Spreading the Gospel

Don Byron and his jazz quintet the New Gospel Quintet take a multi-pronged approach to music.

May 30, 2013 12:59
4 minute read.
Jazz artist Don Byron

Jazz artist Don Byron370. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The name of Don Byron’s group is somewhat misleading, unless taken in the broader sense.

The Grammy Award-nominated American jazz saxophonist and clarinet player will perform tomorrow evening at the Hangar, The First Station venue in Jerusalem, as part of the Israel Festival. He will be accompanied by the other members of the New Gospel Quintet – vocalist La Velle, pianist Bruno Ruder, bass player Brad Jones and drummer Sangoma Everett – in what promises to be a very eclectic show.

So perhaps, the “gospel” part of the band’s name should be considered more in terms of offering a wide ranging musical message rather than in the context of the specific titular genre.

Mind you, even a brief look at Byron’s jam-packed résumé reveals that he has been dipping his nimble fingers into new creative areas for quite some time.

In a recent interview he gave to the All About Jazz website, the 54-year-old musician said he’s always had a multi-pronged musical approach. “I always had a few different things that I was into. When I was an undergrad, I thought what I wanted to know was how to play classical music of a certain ilk, how to play jazz of a certain ilk. I was playing a lot of Latin music, and I was starting to play with the Klezmer Conservatory band.”

The latter avenue of sonic exploration, and a few others besides, was in full view of Israeli music lovers a few years ago when Byron teamed up with Jewish American pianist Uri Caine for a concert at the Israeli Opera House in 2007 for a duo performance that roamed across distinctly klezmer-oriented terrain, as well as other sectors.

Tomorrow’s concert will reflect that universal ethos and will reference a generous swath of styles and genres, including straightahead jazz, funk, blues, R&B, classical music and, yes, even gospel.

When Byron was starting out, it was very much a matter of trying to extend the boundaries of what was considered acceptable on his principal chosen instrument. “When I first started being interested in being a jazz musician, the job of being a jazz clarinetist was really very limited,” he notes. “Most musicians my age, black musicians especially, were not really interested in the instrument. So I guess my idea of jazz clarinet evolved out of trying to keep a theoretical thing going and a technical thing going on the instrument but that I would have one foot in the classical thing and one foot in the jazz thing. And certain ethnic traditions that I came upon that I might be playing authentically.”

In fact, Byron was exposed to music of various sorts from the word go. He was born in The Bronx in New York City. His mother was a pianist, and his father played bass in calypso bands. As well as listening to jazz recordings by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, he got a taste of other musical areas by attending the ballet and symphony concerts. Later, he studied clarinet with venerated clarinet and saxophone teacher Joe Allard and attended the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, under the tutelage of pianist-composer George Russell. While in Boston, Byron performed and recorded with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching and perpetuating Jewish music.

Byron’s discography reflects that all-encompassing mindset, and his first recorded offering, Tuskegee Experiments, released in 1992, is an intriguing mix of jazz improvisation and material that tends towards the avant-garde side of the classical tracks, while his follow-up release, Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, is a tribute to the work of the stellar Jewish comedian and musician. To keep his growing number of followers guessing, his subsequent album, Music for Six Musicians, which came out in 1995, wove a merry path along meandering avenues of Latin and Caribbean music, also taking in his father’s line of artistic endeavor.

Basically, Byron considers himself a jazz musician, which naturally allows him to take on all manner of musical styles. Even so, he doesn’t believe that every single genre can be included in the jazz fold. “It wasn’t necessarily my intention to co-opt Eastern European music as jazz,” he said in the All About Jazz interview.

“It was my intention to play that music in a way that interested me. And the things that interested me were not necessarily the jazz-like things about them.”

Even so, that doesn’t entail a no-holds-barred approach. “If you have a kind of music, there are moves you can make and moves you can’t; there are scales you can play and scales you wouldn’t play, rhythms that you would play or wouldn’t play, ornamentation – which is a very important thing in my world – that you would play that you wouldn’t play in other music,” he says. “And unless you’re willing to think separately about these things, you’re not going to really learn that much about any of them unless you’re able to objectify what makes something sound like [Hungarian folk dance music] Chardash.”

Byron’s latest release was recorded with the New Gospel Quintet and goes by the name of Love, Peace and Soul. The audience at tomorrow’s concert should get all of the above, and then some.

For tickets and more information about Don Byron and New Gospel Quintet: *6266 and www.israel-festival.org.il.

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