The Blindfold Test with Don Byron


Don Byron pulls no punches while taking the “Test.”

(Photo: Dave Weiland)

It’s hard to think of a jazz, Afro-Caribbean or new music/classical genre upon which Don Byron, an immediately recognizable voice on clarinet, has not placed his stamp as an improviser and composer since he began recording at the cusp of the 1990s. His most recent project is a duo with Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz, documented on Random Dances And (A)Tonalities (Intakt). This was his second Blindfold Test.

Dr. Michael White
“West African Strut” (Adventures In New Orleans Jazz, Vol. 1, Basin Street Records, 2011) White, clarinet, kalimba; Steve Pistorius, piano; Herman LeBeaux, drums.
It’s an attempt to combine some traditional New Orleans stuff with one of those African mallet instruments. I can’t say they knit together particularly well; it’s more like a political statement, trying to say something about the African-ness of New Orleans music. The tune sounds very traditional, or is written to be traditional. For me, the reed is very soft, the intonation very uneven, especially between the high and low registers — I don’t go for the idea that that’s authentic. The person knows chords, but approaches it in a very basic, arpeggiated way. The musicianship is there; just not choices I would make.

Anat Cohen/Paquito D’Rivera
“Um A Zero” (Chiaroscuro, Anzic, 2012) Cohen, D’Rivera, clarinets; Jason Lindner, piano; Joe Martin, bass; Daniel Freedman, drums; Gilmar Gomes, percussion.
That’s “Um A Zero” by Pixinguinha, who has become my favorite Black composer — certainly in the Americas. Most of what they played, other than the improvisations, are from the records. The modernism of tone and line of the second soloist was more noticeable than the first person, whose tone was more Goodmanesque, which is not my thing. It’s cleanly played — they didn’t drop any notes and nobody squeaked. Pixinguinha’s music suggests that. He could execute a lot of notes, taking a breath never seemed to be a problem, and he wrote very well in chords. He’s very “this chord, this scale,” like Bach, Richard Strauss, people like that.

Ben Goldberg
“Cold Weather” (Everything Happens To Be, BAG Productions, 2021) Goldberg, clarinet; Mary Halvorson, guitar; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Michael Formanek, acoustic bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums.
The clarinetist is quite accomplished, even though something about the approach to the air gives me the sense that this person plays a few different instruments, not just clarinet. The beginning of the tune was almost an old-time ballad, like Deanna Durbin from the ’30s, and then it went to some free stuff. It was well-rounded. Had a nice esthetic to it. Interesting. Very Chicago-esque.

Gabrielle Mirabassi
“Espinha de Truta” (Tabacco e Caffè, Dodicilune, 2021) Mirabassi, clarinet; Pierluigi Balducci, bass guitar; Nando Di Modugno, classical guitar.
A lot of harmonic twists and turns, an attempt to string together modern harmonic tropes in a choro vibe. I’m not sure they really knit together. A lot of information crammed into it. It’s in tune. I didn’t hear much improvising. That’s a lot of head, almost as much head as a Pixinguinha thing. To play that twice takes a lot of breath. So I give it up to somebody for being able to get through that. If somebody does some hard shit and executes, is it beautiful? Is it great? I don’t know.

Eddie Daniels
“My Little Suede Shoes” (Mean What You Say, IPO, 2005) Daniels, clarinet; Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Kenny Washington, drums.
Very accomplished player, going for that Eddie Daniels level on some of the chords substitutions, the articulations — but my overall esthetic impression was a little cornball. [It’s Eddie Daniels.] Hah! I guess he was going for that. Technically, it’s up there, with that sheen that students of Leon Russianoff had. But I didn’t think esthetically it was a super-hip choice to play “My Little Suede Shoes” — nothing in that arrangement updated it.

J.D. Parran
“Parenthetically” (Window Spirits, Mutable Music, 2010) Parran, alto clarinet.
That’s pointing towards new music contemporary clarinet, like William O. Smith. I liked the way he was keeping the time, and then maybe playing one note, then playing a widespread arpeggio — that suggested good musicianship. I liked that. I couldn’t tell you who it is. [afterwards] My man! Certain guys are just trying to play jazz on the instrument. But it’s some people’s job to bring together more of the things that we all study.

Ken Peplowski/Adrian Cunningham
“Background Music” (Duologue, Arbors, 2018) Peplowski, Cunningham, clarinet; Renee Rosnes, piano; Martin Wind, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.
It’s a head written on “All Of Me” that sounds like the kinds of heads Lennie Tristano made with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. The clarinet playing was somewhat modern, with some technique, and I liked it OK. I thought the first person was technically stronger than the person who played during the clarinet-drums duet, which didn’t mesh like I wanted it to. The playing was in the vibe of the head, which is a little out there. The piano player, who was good, took a solo that was a little out there, which set it up that the clarinet solos were a little out there. Not out there like A Love Supreme, but a bit left-of-center.

Ted Nash
“Maria” (West Side Story Songs, Plastic Sax, 2019) Nash, clarinet; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Ben Allison, bass.
This person was being modern more with intervals than the actual line, playing something very triadic, then some fourths and fifths. While the clarinet player was doing that, the guitar player was getting into some sound outness, and the clarinetist didn’t respond to the sound, but just was trying to play cool intervals. Real modernness I think is responsive. I found that unresponsive. “Maria” is not necessarily designed for blowing. I thought a couple of chords in the arrangement could have been longer, because they’re surprising, and maybe you want to lay on them. But this felt like the chord changes were rushed through. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

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