It’s long been a mystery as to how and why the clarinet came to lose its standing. A wind instrument once as synonymous with jazz as the saxophone or trumpet, it was the axe of choice for a string of superstar bandleaders and iconoclastic stylists that began with Sidney Bechet, led to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and, to many, stopped with Eric Dolphy. Perhaps it’s all those hokey, Bourbon Street-souvenir Pete Fountain LPs currently clogging thrift store bins that have unfairly branded the “licorice stick” as the nostalgic device of the straw-boaters-and-red-blazers set. For shame: The clarinet is one of music’s most versatile and magnificent instruments, capable of sounds ranging from low-and-slow molasses tones to shrill, paint-peeling screams. And since he emerged from the Boston and New York scenes in the 1980s, Don Byron, who leads his New Gospel Quintet at Club Helsinki and the Falcon early next month, has arguably done more than any other modern player to remind us just how dang cool the clarinet really is.
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