Don Byron

A Fine Line (Blue Note)

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In his notes for this disc, clarinetist Don Byron asks, "Has the art of writing aria and lieder been lost altogether? I think not." So what does Byron do here? He performs 11 pretty songs from a variety of genres by composers including Ornette Coleman, Schumann, Puccini, Chopin, Sondheim, Henry Mancini, Roy Orbison, Stevie Wonder, Holland/Dozier/Holland, and himself. It's not clear what he's trying to prove. No one has claimed that the art of writing beautiful songs has been lost. It's just a pretext for Byron to play attractive, accessible music. And the list of studio guests is impressive -- vocalists Mark Ledford, Patricia O'Callaghan, and Cassandra Wilson appear here. There are also duets by Byron and pianist Uri Caine, but Byron performs Chopin's "Larghetto" as an unaccompanied solo.

You can look at this CD in a couple of ways. What Byron and his gifted group members do, they do well. He's a technically superb clarinetist and a knowledgeable musician with a variety of interests. The music here is never less than pleasant and is occasionally beautiful, as on Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," on which Byron's lovely tone is heard to advantage. On the other hand, given Byron's ability and accomplishments, this can be viewed as a disappointing project. Byron's been all over the place, performing in contexts ranging from avant garde and retro jazz to klezmer, classical, and rap, and this versatility has generally impressed critics and fans. But Byron is frittering away his considerable ability by not concentrating on the development of an innovative approach. This, his most commercial album to date, suggests that he's now becoming increasingly interested in making money and gaining a mass audience, as opposed to being creative. He may wind up as nothing more than a high-level jack-of-all-trades.

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