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Interviews

Don Byron: Moving Towards the Idiomatic

By Published: February 19, 2007


Pop and Soul Music as Composition and the Flow of Information

AAJ: There's a big difference between the original Junior Walker records and Do the Boomerang, just by virtue of how they were recorded and mixed. Your recording is notable for is recorded precision: the brilliant stacked parts of the arrangements are really balanced so you can hear how perfectly everything fits together. Junior Walker records sound fantastic, but in those mono recordings certain parts take more iconic prominence, like tambourine, or sax, or the ride cymbal on "Satan's Blues. Did you have any ideas about how you wanted your recording to present the music?

Don Byron DB: I got a friend of mine who actually started out as an assistant on my records and he was really the person who made it sound the way it does. I had some ideas about the kind of clarity that I wanted, because I think what people miss about black music is that these things are compositions. It's the sum of all these parts. Maybe it doesn't line up the way Tin Pan Alley songs line up, where the chords match the scales, and all that kind of stuff.

But there's a science to how different compositions line up. It's not just that they feel good. They're compositions, and they're made of all these parts, and the parts are really important. They are the composition. What you do over them is your business. What vibe you play them in—that's your business. But the composition is these parts. It's not these parts played exactly the same way every time. But it's the sense of these parts; it's that there's soul in the writing of these songs. It's not just that they happen to be soulful. They add up to being soulful because each part expresses something.

So that was kind of the principle of studying all this pop music. It's just made of all these complicated parts. Even the Herb Alpert stuff, which people thought was funny—when you really got down to looking at how it worked, it was really complicated! And I think people underestimate that, or they think that you're a jazz musician, so you're just there to play some bebop over what's happening and you really don't see that. I'm just really interested in this—I'm interested in the music orchestrally. It's interesting orchestrally. I mean, any kind of James Brown song, with all these crazy parts—it's orchestral music. It's a different vision of what orchestral music is, but it adds up to something. It's not just that he's there doing his stuff over the top. It's these parts; it's how they're played.

We would discuss it: "Is this part swinging? Is this part straight eight? We had a lot of those kinds of discussions about each section of each piece. You really think about these things, and it doesn't mean you don't play your own stuff. It just means that you have an attention to detail about the composition, and the same kind of respect you have for the composition when you're playing a piece of classical music or a jazz standard. You have a sense of respect about how a thing is put together. Everybody got a complete score. I didn't just hand people their part; I handed them a score so they could see how all the parts fit together. It's better to give good musicians a lot of information. You give them a lot of information, and then you let them go. That's what I've done with a lot of different things that I've done that are more about doing things in a historical way.

AAJ: Incidentally, I would be shocked to learn that someone thought James Brown music was just about him shouting over any old groove.

DB: I think that you would be surprised how some people in some circles really don't understand that these things are compositions. It's not just one guy being cool, with another guy being cool, and they're all so cool that it just adds up. No! This is a part of the composition, and that's a part of the composition, and it adds up to something. It's very minimal, in a way; it's very pygmy-esque, in a sense, the way some of these songs are put together. They're very African in a certain kind of way.

AAJ: Tell me about the James Brown piece, "There It Is, which is placed in the middle of the CD, surrounded by Junior Walker tunes. It's an anomaly of sorts, but perhaps it reveals some similarities between the two artists?

DB: I think it's a little beyond those kinds of similarities. I decided to do that tune because I was thinking of doing a tune of Junior Walker's called "Hip City. And when I was writing it down and looking at it, I could see it was just his version of James Brown's stuff. And I think what people miss about the soul era was that these were compositions and that these guys covered each other. Whenever you hear a soul record that's live, you always hear Aretha covering somebody else, or the Supremes covering somebody else.

Not only were these things compositions, but they were compositions that were being passed around. Aside from Eddie Harris' "Compared to What, there were all these other different versions of it that were completely different. Roberta Flack did "Compared to What with a completely different melody. It's like an academy with people passing information to each other, interpreting each other, and thinking about what the others are doing.

It's the same as other musics where that's more obvious to people. Any soul artist, when you'd hear them live—there would always be something on there. A Wilson Pickett song or something. There's always a cover of another soul artist that you wouldn't expect. And as someone who lived through the era and saw these groups and saw these things happen, I'm saying that James Brown is a big influence on everybody! He's not just an influence on Junior Walker. If you're talking about classical music in the thirties or forties, everyone's either Stravinsky or Schoenberg. It just kind of happens that way in an idiom where information is being passed around. People are interpreting each other. They're interpreting each other's information; it's all being passed around.

So for someone to say, "What's this James Brown thing doing on there? Well, that's the opposite of what I think about the era. It's the opposite of me thinking the soul era was the era of composers passing information around the way other composers pass information around.

AAJ: Do you think that's any different than it is now in pop music? Do you think there was more of a dialogue of information then?

DB: I think at that point, yeah. There probably was, because there was a small number of people who all had similar backgrounds, a lot of them came out of the church—so that was the information: the blues, and the church, and that kind of thing. It was a bunch of people who knew each other. Now everybody's just more spread out. On the other hand, I guess you could say that about hip-hop production and beats and stuff like that—that there's that same amount of information being passed around. Certainly. It just depends on how you look at it.

AAJ: This is something you're continuing to perform live—Don Byron Plays Junior Walker. You did five nights at the Jazz Standard recently, which I'm sure was great, and which I'm equally sure isn't what someone wandering into the Jazz Standard is going to expect. Is the music changing as the group plays it night after night, and what's the audience reaction?

Don ByronDB: Well, the audience reaction has been really great. The audience reaction has been, "Could you play at a place where we can dance the next time? And I'm starting to wish that—that we can play places where people could dance if they wanted to. I think whenever you decide to play anybody's repertoire, and you're not being a drag about—like it's got to be exactly this or that—things will change. We're starting to make spaces and shape a set, you know, think about what order to do things.

It's just like any other band. It's not really different for me. We're at the beginning of that. And it's really interesting to play a bunch of gigs with [guitarist/vocalist] Chris [Thomas King]. He hadn't really ever played any gigs with us, and that was really fun. It was a whole other thing, because he's a really good player—just not in a Gilmore kind of way with a lot of technique and bebop. I felt like we were learning from each other and just, you know, figuring out how you want to present things. That's just always really interesting.

When I did some of these other really super-repertory projects like Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996) or [Don Byron Plays the Music of] Mickey Katz (Nonesuch, 1993), those sorts of things—you just figure it out. "This is where it's going, this is what I want to encourage, this is what I want to discourage, this is what I want to emphasize. You just come up with your own way of doing things, and those things are happening because the players are all just very strong personalities. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...



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