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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.

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