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Don Byron, Romance with the Unseen   Blue Note
By Chuck Obuchowski

    We’ve all heard about Nero, that depraved emperor who serenaded the fiery demise of Rome with his fiddle-playing. Well, here’s a Robin Hood variation on that theme for all you Y2K fans out there in radioland:
    Imagine it’s New Year’s Day...the deafening roar of a billion TVs, Pokemons and cell phones is suddenly silenced. As PCs around the globe crash with a whimper, the cyber citadel of Microman Gates spontaneously combusts, and the Golden Arches are thrust into darkness, portending a worldwide epidemic of healthy eating habits.
    Our hero, perfectly suited to his role as court jester, smirks as he throws back his dreadlocks, dancing madly to some obscure klezmer tune; he grabs his clarinet and blows a chorus or two of "One Finger Snap," while Disney World goes up in smoke behind him. His guitar-slinging sidekick plays twangy, post-Nashville licks which mutate into blazing, solar-powered solos based on "The Micky Mouse Club" theme. Next thing you know, the duo--without skipping a beat--is tiptoeing through a sentimental version of the old Lennon-McCartney gem, "I’ll Follow the Sun," backed only by the screams of Wall Street investors throwing themselves into the inferno.
    And just who might this post-apocalyptic Robin Hood be, dear listeners? Why, Don Byron, of course! Who else on the current jazz scene dares to use his music to address key social, political and economic issues, and with such Mingus-like candor? Gil Scott Heron and Amiri Baraka still emerge from the shadows once in awhile, but Byron’s is the one voice that rises most frequently over the din of doublespeak which bombards us daily, even in the supposedly-colorblind jazz community. Byron’s words force audience members to examine their notions about racism and social injustice, just as his in-your-face improvisations allow no room for complacent listening; they demand reaction.
    Yet here we have a Byron recording that bills itself as Romance with the Unseen. Romance!? Where’s the rage? The streetwise sarcasm? What happened to the funk? That damn Beatles song is downright pretty, fer cryin’ out loud!
    Yes friends, it’s true...the angry young man who once hurled "Tuskegee Experiments" at his audience is now sauntering along at a relaxed pace, riffing on a forgotten Duke Ellington melody. And that former six-string madman, Bill Frisell, has probably traded in his fuzzbox for a brand-new acoustic guitar by now. The gentleman’s quartet also includes Mssrs. Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette, on bass and drums respectively; don’t worry, their tuxes should be back shortly from the drycleaner’s.
    But wait a minute...where’s that feedback coming from? Who let this dissonance creep in? And just what is this guy trying to prove by calling a piece "Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur and Me?"
    Excuse me, sir, but could you please turn that guitar amp down a bit? And Mr. Byron, perhaps you might consider editing your solos somewhat...maybe smoothing those rough edges just a little...no offense, but you must understand you’ll never get these tunes played on the radio...especially not if you insist on including those silly improvised interludes...really, do they have any purpose?
    Whew, thank goodness, it was all just a crazy nightmare! Long may free-thinking improvisers like Don Byron wail! Long may he and his colleagues challenge convention, curse the madness, laugh away the darkness...and naturally, romance with the unseen! In the meantime, stock up on batteries now, and have a copy of this disc loaded in your CD walkman...otherwise, it could be a long, cold winter.

Copyright©WWUH: November/December Program Guide, 1999

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