DON BYRON & EXISTENTIAL DRED
Marketing executives have a tough time selling a guy like clarinetist-composer Don Byron–a musician who’ll follow an interest even if it means he has to crash across generational, ethnic, and political boundaries to do it. Just since 1992 he’s managed to explore the music of klezmer joker Mickey Katz; front a sharp repertory band that played the music of Duke Ellington, John Kirby, and Raymond Scott; develop a personal take on Afro-Latin grooves; compose period music for the 1920s silent film Scar of Shame, presented earlier this year at the MCA; and refine his own highly evolved postbop language for clarinet. Now, with the backing of his third record label in six years, Byron continues to give fits to those who want to cram square pegs into round holes. His latest project, Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note), is an incisive collection of loose-limbed funk, acerbic spoken word, and opened-up covers of tunes by Mandrill, an obscure but adventurous early-70s Brooklyn band that scrambled jazz, funk, salsa, and rock. The laconically musical poet Sadiq, who’s appeared on a few of Byron’s earlier releases, shares the limelight on the new album, sending off unambiguous politically and racially charged missives. While many of the pieces are guaranteed to alienate some listeners–including “Dodi,” a nasty portrayal of Princess Di’s lover as an Egyptian Uncle Tom–others, like “Blinky,” which uses the plight of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima to deliver a universal indictment of police brutality, are graphic but intelligent narratives that make obvious injustices seem even more unbearable. But Byron also knows how to lighten up: rapper Biz Markie’s vocal on the aptly titled “Schizo Jam” is pure nonsense, and Byron’s terrific band Existential Dred supports his astringent, spiraling solos with tight but flexible funk grooves. The core of the group is keyboardist Uri Caine, bassist Reggie Washington, and drummer Ben Wittman; some of the tunes, including the sumptuous Mandrill covers, also feature trumpeter James Zollar, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and guitarist David Gilmore. But even when it’s only Sadiq and the quartet, as it will be for this gig, Byron’s latest works are among the most convincing marriages of spoken word and music I’ve heard in years. Friday, 9 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Cori Wells Braun.