Don Byron Quartet/Dave Holland Big Band

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Don Byron (clarinet/tenor saxophone)
George Colligan (piano)
Lonnie Plaxico (double bass)
Billy Hart (drums)


Antonio Hart (alto saxophone/flute)
Mark Gross (alto saxophone)
Mark Turner (tenor saxophone)
Gary Smulyan (baritone saxophone)
Robin Eubanks, Jonathan Aarons & Josh Roseman (trombones)
Taylor Haskins, Alex Sipiagin & Duane Eubanks (trumpet/flugelhorn)
Steve Nelson (vibraphone/marimba)
Dave Holland (double bass)
Billy Kilson (drums)


Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 4 July, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Don Byron strode onto the Barbican stage and, wasting no time on pleasantries, ripped straight into Charlie Parker’s fearsome “Donna Lee”; with a whisper of ride cymbal, his quartet swung in behind him.

Perched centre-stage on a stool, Byron has the youthful demeanour of the perpetual innovator; it’s a shock to realise that more than ten years have passed since “Tuskagee Experiment” (Nonesuch) established him as a vital post-modern trickster and the definitive New York downtowner, bringing a laser-like intelligence to everything from Messiaen to Mickey Katz. He’s a crossover musician in the best sense, one who approaches all music with the same seriousness of intent; thus his latest project “Ivey Divey” (Blue Note), a tribute to Lester Young’s classic 40s trio, is no soft-focus wallow in nostalgia but a vital, if respectful, take on the standards.

The band here differed from the trio on disc, but the intent remained the same; their swing was raucous and relentless, Byron swooping over the compass of his clarinet and contorting himself as though wringing every last note from the instrument. Pianist George Colligan gave a sinewy solo on “Somebody Loves Me”, while Lonnie Plaxico’s high-wire bass solo was a lyrical delight; Billy Hart was a wily, animating presence behind his kit. “In a Silent Way” shimmered like a heat haze; when the funk beat kicked in, Byron’s insertion of “Stars and Stripes Forever” was a nice Fourth of July touch before he built to a stratospheric climax.

Not everything was good; the sound-mix for the first number was so bad that Colligan sounded like he was in the next room, though this was quickly fixed; nor was I convinced by Plaxico’s electric double bass, which even in his hands made a lacklustre sound. But to hear the playful swing of “Freddie Freeloader” was to share the obvious pleasure of the performers.

Dave Holland was clearly pleased to finally bring his Big Band to the UK. Its recent second album “Overtime” (Dare2 Records) was an impressive development from “What Goes Around” three years ago. Holland’s new compositions showed a greater ease in the idiom, combining Mingus and Ellington riffs and voicings with teasing polyrhythms and his own matchless bass-lines. Big bands are expensive beasts, and the visceral thrill of hearing a first-rate ensemble is greater for its rarity; Holland did not disappoint.

“Bring It On” was Latinate and brassy, Holland and drummer Billy Kilson grinning as they worked into the knotty rhythms. The plush trombone of Robin Eubanks was a pleasure as always, and Mark Turner’s tenor (replacing regular Chris Potter) side-stepped the obvious in his solo. “Triple Dance” benefited from Gary Smulyan’s barnstorming baritone and Antonio Harle’s free-blowing alto; “Ario”, a musical portrait of Rio de Janeiro, was in a more relaxed and sultry vein.

Holland’s riffs are great, with trickily interlocking counterpoint and some beautifully judged voicing; if the formula became a little repetitive, with each piece culminating in the soloists blowing furiously over the orchestra, this was easily forgiven. The closing number, “Free For All”, was a tour de force, opening with a captivating Holland solo before giving Steve Nelson a chance to cut loose; but it was Billy Kilson, a vision of pent-up energy, whose volcanic solo formed the climax of the piece.

A standing ovation showed the real affection and awe in which Holland is held; he repaid it, modest as ever, with a tribute to another bass legend, the soulful “Blues for C.M”.

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