Clarinetist Don Byron has earned a reputation as a stubborn individualist by repeatedly confounding the expectations of his audience. Although he’s ostensibly a jazz musician, over the past decade and a half his recordings have investigated klezmer, funk, hip-hop, Latin music, and opera; recently, as artist in residence at New York’s Symphony Space, he’s interpreted the music of Henry Mancini, Sly Stone, and the Sugar Hill Gang. Byron insists, correctly, that his eclecticism isn’t the mark of a dilettante–there’s no reason to doubt that his explorations are heartfelt, and he’s yet to embarrass himself. But his peripatetic MO does lead him to focus unduly on the stylistic specifics of each project–sometimes you want him to just play the fucking clarinet. His most recent album, You Are #6 (Blue Note, 2001), is his second with the Latin-rhythm band Music for Six Musicians, which is also his longest-running group; now that the novelty of the context has worn off some it’s easier to finally hear him blow. There are still plenty of clever vehicles here–a Latinized take on Mancini’s “Theme From ‘Hatari,'” the calypso ditty “Shake ‘Em Up,” a superfluous DJ Spooky remix–but this time around neither the concepts nor the polyrhythms obscures the fact that Byron is one of the finest clarinetists in jazz. He’s versatile enough to bounce along with fluid swing patterns one moment and punch out staccato notes on the offbeats the next; he can navigate his instrument’s piercing upper register without losing control or explore dark harmonies with a gorgeous full-bodied tone. A few years back in Istanbul I got to hear the superb group he brings to Chicago, which presents him in a more explicitly jazz setting. The quintet is propelled by bomb-dropping drummer Ralph Peterson; Drew Gress is the bassist, underrated George Colligan is on piano, and Byron is paired in the front line with plush-toned trumpeter Ron Miles. The group appears on a double bill with Chicago’s 8 Bold Souls. Friday, March 14, 9 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.