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Don Byron: Thinking and Rethinking


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What distinguishes him from a lot of other artists and musicians is this insatiable curiosity in exploring. In that way, he
—Hans Wendl
Don ByronFew musicians can lay claim to tackling the wild mix of music Don Byron has. No matter how hard critics and audiences try to corner him, the clarinetist and composer succeeds in slipping their grips, in search of new ground to break. And yet as predictably unpredictable as Byron has been, his approach to music remains constant: one of diligence, determination and unquenchable curiosity. "My intent isn't to shake people, he says. "What I'm trying to do is be good at things and figure out how to do them where I've rethought something about the music.

From modern jazz to klezmer to swing, Latin, hip hop, classical and soon soul, Byron somehow manages to find room for his own voice through it all. And the deeper one penetrates his music, the less surprising the achievement becomes. After all, only an artist with a firm sense of self would ever be so bold as to cover such vast terrain.

Even as he first broke onto the scene, Byron appeared determined to challenge assumptions. His debut album, Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992), saw the clarinetist carve his way through a range of solo, duo and ensemble numbers. Not only were listeners alerted to the arrival of an inventive new composer (all but two of the album's tracks were originals), but Byron's playing hinted at a new dawn for jazz clarinet. No longer was it largely an instrument of Swing-era sentimentality, nor was it destined to remain obscured by the hard shadows of the classical repertory. Instead, he drew it squarely into the field of modern jazz.

A year later for his second release, Byron chose to dish out the first of his many blindsides—Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993), dedicated to klezmer's flamboyant and ambitious "King of Schving. Although the record made waves in both jazz and klezmer circles, it wasn't entirely unexpected, as Byron had helped spark the music's revival some years before with his involvement in Hankus Netsky's Klezmer Conservatory Band.

Despite his success at invoking Katz's spirit and energy, the outing also introduced him to one of the main challenges befalling the uniquely inclined. "I had a hard time finding musicians who would take that music seriously, he recalls. "Now, playing weird Jewish music is an industry, but at the time it was difficult to get people to be serious about something that wasn't jazz or high-paid classical music. Byron has since developed a keen sense for the kind of sidemen he wants to engage with. And while the nature of a project goes a long way in determining his needs, there are certain fundamental characteristics he is partial toward. "They have to have a real ability to interpret things. I think a lot of jazz musicians are more about playing and less about that. And I tend to need people who can absorb notation in a pretty intense way.

Although most of his recordings give an appearance of ease, several have proven quite difficult in the doing. Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996), for instance, required substantial planning and rehearsal. Billed as a tribute to the bands of John Kirby, Raymond Scott and Duke Ellington, the music here swings as tightly as it did back then, while contributing an appetite for modern arrangement and improvisation. Veteran drummer Billy Hart played on the John Kirby portion of the sessions and attests to the somewhat unexpected challenge of interpreting the music: "When I heard it was going to be music of the '30s, I just assumed it was going to be very simple, Hart remembers. "I had no idea it was going to take the amount of investigation it did.

As all of Byron's projects come from deeply personal interests, they often take on added complexities. Over years of attention and study, he explores the nature of a music, its mechanics and his own relationship to it. "I think I've been very thorough about what makes a style work, what the rules are, the harmonic scene is and how that plays in several other ways. I'm a composer, so every time I look at something, even if I didn't write it, it's about making it look the way it's supposed to look and then doing something unique with it.

Before his emergence as a leader, Byron studied classical and jazz clarinet at the New England Conservatory. He also paid dues in the bands of Mercer Ellington, David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett and Geri Allen, among others. Somewhere along the line, he developed a fluidity in his approach that, paired with a willingness to venture, has allowed him to move effectively through diverse musical settings. Hans Wendl, Byron's manager and longtime producer, has witnessed first hand the process by which he develops and executes his endeavors. "What distinguishes him from a lot of other artists and musicians is this insatiable curiosity in exploring. In that way, he's almost like a scientist. Wendl notes that this rigorousness is part of what has allowed Byron to be "capable of doing different projects, that on the surface appear to not have much in common. But there's always a thread that he finds.

And that thread appears to be none other than Byron himself. On albums like Music for Six Musicians (Nonesuch, 1995) and Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note, 1998), he delves into the Latin inflections of his Afro-Caribbean heritage, as well as the poetry, funk and hip hop that permeated New York throughout his formative years. Also addressed in these works are events and figures that have clearly influenced Byron's outlook on the world. Titles that reference Shelby Steele, Rodney King, Al Sharpton, Princess Diana and Abner Louima point to his willingness to engage his music politically.

So while all of his expressions stand on their own, collectively they paint a boldly colored portrait of both the man and artist behind them. Adding light and figure to the image are the musical names that have influenced Byron's development: Katz, Kirby, Scott, Ellington, Mandrill, Basquiat and Stravinsky, to name just a few.

Another such name emerged from his highly-acclaimed Ivey-Divey (Blue Note, 2004). The album was a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young and, more specifically, his 1946 trio with drummer Buddy Rich and pianist Nat Cole. While Byron's interest in Young spans many years, his decision to interpret that particular combo arose from its unique instrumentation. "I was interested in playing without a bass and the amount of accuracy you have to play with harmonically when you don't have one. It just puts more pressure on everybody to define the song. With this in mind, he wisely chose pianist Jason Moran and drummer Jack DeJohnette as sidemen for the date. The result is a record that at times lilts and swings with the same airiness of the original trio, but also projects the distinct musical voices of all three artists involved.

Another defining quality of the album is the way Byron mixes his own compositions with those standard to Young, as well as two Miles Davis numbers. This ability to write and interpret music from several different sources, while remaining coherent in mood is something few other artists are able to pull off. Hart, who regularly gigs with Byron's Ivey-Divey group, has long admired his keenly connected senses of writing and interpretation. "I don't know anybody who can go so far into the past with his authority. And yet when you hear his compositions, there are very few people in the future who are with him.

Speaking to the balance between past, present and future, Byron has just released an new album alongside the eclectic Bang on a Can All-Stars. Entitled A Ballad For Many (Cantaloupe, 2006), the disc is comprised of a wide range of works by Byron, including a six-movement piece dedicated to the late, great comedian, Ernie Kovacs, piano-cello duets and some inspired ensemble grooves. It also marks his first full-length recording with the troupe, whom he has collaborated with for several years now.

Don Byron On top of this, listeners can look forward to a new Blue Note release this October, Do The Boomerang. As has come to be expected, Byron will pull yet another rabbit from his hat, this time in the form of a tribute to Motown's one-time hit machine, Junior Walker. "Well, it's soul music, he explains, in a typically understated way, "so it's not about any kind of jazz thinking. It's really about thinking the blues and playing the blues in a way that's very vocal. Of particular note is the fact that, on all but two tracks, Byron trades his usual clarinet for tenor sax. Remarkably, he doesn't miss a beat, although other aspects of the outing were less evident: "It's not a big deal for me to play tenor, but it is a big deal for me to play in a language that doesn't have anything to do with jazz. In spite of the challenge, however, he and his band succeed in speaking soul's groove-laden dialect and in breathing new life into the Walker songbook.

As for the more distant future, one can only guess that it includes many more surprises. Like all those who travel their own path, the map to Don Byron cannot be drawn until the journey ends.

But luckily for us all, the ride is still just beginning.

Selected Discography

Don Byron, Ivey-Divey (Blue Note, 2004)
Don Byron, You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians (Blue Note, 2001)

Don Byron, Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996)

Don Byron, Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992)

Bill Frisell, Have a Little Faith (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992)

Ralph Peterson's Fo'Tet, Ornettology (Blue Note, 1990)

Photo Credit:
Cori Wells Braun

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