The reed master, the brilliant composer and the thorny, brainy avant-garde traditionalist Don Byron has been a singular and compelling figure on the jazzscape for more than 30 years now. Avant-garde traditionalist? Well, yes: It’s oxymoronic but true.
Beginning with his early klezmer records, Byron has been a style-hopper; but unlike so many of that breed, there is nothing superficial or irreverent about his appropriations. He doesn’t reference; he inhabits and commands. When Byron goes after a genre, he masters its conventions and idioms so profoundly, it is almost as if they are being invented all over again. And then he breaks them wide open.
First it was klezmer (for which, they say, he developed an ear in his South Bronx youth), then the eccentric swing of Raymond Scott, then funk, salsa, a tribute to Junior Walker and, most recently, his brilliant New Gospel Quintet. In between, Byron has released all manner of uncategorizable music as well: everything from free jazz sessions to serious compositions commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.
Although he handles many, Byron’s main axe is the clarinet: an oddly but fittingly antiquarian voice for so ardent a jazz progressive. For the past two decades, Byron has been consistently voted Best Clarinetist by leading international music magazines. He is a 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist, a recipient of Guggenheim and US Artists Fellowships. In 2009, he was awarded the Rome Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Composition.
Byron has led residencies at many universities, including Harvard and Columbia, and was a visiting professor at MIT and at SUNY-Albany, teaching theory, saxophone, improvisation and composition. Now how about this: The great, decorated jazz explorer Don Byron is currently SUNY-Ulster’s Larry Berk artist-in-residence. His residency includes three master classes and will end with a concert. A master class will be held this Wednesday, March 12, from 1-2 p.m. in the College Lounge. The remaining master class will be held on Wednesday, April 2. On Saturday, April 12 at 7 p.m., Byron’s roof-raising New Gospel Quintet will perform in the Quimby Theater. Call (845) 687-5000 or visit https://apps.sunyulster.edu/events/1659 for more information.