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There is little on Random Dances and (A)tonalities that would fit within the standard definition of dance music, and that’s no surprise. After all, the interests of Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz and American clarinetist and saxophonist Don Byron, who star in this intriguing series of duets, go well beyond mere booty shaking. But even if their goals tend to focus more on mental leaps than physical ones, the combined work regularly takes flight.
“Tete’s Blues,” the first track, opens with an idiosyncratic Ortiz pattern whose gathering darkness inspires Byron lines that feel both sinuous and sinister. These explorations lead into a wondrously subtle rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” on which Ortiz’s slow-march pace offers opportunities for solo asides that are alternately cheeky and graceful. The emotions he evokes clearly impact Byron, whose playing is fluid and elegant.
The pair’s reading of Spanish composer Federico Mompou’s “Mùsica Callada: Book 1, No. 5” is more delicate, with Ortiz treating the material as if it might shatter should he hit the keys too hard. The dramatic tension created by this approach is as breathtaking as Byron’s solo version of Bach’s “Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor,” which is so finely etched that it should be framed and mounted. But other offerings are less cautious. “Joe Btfsplk” gives “Donna Lee,” a revered part of the Charlie Parker canon, a spirited twist by way of roiling, honking Byron salvos and Ortiz accompaniment that comes in sharp, persuasive bursts. And “Dolphy’s Dance,” inspired by one of the late Geri Allen’s charts, wraps the listener in beguiling swirls of instrumental color.
Warning: If you try to dance to this cut, or most of the other songs here, you may dislocate a hip. It’d be safer to just lean back and enjoy. —Michael Roberts
Feature photo credit: Francesca Pfeffer