The 40-year-old clarinetist would no doubt hate such a description, but Don Byron's new album, Romance With the Unseen, is far and away his most, ah, normal disc to date -- normal, meaning accessible; normal, meaning familiar. It's hardly a knock -- the record is a thing of wonder, Byron and guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jack DeJohnette waltzing through Beatles covers and Byron originals -- just an inarguable fact. Here, after all, is a man who writes out his politics on sheet music, who followed his first disc (1990's astonishingly avant The Tuskegee Experiments) with an entire disc full of klezmer tunes once performed by the late, great Mickey Katz. Here's a man who cut a big-band disc in 1996 that put the works of Duke Ellington and Raymond Scott (best known for his Warner Bros. cartoon music) on a level playing field. Here's a man whose 1998 album Nu Blaxploitation (his first for the famed Blue Note label) paid homage to Brooklyn funkateers Mandrill and featured Biz Markie laying down that fonky shit. For Byron to play it straight, even relatively so, is perhaps the most shocking thing he could do at this point in his estimable career. From Old World to old school -- that's what you call going around the block to get next door.
But that's what makes Byron such an essential figure in today's jazz scene: He embraces all, eschews none. Unlike Wynton Marsalis, the only man alive who could turn the word "pure" into a verb, Byron doesn't feel the need to color within the lines. He may consider himself a political player -- with such song titles as "Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur and Me" and "Furman," and liner notes that read like tracts -- but he always makes his capital-S statement with his horn. Never does he forget that in order to change an audience, one must first seduce it. That controversy sometimes follows in his wake -- klezmer purists condemned his Mickey Katz disc, insisting he was reducing Jewish music to its cute clichés -- only proves his point: When you shut up and play, the rest of the world will pay attention.
Byron's a jazzer only by record-store definitions, filed away in the category only because there's no section for "Brilliant Out-There Shit." He's as versatile a player as Doak Walker was, playing with Mandy Patinkin or Suzanne Vega or Living Colour, then covering obscure Ellington ("A Mural From Two Perspectives," on Romance with the Unseen) alongside Lennon and McCartney's "I'll Follow the Sun"; and always, Byron's out front, blowing through his licorice stick with a hidden smile plastered across his stoic visage. The man's got fun to spare, whether reworking "Home on the Range" for the Yiddish crowd, joining the Klezmer Conservatory Band or pianist Uri Caine for a little academic waltzing, or turning out a "Powerhouse" rendition of Raymond Scott's animated gem. That he feels the need to poke nasty fun at those who don't get it (check out "Interview" from Nu Blaxploitation) only makes him that much more admirable. You gotta love a man who knows he is always right, especially when he is.
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