- Phil Freeman
Don Byron is originally from the Bronx, and he was kind of a fixture on the Downtown music scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. His first album as a leader, Tuskegee Experiments, came out almost 30 years ago, in 1992; it featured a variety of musicians, including guitarist Bill Frisell, two different bassists, Reggie Workman and Lonnie Plaxico, and two different drummers, Pheeroan AkLaff and Ralph Peterson. A year after that, he released Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, an album of klezmer music that shaped his public image maybe more strongly than he might have liked, as you’ll understand when you listen to this conversation.
The thing with Byron is, every one of his records is completely different from the others — he seems to always be deeply invested in exploring a concept, and once he’s done that on record, he moves on. He’s not one of those musicians who establishes a working band and takes them into the studio every year or two. When he makes a record, it’s because he’s got something very particular to say at that moment, and when he’s done, he’s said all he has to say on that subject. And as a result, his albums require you to really be willing to put the time in and think about what he’s saying and why. That’s not to suggest that the music isn’t enjoyable on a purely sensory level. It is. He’s a great clarinet player, and a really fascinating composer. But he wants you to think about why someone might make the kind of music they make, instead of just taking it — or taking anything — for granted.
I should warn you that about halfway through our talk, Don Byron drops an N-bomb with a hard R while making a point about what is and what isn’t jazz, what is and what isn’t black music, et cetera. That’s basically the subject we spend this entire hour circling around, because his primary instrument, the clarinet, the composers whose work he explores, and all of that are in kind of blurry territory where, as he says, it’s not considered “real” jazz sometimes. Which is on the one hand bullshit, because jazz is whatever a jazz musician plays, but on the other hand, genre distinctions are meaningless anyhow, right? That’s why we end up talking about Biz Markie and Kirk Franklin and Fishbone and all the other stuff that we talk about in this interview. I had a blast talking to him; I hope you’ll enjoy listening to our conversation.
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Music featured in this episode:
Don Byron/Aruán Ortiz, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (Random Dances and [A]tonalities)
Don Byron, “Powerhouse” (Bug Music)