Clarinetist Don Byron is not the type who cares to be bothered with rigid boundaries. His latest album, “A Fine Line” (Blue Note), gleefully tramples over several of them — from German lieder and Italian arias to Sondheim, Orbison and Motown — with varying degrees of freedom and success. At the Jazz Bakery Tuesday, though, Byron steered his way down a somewhat narrower path — sometimes brilliant, occasionally overheated quartet jazz of a post-bop flavor.
First, the brilliance. Byron is one of the few modern-day clarinetists able and willing to hurl himself into the cauldron of advanced post-bop delirium — and his drummer, Ralph Peterson (an assertive leader in his own right), likes to mix it up, now and then fracturing the groove without losing the pulse. When Peterson was able to concentrate upon swinging, with bassist Kenny Davis hitting on tough revolving ostinatos and solid walking figures, Byron could play some extraordinary fleet, darting clarinet, phrasing almost like a tenor sax player. He seemed to be enjoying himself hugely; shaking his dreadlocks, almost laughing out loud as his piano trio swung harder and harder.
This kind of sublime combustion seemed to ignite on virtually every other number in the first set, and a slow, pensive duet with Byron and pianist Edward Simon meditating on a two-chord vamp was also quite nice. But the rest of the music was almost incoherent.
Any time a drummer cuts loose and thunders away in the Bakery, that’s asking for big trouble in this live, hypersensitive room — and Peterson could not control his flashy impulses all the time. At times, Simon could barely be heard through the raucous, foggy din of the drums, and the inevitable drum solos seemed like just so much unorganized noise.
In other words, the level of the musicmaking seemed to rise or fall with the volume level and degree of complexity of Peterson’s drumming. Again, all one can hope is that everyone adapts to the acoustical surroundings by the time the gig closes.