Freethinking Clarinetist Listens to Obscure Lester Young Record, Invents Band


“This is not a stunt,” clarinetist Don Byron told the Symphony Space crowd October 8, before launching into “I Cover the Waterfront” with his Ivey-Divey Trio. Byron says it’s coincidence that his election-year band is inspired by a saxophonist nicknamed Prez. Nevertheless, he offered a short stump speech: “Our education system should be based on teaching the level of mastery exemplified by Lester Young,” he said, then displayed just such dedication on bass clarinet, massaging the instrument’s full range and exploiting its deep bottom to emulate the rich lower register of Young’s tenor.

Byron’s music usually comes with a lesson, typically focused on subversive elements—what Byron calls “skronk.” His new CD, Ivey-Divey, finds inspiration in Lester Young’s 1946 Verve recording with a bass-less trio of pianist Nat Cole and drummer Buddy Rich. It’s not Young’s most celebrated work, but the setup highlighted his skronky rhythmic feel, which anticipated bebop. And the trio captured Young’s attitude, which transcended happy/sad or cool/uncool dichotomies—just like “Ivey-Divey,” Young’s trademark expression.

Byron plays some tenor sax on the CD, and picked one up at Symphony Space, too—credibly, but at nowhere near the level of his clarinet work. This band is no re-creation, however; it’s an embrace of Young’s technical innovations and mood. Pianist Jason Moran is Byron’s perfect foil, surveying jazz’s historical sweep without allegiance to any one school. He signaled Cole’s mid-’40s stride, then audaciously staggered and dissolved such clues. Jack DeJohnette, always a painterly drummer, evoked Rich’s skittering, mostly brushes work on the CD but scattered each measure’s beats to enable a wildly elastic, thoroughly modern sense of swing. Hart’s more orderly approach to the drums at Symphony Space was far less satisfying.

Byron cleverly rephrased the melody of “I Want to Be Happy” as Moran darkened its harmonies. His anguished modal improvisations on “I’ve Found a New Baby” spoke not of Young, but of John Coltrane. In fact, Young’s trio is just a launch point for the group: Byron tackles some of his earlier compositions along with two Miles Davis tunes on the disc, and adds bass and trumpet on a few tracks. At Symphony Space, an acoustic take on Davis’s plugged-in classic “In a Silent Way” cast the tune as a gorgeous fugue. Still, the hour-long live set seemed scattered—unlike the CD, which flows logically and is Byron’s finest recording in a decade.