Calling Don Byron a jazz musician is like calling the Pacific wet--it just doesn't begin to describe it. Magazines may not be able to resist the impulse to categorize, but Byron has carpentered an extraordinary career precisely by obliterating the very idea of category. Though he made his bones as a jazz clarinetist, over the past decade he has developed a sort of musical Esperanto--impassioned, expansive, inclusive--distilled from the babel of styles, genres and species, both historical and contemporary, that make up our perception of music itself.
As a child in the Bronx, Byron, now 42, was kept indoors much of the time by a near crippling asthma. But confinement married him to music, a music perceived not as a continent divided into separate principalities but as a unified cosmos. "A lot of the [music] that I've investigated in my life," Byron says, he first encountered "within the walls of my bedroom in my parents' house"--which is to say, within the infinite walls of imagination.
Byron has devoted albums to the klezmer music of the eastern European Jews, to a variant Afro-Cuban sound he describes as "pan-Caribbean" and to a hybrid funk/hip-hop adventure with Biz Markie. His finest album may be 1996's Bug Music, a thrilling exploration of the jumpy, angular and surprisingly substantive music written for, among other things, 1940s cartoons. On his most recent disc, last year's A Fine Line, he brought together works by Stephen Sondheim, Ornette Coleman, Roy Orbison, Stevie Wonder and Giacomo Puccini. He was hoping to show, he wrote, "that a song untethered from its stylistic conventions could be heard anew." In fact, hearing familiar music as you've never heard it before is an experience that comes with nearly every Don Byron album.
--By Daniel Okrent, with reporting by Lina Lofaro/New York