Recording of January 1997: Bug Music
Don Byron, clarinet, baritone saxophone, vocals; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Robert DeBellis, tenor saxophone; Charles Lewis, Steve Bernstein, James Zollar, Trumpet; Craig Harris, trombone; Uri Crane, piano; Paul Meyers, banjo; David Gilmore, guitar; Kenny Davis, bass; Pheeroan akLaff, Billy Hart, Joey Baron, drums; Dean Bowman, vocals. Nonesuch 79438-2 (CD only) 1996. Don Byron, prod.; Danny Kapilian, assoc. prod.; Tom Lazarus, eng.; David Merrill, assist eng.; Alan Tucker, mastering eng. Carol Yaple, exec. prod. ??? TT: 51:07
The three standard benchmarks for why a disc is judged "outstanding" are quality of musical content, quality of performance, and quality of recorded sound. There is, however, one other quality that, in rare cases, can prove overwhelming. No matter how naïve it sounds, every once in a while a disc comes along that is, for lack of more precise terms, full of joy—one hell of a lot of fun.
What exactly is this music? Early jazz, incidental music, hot jazz, almost Dixieland, are all parts of the mix. And the six twisted musical fantasias by Raymond Scott—their inclusion here all the more bizarre because they're strictly non-improvisational—are best known from their use in the soundtracks of many classic Warner Brothers cartoons.
Byron's theory of how real composers "out" the ideas of other composers and re-synthesize them, while not earth-shattering, provides Bug Music with its solid philosophical groundwork. Musically, it's the possibilities of jazz ensemble playing (particularly on the model of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five/Hot Seven ensembles), working from written arrangements or winging it from the head, that interest him and ultimately give this disc its tingle.
Perhaps most surprising (and satisfying) is what Byron does for jazz classics like W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," and Clarence and Spencer Williams's saxophone showpiece, "Royal Garden Blues." Both of these well-worn, often wheezy tunes are revitalized here in wonderful new ways. In Byron's hands, Handy's masterpiece starts out deft and nimble, with Steve Wilson's alto and Charles Lewis's trumpet doubling and tripling Byron's line in almost boppish fashion. (No matter what the context, everything on this disc clips along at brisk, perky tempos.) The arrangement then shifts gears to swing hard, courtesy of bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Billy Hart, before winding up in the abrupt way so endemic in '20s and '30s jazz ensembles.
"Royal Garden Blues" is brought to life by Byron's long, fluid clarinet leads, Steve Bernstein's flavorful mute work, and Steve Wilson's tasteful alto fills. If this group had taken a whack at "Tiger Rag," they might have whipped up enough juice to light Manhattan for a month. There's so much spirit and good energy—not to mention instrumental muscle—in these performances that even jazz purists will be won over.
Bug Music's second half administers a healthy dose of Raymond Scott before closing with sweet, palate-cleansing dabs of Ellington and Strayhorn. Again, Byron's playing and arrangements are superb. Scott's archetypal "Powerhouse" is all galloping rhythms and crazy scales before it finally breaks into Scott's famous semi-menacing, steps-of-the-monster rhythmic piano/woodwind/brass riff—one that Carl Stalling used over and over, whenever the Acme Factory was running full bore, a monster was marching toward Bugs, or Daffy was being shot into space.
Byron's valentines to Duke Ellington—a snappy "Cotton Club Stomp" and a piano-and-clarinet version of "Blue Bubbles" in which Uri Crane pounds the keys and Byron shrieks—are a fitting finale. And the coda of "SNIBOR," by Billy Strayhorn—who finally seems to be getting some of the credit he deserves—is just the right dab of emotional and sonic icing.
Those who've found Byron's playing a bit cold, or his recent recordings (The Tuskegee Experiments, Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz) too esoteric, should give this disc's effervescence a chance to tickle their ears.—Robert Baird