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Don Byron

Blue Note

With their growling saxes, yelled vocals, and low-mic’d production, Jr. Walker and the All Stars were probably the roughest act in Motown’s otherwise glossy ’60s roster. But they weren’t rough enough for jazz clarinetist Don Byron, who dunks Walker’s grooves even deeper into the gutbucket, rendering them as vulgar, belly-rubbin’ rhythm-and-blues. Mostly he does this by gnarling up the originals’ texture—Byron’s arrangements are similar to Walker’s, but George Colligan’s Hammond organ provides an overflow of grease, as do David Gilmore and Chris Thomas King’s almost cartoonishly bluesy guitars. Suddenly, even Walker’s best-known anthem, “Shotgun,” goes from jump-and-holler workout to sleazy, cocksure swagger. Byron distills sex from the songs themselves, laying a sumptuous, biting groove under Walker’s strutting “Cleo’s Mood,” teasing full-fledged swing out of “Mark Anthony Speaks,” and turning the dance-plugging title track into a come-hither growl. For most of the record, Byron puts aside his clarinet, replacing it with tenor sax, the better to capture this music’s earthy punch. But when he takes out his usual ax on “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” it’s a masterstroke. The guitars, the organ, and King’s vocal step back, the drums affect a tight funk vamp, and Byron lets his clarinet, both ponderous and suggestive, do the emoting. Four minutes later, the anguish of the Walker original is banished in favor of a slyly mellow seduction. Although Byron’s quest for the salacious energizes Do the Boomerang, it does get to be a bit monotonous—even when Walker was rewriting his own hits, he managed to disguise them enough to capture the attention, but Byron tends to their similarities. When he does shake things up, though, the results are distinctive: On “Pucker Up, Buttercup,” he pairs the label’s standard drum/tambourine rhythm chart with a grits-and-corn-bread jam. He even throws in a non-Walker track, James Brown’s “There It Is,” to drive home the music’s unabashed carnality. Such experiments evince Byron’s trademark blend of homage and iconoclasm, but otherwise Boomerang is a complete departure even from his other pastiches, which explored music as far afield as klezmer and blaxploitation soundtracks. Those albums are deeply rooted in cerebral, often somber jazz; this one, however, charges right into unfiltered Southern soul, and its target audience may need a few listens to digest it. But Do the Boomerang doesn’t set Walker spinning in his grave; if anything, it’s got him on the prowl.—Michael J. West