments, hip-hop rhythms, spoken-word performance pieces. That range was one reason Byron was jazz artistic director at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival for four seasons.

As a composer, Byron is eclectic, thoughtful and provocative, usually with a political or social agenda. He exudes attitude. His album debut as a leader was The Tuskegee Experiments (Nonesuch), inspired by the federal government's horrific wartime syphilis experiments on unsuspecting African-Americans. His first Music for Six Musicians album (Nonesuch) followed.

"Most of that record," he explains, "was inspired by political events around the time I was writing it. So there are pieces about Ross Perot and Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele. My music refers all the time to intellectual concerns. Why do that? Why not just play? My answer is, I think a lot about Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln and Mingus, and you can't strip the politics away from that music. The music holds up without it--if it didn't, it wouldn't be worth discussing--but it's the motivation. If you read what they were saying and thinking then, it makes even more sense. People can learn the notes Coltrane played, but unless they're willing to embrace some of the politics that produced them, there's a whole piece of him they're skirting.

"The flip side is, listeners expect political music to sound a certain way: If it's about race, it's either got a McCoy Tyner sound or it's free. But every tune on that first Six Musicians record has techniques that dealt with the subject matter differently. Take 'Shelby Steele.' It states the melody, then states it upside down in the clave, then states it two beats off in the clave; so it talks about how if you state something out of context it changes meaning. My point is that you can talk politically in any context, even repertory. Any lump of clay you pick up, you can use to say anything you need."

And Byron has become an accomplished bricoleur. Bug Music (Nonesuch), like The Music of Mickey Katz (Nonesuch), shows what he means about the cultural politics of repertory music. In his historical revisionism, Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott and John Kirby are presented side by side as listeners heard them in the 1930s. Scott recorded mostly novelties; many became classic Warner Bros. cartoon soundtracks. Kirby led a popular small swing-era unit with a proto-chamber-jazz style. Byron's sly goal: to recontextualize Ellington and the others, changing the angle of vision and hence the potential meanings of the music. His last album, Romance With the Unseen (Blue Note), did something similar with ghosts from Goodman to Disney.

Byron's recent album is entitled You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians (Blue Note). It alludes to The Prisoner, the late- 1960s TV show starring Patrick McGoohan as a British spy who tries to resign and is kidnapped to The Village, a pleasantly surreal totalitarian holding pen for such as he, where he is expected to be broken. Instead, he mounts one escape attempt after another and plots to undermine the nameless powers (which seem to include his own government) who run the place. Failing to get cover art from the show, Byron substituted A.G. Rizzoli's equally surreal "The Bluesea House," an intricate system of buildings and symbology that, as it sprawls across the opened CD booklet's innards, resembles a board game for a Platonic life system. It had, Byron felt, the right resonances to enhance his music.

Why The Prisoner? "What's interesting," says Byron, a self-described connoisseur of pop culture, "is the scenario. Essentially, The Village is a comfortable place, a nice place to live, had all the amenities, but no one was really free. They kept wanting The Prisoner to get relaxed in that. In some ways they were right; once you're clean and comfortable and everything is taken care of, it really doesn't matter what's happening, in a certain kind of way."

Byron is of West Indian descent; his father played bass in calypso bands in the Bronx when the clarinetist was growing up. Hence another embedded context for his music: the non-Latino-Caribbean tradition, whose cultural roles in the West African diaspora he feels may be forgotten in the current Latino renaissance. "Calypso," he says, "Haitian music, they're part of it; the English-speaking part of Nicaragua and the Caribbean is part of it. When people see me they often think, you're an avant-garde guy. Actually, no, I'm very West Indian. My politics, the way I approach the humor in my music. West Indians are pretty ironic, nastily judgmental, frugal, angrily political and yet joyfully political--West Indian politics is usually a band. When I was growing up there were lots of Sparrow songs about Martin Luther King. The lyrics unfold into pretty long stories, always with a twist and irony. Take my approach to Brazilian music--funny twists and turns, Schoenberg type of harmonies, stuff in places that if you look hard they shouldn't necessarily be together and yet they go together, because they're in my imagination." That, and the fact that clave plays on the ambiguity between duple and triple meter--which multiplies out to six--helped shape an album that is wide-ranging, effective and shot through with knowing, releasing humor.

It opens with Henry Mancini's "Theme From Hatari," which Byron has remade in clave with percussionist Milton Cardona overlaying a santeria chant--a wicked irony for a comic film starring John Wayne as a big-game hunter in Africa. "You Are #6" Latinizes the show's theme, tagging the end with a taped quote from a sardonic panhandler, who classifies people's habits about giving on the street. "Klang" mixes Brazilian and funk beats with deft sonic touches like plinking guitar as mbira. "B-Setting," with its musical and extramusical puns, draws on classic soul--the bridge is pure acoustic-jazz-style James Brown--and sports a witty vocal mixed nearly into the background. "A Whisper in My Ear" nods to Afro-Cuban jazz architect Mario Bauza; the band here best demonstrates its rhythmic suppleness and torque. "Shake 'Em Up" was a local calypso hit for the band his father played in, and it grooves like Eastern Parkway's annual West Indian-American Day Parade, which it invokes. "No Whine" is pointedly blues-free but poignant, resigned, moving. "Dark Room" blends Miles Davis, film noir and Machito. "Dub Ya"--taken, Byron says, from a suite he is writing "about animals that look and sound dumb"--is a tape-loop foray with Mingusy overtones that's hilarious. And one of Byron's growing number of film pieces, "Belmondo's Lip," gets two treatments, the second a stuttering, psychedelicized remix by DJ Spooky that reassembles its deconstructed pieces over its irresistibly chugging beats. That closes the disc.

It's one of the best albums I've heard this year.

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