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Getting off bass, and into the past

Clarinetist's trio shapes its songs in a freewheeling fashion

By Bill Beuttler
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2005

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Don Byron's Ivey-Divey Trio takes its name from the clarinetist's much-admired 2004 CD on Blue Note, a disc inspired by ''Lester Young Trio," saxophonist Lester Young's mid-1940s all-star recording session with Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums.

''Ivey-Divey" revisits four standard tunes from Young's record, but more interestingly borrows from it the idea of playing them without a bass. On the CD, Byron's reeds-piano-drum trio included Jason Moran on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums. This summer, Byron will be touring with Moran on piano and Billy Hart filling in for DeJohnette on drums -- with stops at the JVC Jazz Festival-Newport on Aug. 14, Northampton's Iron Horse on Aug. 15, and Scullers on Aug. 16.

For Byron, that absence of bass was a large part of the attraction of Young's record.

''I think something about the bass not being there just gives all of the players more responsibility to kind of shape the shapes of the songs," he explains.

The other big attraction was the deceptively casual brilliance of Young's tenor saxophone. Byron says he'd been studying John Coltrane's work on the instrument when he found his attention drifting toward Young, whose playing so enamored Byron that he wound up recording one track of ''Ivey-Divey" on tenor sax himself.

''Somehow I just got off the track," Byron says, ''and I was just enjoying playing these Lester Young things that I had been kind of studying or writing down, and then all of a sudden I was practicing with a similar kind of technical discipline that I was using on clarinet. And the next thing I knew I was kind of wondering whether I might be able to play the instrument [in public], which had never really occurred to me."

Byron says he had thought years earlier of making an ''old-timey" jazz record with Jaki Byard, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Moran had been a student of the late pianist. DeJohnette and Hart are both old friends and colleagues whose abilities run the gamut from straight-ahead to the avant-garde. Byron considers the two of them interchangeable, in a way.

''Those are the two drummers of that generation that I am friends with that are easy to work with and really smart," he says. ''I could have made that record with either."

In the freewheeling context of ''Ivey-Divey," really smart is really important. It's what keeps even the trio's most adventurous departures from a theme on track.

''It's about making everybody know where you are in a song," says Byron, ''and then being able to do things like varying the actual tempo, so that it's a wobbly tempo, but still knowing where everyone is in a song, which we do a bunch. There are lots of spots where we're actually keeping time, but it's not straight time. But everybody seems to know where the other person is. Jason and I end up hitting the same chord in the same spot, in a wobbly place, because the form of the song is actually being respected."

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