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Ever since his stunning 1992 solo debut, Tuskegee Experiments, renegade clarinetist-composer Don Byron has steadily become one of the most important jazz figures to emerge in this decade. He’s not only helped re-establish the clarinet as a viable instrument in modern jazz; he’s revived the social and political urgency that once made jazz such a rebellious art form. His small, yet wildly diverse and highly potent discography is fueled by intensely passionate and virtuosic performances masterfully buttressed by compositional guile and wickedly wry cultural acumen.
As a clarinetist, he can convey a rainbow of emotions, ranging from the brooding to the brutish. His formative years at the New England Conservatory provided him with a wellspring of technical facilities and stately poise, which he gracefully exhibited on plaintive readings such as Robert Schumann’s “Auf einer Burg” from Tuskegee Experiments; while his wild days with such powerhouse drummers as Ralph Peterson Jr. and Bobby Previte gave him a forceful sense of swing and a venomous lyricism that keep him from being overwhelmed by louder instruments. Byron’s darkly rich, robust tone is often enlivened by his rhythmic agility, keen manipulation of dissonance and consonance, and gutbucket blues swagger. Sometimes he unleashes a flinty serpentine line that jets to the high registers, then suspensefully dovetails into the mid and lower ranges with fluttering descending notes, only to erupt in feverish screams of sonic ecstasy. Other times, Byron’s playing can be so elegantly melodic that he suggests Jimmy Hamilton’s brilliant work with Duke Ellington.
Byron’s one of the few jazz musicians on the scene who can play both Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and James Brown’s “Sex Machine” with equal invention and conviction. His impish daring seldom gets the best of him even on such outlandishly ballsy projects as his jaw-dropping sociological role-reversal, 1993’s Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz. On that album, he explored klezmer music’s jolting rhythms and Katz’s idiosyncratic cultural humor. Some jazz fans are still baffled by an African-American playing Jewish folk music, but given that John Zorn is allowed unquestioned rein to indulge all of his curiosities, to hell with them. Same goes for his magnificently daffy Bug Music of 1996, where he superbly interpreted the cartoonish arrangements of Raymond Scott, John Kirby, and Duke Ellington. Both of those projects, as well as the comparatively conventional Tuskegee Experiments and 1995’s Music for Six Musicians are laced with visceral social satire on topics ranging from race and sex relations to political and cultural warfare. Byron extends the legacies of jazz vigilantes like Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Charlie Haden, and Steve Lacy, who have successfully used jazz for jarring social and political commentary.
Byron’s satirical panache is as biting as his lyricism on clarinet. He’s expressed his disenchantment about social injustices through collaborations with the poet Sadiq Bey on “Tuskegee Experiment” and “White History Month.” He’s also made clear his dissent with Ishmael Reed-inspired tone poems such as “(The Press Made) Rodney King (Responsible for the Riots),” “The Importance of being SHARPTON,” “That Sucking Sound…(for Ross Perot),” or “SEX/WORK (Clarence/Anita).”
His latest album, Nu Blaxploitation, is another ambitious conceptual throwdown. Only this time, Byron documents his most extensive collaboration with wordsmith Sadiq, resulting in a tour de force that soars far above the recent spate of earnest yet unrewarding spoken-word offerings. Too often, the marriage between poetry and jazz is shotgun at best, with didactic verse shoddily grafted to stale instrumental accompaniments. Sadiq, however, sounds like a fully integrated member of the ensemble. His splendidly sardonic poetry and verbal dexterity weave through the rough-hewn textures and supple arrangements as if he were a horn player. His thought-provoking narratives heighten Byron’s moody arrangements as he holds forth incisively on race, class, identity crises, urban blight, police brutality, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. Nu Blaxploitation’s sprawling whirlwind of emotional and musical temperaments creates a jaunty mood of chaotic circus funk that recalls Darius James’ sensational 1993 surreal urban parable, Negrophobia.
Byron and Sadiq front a nimble band, Existential Dred, comprising pianist-keyboardist Uri Caine, bassist Reggie Washington, drummer Ben Wittman, and vocalist Dean Bowman, with special guest performances by trumpeter James Zollar, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, guitarist David Gilmore, percussionist Johnny Almendra, and old-school rapper Biz Markie. The musical focal point is unbridled funk, more specifically the music of the unsung ’70s Afro-Caribbean funk outfit Mandrill. Unlike the placebo funk of Branford Marsalis’ alter-ego Buckshot LeFonque or the piss-poor drivel on John Scofield’s recent A Go Go, Existential Dred’s funk is played by a funk band. The band shows a deep understanding of funk’s fundamentals: repetition and rhythmic variation, economical phrasing, and most importantly, the One. They get way beyond knee-deep on Mandrill’s “Fencewalk,” as Wittman and Washington lay down a thrusting groove in which Fowlkes and Zollar punctuate Byron’s swirling opening solo with back-stabbing accents. Then Bowman attacks the chorus with whippersnap precision as Caine, Washington, and Fowlkes complement his lead with soulful harmonies.
On the opening, “Alien,” Caine reprises the eerie five-note motif from “Tuskegee Experiment,” while Washington’s thick, throbbing bass lines and Whitman’s incessant snare snaps and thunderous backbeats contribute added gravity and thrust. The song evokes a more menacing mood than “Tuskegee Experiment,” as Byron’s stinging closing solo raises the intensity. The ensemble lies coolly behind the beat on the wonderful retooling of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.” The song is taken at an excruciatingly slow tempo as Washington underscores the piece with a gloomy dublike throb. Bowman’s drunken vocals lead the melody, while Byron’s bass clarinet leisurely improvises on the melody of Hendrix’s “Who Knows” before wandering into the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” The performance becomes more than an admirable tribute to Hendrix; it’s a musical celebration of ’60s rebellious energy.
It’s evident that Byron is the trainer behind this musical circus, but it’s Sadiq who’s actually the ringmaster. To some degree, Sadiq is to Byron as Strayhorn was to Ellington. Their share an affinity for lethal social commentary edged with loopy comedy. Sadiq delivers prose not in the cliched cadence of the Last Poets or in halfhearted approximations at rap, but often in an authoritative, yet relaxed, conversational style. His already ripe text is richly animated by his mastery of timing, nuances, and rhythm. Sadiq’s resonant baritone and crisp articulations recall the wonder years of radio soap operas as he unfolds tales of everyday life: Imagine comedian Paul Mooney in a beat-poet setting.
Sadiq’s humorous diatribes nearly steal the show from Byron’s fabulous clarinet playing. Without pandering to either PC propaganda or Afrocentric bathos, Sadiq’s prose manages to be both somber and hilarious. On “Alien,” he successfully infuses sci-fi imagery while challenging the American melting-pot myth with the recurring question, “How much creature are you?” then mocks immigration practices with, “You find yourself a suitable body/You occupy/You feed post-migration parameters where culture incubates/Where the dial tone originates.” He continues to explore cultural otherness on “Blinky,” as he addresses the police beating of Haitian-American Abner Louima. He assures the victim that America is not a safe haven with the opening line: “Yes Abner, the whole world is a ghetto/You ran from Ton-Tons Macoutes/Only to find them hiding in the 70th precinct/The tip of that plunger is the tip of that iceberg/A badge and a gun can cause a lot of pain.” He then throws a venomous spitball at the police: “Conduct befitting this insidious crew/Every broken bone, a credit to their medal/Every drop of black blood spilled, a token offered to the sacred reich.”
His commentary regarding American race relations is all on-point. His examination of the O.J. Simpson murder trial hints at police foul play on “Furman.” Nu Blaxploitation’s mightiest punch is ironically thrown on the shortest composition, “Dodi,” a sarcastic eulogy for Dodi Al Fayed, who died with Princess Diana in the infamous car crash. He reminds us, “Money cannot change the color of your blood” before unveiling the scandalous love affair between the Egyptian millionaire and the princess with biting lines: “How subtle the chill when we first discover/You and the fair princess are doing it undercover/Edward was spinning in his grave at the thought of you ascending to stepfather of the empire’s future king.” He delivers this acrimonious eulogy in a spooky Dr. Seuss cadence, which sharpens the piece’s tragicomic edge.
Nu Blaxploitation is not just a doomsday tone poem. The album also has an erotic charge that hasn’t been displayed in jazz since Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s heyday. After an extended 43-bar guitar solo from David Gilmore on “Fencewalk,” Sadiq turns the funk cult classic into a sweet, sticky, hard-core jolly as he vividly verbalizes the art of getting it on: “Let us lose control/Make angels on the mattress/Put in a lot of practice/Make it nice and creamy/I’m coming into dreamland/Make it good and sweaty/Rub it on my tummy/And make it kinda of smelly and smear it on my belly/And let me smell the flower.” His nearly pornographic prose climaxes to lewd absurdity as his asks his “booty queen”: “How did you learn to do that/Curdle my toes, the hair in my nose” before instructing her to “Hurt it/Make it squirt/Spank that ass/Put down the glass.” Maxwell, eat your heart out.
Interestingly enough, the album’s centerpiece, “Schizo Jam,” both best evokes the spirit of blaxploitation and is the most dispensable track. On a live date featuring rapper Biz Markie, the band engages in a sluggish go-go jam that takes forever to become interesting. Biz Markie buffoons with both the band and audience in vintage Rufus Thomas style while repeating knuckleheaded lines such as “Let me get funky.” Sadiq’s critique of the black middle class rescues “Schizo Jam” from being a worthless coon show with acidic lines: “Perfect profile/perfect necktie/Perfect shoeshine to look like the boss/He might end up with a pension/Of course he’s going to die of hypertension/He’s just a coon-bye-ya.”
Urbane without being ghetto, Nu Blaxploitation has simultaneously upped the ante on jazz, hiphop, and social criticism. Armed with a rebel yell, and cause to boot, the album bolsters Byron’s position as jazz musician of the decade.