Jazz: Existential dread? Existential joy!

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AFTER TWO HOURS of impassioned jazz, funk and fiery polemical poetry, the feisty, dreadlocked figure of Don Byron began to relax and risk a little banter between tunes. "So tell me, what's this town of yours famous for?" he asked, in all innocence, of the audience crowded into Bristol's Albert pub for the first date (in effect the warm-up gig) of his band's Contemporary Music Network tour. "Slavery!" they shouted back, without a moment's hesitation (funny how not one person mentioned Wallace and Gromit). Byron recoiled in mock outrage. But he seemed to appreciate the irony all the same, for he's a very ironic kind of guy.

We've already had jazz-rap and jazz/hip-hop fusion, to a point at which poor old US3 aren't even hip enough for Late Review's theme tune any more. But we've never had anything that approaches the power and the glory of Don Byron and Existential Dred. Byron, a 39-year-old New Yorker, is known here for his eclectic and sometimes academic-sounding albums on the highbrow Nonesuch label. But this new project (with an accompanying album for a new label, Blue Note) is a ferociously funky-yet-off-beat take on contemporary R&B. Instead of a rapper, there's a poet, Sadiq Bey, whose lines both scan and burn brightly with images that might even look good on the page. They simmer with righteous rage, too, as in a striking poem about Dodi and Di, which brought a fresh black perspective to the subject ("Money can't change your blood" went the refrain), and Bey delivers the lines with an orator's voice that makes the bad method-acting of most rappers seem one-dimensional.

Weaving in and out of Bey's declamations is Byron's clarinet, which moves from ironic deconstructions of familiar jazz and pop styles to angry, edgy wheedlings that keep the governing groove on a permanently insecure footing. The 10-piece band is monumentally funky, but also able to alternate modes at the drop of a hi-hat; from Latin salsa to Jewish klezmer, to reggae, calypso and high-life. What makes the performance special, though, is the sharpness of Byron's wit (although this wouldn't be quite so remakable if he wasn't perhaps the best clarinettist of his generation), and the power of the social critique embodied in the music and lyrics.

Songs about police brutality or OJ Simpson (Byron's view is that OJ was guilty but they framed him anyway), are interspersed with comic routines that approach vaudeville. In an inspired James Brown take-off, the band respond with a chorus of "Yeah!" to everything Byron says, even when this is no longer necessary, as in: "What you keep saying say `Yeah!' for?" "Yeah!" Perhaps you had to be there, but the interplay of sensuous music, savage lyrics and all-round intellectual rigour was a wonder to behold.

The band's line-up comprised a Who's Who of New York musicians - David Gilmore on guitar, Reggie Washington on bass, Uri Caine on keyboard, and James Zollar on trumpet. But Byron was the star, without seeming to hog the limelight. Tootling away on a jazz standard like a rasta version of Benny Goodman then breaking off to discourse on the iconography of soul harmony groups before signalling the reprise of an old funk number, he somehow contrived to be Mr Entertainment, and White America's Public Enemy No 1 at the same time. Hear him, and you may never be able to listen to US3 again.

`Nu Blaxploitation' by Don Byron & Existential Dred is out tomorrow.

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