Don Byron, 'Ivey-Divey' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

One subject that comes in for close examination in Playing Changes is the rise of jazz historicism and, in particular, jazz repertory. The act of revisiting a body of work, or recreating the sound of a band, became so commonplace as to seem like the center of the action. To be a jazz musician was, in the popular view, to be an archivist, a nostalgist, a historical reenactor.

But there was also a renegade strain of jazz repertory, one that saw the past less as a monument than as a playground. Enter clarinetist Don Byron, whose emergence on the 1990s Downtown Scene was a significant event. The first Byron I ever heard — and I have no idea why this crossed my path, as a high school sophomore in Honolulu — was a cassette copy of Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, his unruly tribute to a klezmer clarinet hero and Borscht-style comedy king. Later there came Bug Music, a celebration of John Kirby and Raymond Scott. 


So there was precedent in Byron's career for an album like Ivey-Divey, which he patterned after a 1946 album titled The Lester Young Trio, with Young on tenor saxophone, Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums. Byron had come to this album as a consequence of his tenor saxophone studies, finding an irresistible pull not only in Young's suave playing but also in the chemistry of the trio. When I spoke with Byron about Ivey-Divey for a feature in JazzTimes, he had some insightful things to say about the original album, and the ways in which it still resonated on a modern frequency for him. Here's a quote-heavy passage from the piece:

“You don’t really notice that there’s no bass there,” Byron says. “Which means that everybody is really contributing to the feeling of the form of the song. And I think when you’re missing something like bass, it just makes everybody have to work harder. But there’s also something really orchestral about that record. Some of the duet stuff between Buddy Rich and Nat ‘King’ Cole really shows an orchestral way of thinking. It’s not about playing jazz where there’s a racket that goes on all the time, and you just do your role in the racket. It’s people really thinking about the sounds that they’re making, in a way that’s different than if there were more people around, or if they were in a different situation. The communication, something about it….” He pauses for a moment. “You know, for me, the way ‘avant-garde’ people play and the way straightahead people play aren’t really two different things. On that record, you see both things coming together. Because some of what they’re playing, it’s not like these are normal voicings or normal things to play; they’re really playing into the sound.”

Perhaps I've buried the lede here. Byron took these ideas and brought them to a pair of musicians from the generations just ahead and just behind him. Inhabiting but transcending the Buddy Rich role was Jack DeJohnette. Answering the bass-less charge of pianism was Jason Moran. Their way of addressing a standard like "I Want to Be Happy" or "I Cover the Waterfront" is respectful but unbound by the usual fealties of style. Their exuberance suggests the thrill of the open road.

And Byron, who insisted to me that Ivey-Divey was "not a repertory record," included some original compositions inspired by his own personnel. One of these is "Abie the Fishman," titled after a Marx Brothers routine. The contour of the tune is très Byron, and the way that Moran and DeJohnette attack it feels utterly contemporary, a reminder of the essential fact at the heart of both Young's trio and this one.

Ivey-Divey can be purchased from Amazon, or streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.