The clause in Don Byron's Blue Note contract allowing the clarinetist complete control continues to get a healthy workout. Since signing to the venerable jazz label, Byron has delivered a prickly jazz/funk workout, followed by his straightest album in years and now a meditation on arias. Rarely has artistic freedom sounded so vast.
A Fine Line is a typical Byron record in that it changes from track to track. All the great names in aria are touched on, including Schumann, Chopin, Puccini and Stevie Wonder. With pianist Uri Caine as his counterweight and Patricia O'Callaghan, Dean Bowman, Mark Ledford and Cassandra Wilson on vocals, Byron and his quartet glide through a set of vaguely operatic pieces, detouring briefly for an understated, kalimba-laced run at Roy Orbison's It's Over, a syrupy read of Stevie's Creepin' and ending with a stunning bit of solo clarinet. It's an uneven listen, with the vibe shifting piece by piece, but look closely and you can almost see Byron's grand plan. Patricia O'Callaghan, minus Don Byron, sings at the NOW Lounge Friday (November 10).