Don Byron: Next Love

14 Dec


My better half is gone for three days, and who can blame her: the wind from outside is louder than the clarinet from the digital device inside.

But this means that she can’t critique what’s on the CD player from 1,000 miles away, and that Don Byron’s Tuskegee Experiments, which met with less than positive reviews from her, is back on. Last time I played it she heard six notes of the first song, said it hurt her ears and exercised the power of a veto.

This isn’t the first time we’ve navigated a tenuous truce on what comes out of the speakers and won’t be the last. Her taste in the arts runs more to Garth Brooks, mine to Mel Brooks; her taste in accompaniment while driving runs more to NPR; mine to NRBQ.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also makes the ear more appreciative.

Tuskegee Experiments from 1992  was Byron’s first album as leader, and the clarinetist is joined by guitarist Bill Frisell, among others. The music befits its title, which derives its name not just from the infamous study conducted on African-American men for untreated syphilis, but from the Tuskegee Airmen, the aviation group which fought World War II in a segregated U.S. armed services. Hence the plural.

From Byron’s liner notes to the album: “To me, these two experiments are metaphors for African-American life. In one, we saw once again that black life is cheap, and that a person of color can be enlisted to work against the best interests of his group, for nothing more than a brief ‘vacation’ from the pain of invisibility or the pressure of being seen as part of the ‘inferior’ group. The aviation experiment reflects the struggle black people constantly face: having to be smarter, better, more qualified simply to justify being given any opportunity.”

The album has nine cuts, a couple of covers and a poem by Sadiq for the title piece. “The strong themes … the advanced yet logical improvising, and the often-dramatic music make this a particularly memorable set,” wrote Scott Yanow in his review for

The best of the nine, to these ears, is Next Love, linked below. “To this day (Frisell’s) extended solo on Byron’s ‘Next Love’—one of his most moving compositions ever—remains one of my favorite: perfection in tone, construction, choice and sheer emotion,” wrote John Kelman on

Of course if you’re in auditory distress after the first six notes of the first cut (Kelman: “Byron’s a cappaella solo … opens the album on a particularly poignant note.” Go figure), you won’t make it that far.

“a row of crows on a rickety fence.
no book learnin’.
po’ as dirt.
never heard Monsieur Bechet
play the clarinet.
this experiment is not a crime,
but a rite of sacrifice”
— Sadiq





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