Don Byron: Moving Towards the Idiomatic
AAJ: Let's talk a little about your 2004 album Ivey-Divey, with drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Jason Moran. This was a sort of tribute to Lester Young's 1940s trio with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich, although there's more to it than that element, and in addition to the trio stuff, there's quartet material with bassist Lonnie Plaxico and some quintet stuff with trumpeter Ralph Alessi.
One thing that strikes me about the record is how, especially with the trio stuff, the songs seem to dissolve into almost fractally changing improvisation in the middles of the piecesthis is true of "I Want to Be Happy, "I've Found a New Baby, and "Abie the Fishman. There's something indescribable about what happens, and it's not just free playingthe best comparison I can make is of film, like blurring, superimposition and double exposure.
DB: Most of the more interesting players are not purely straight-ahead or purely free. They really have elements of both. Someone like Wayne Shorter has elements of both. And I think when people decide that it's only one side of the music that they're really interested in, that's always kind of a drag. It's a drag for me to be around people who are into really "out music and who can't listen to any normal music, and it's a drag for me to be around people that only like normal music and can't listen to any music that's adventurous. Because, really, the best music has both. I hear both the "out stuff and the "in stuff when I hear Nat "King Cole playsomebody like that. I hear both of those things.
And it's just unfortunate that a lot of people can't balance those two extremes; they think you can only be one and not the other. So I think what I did was gather people who kind of functioned more like thatwho have a very strong "in side and a very strong "out sideand I made an environment where they could use both and never really abandon the other. So even when the rhythm goes out, we still kind of know where everybody is.
Even when the rhythm gets kind of wrinkly, everybody knows where you are in the song. Even in some of the sections that sound pretty free, you'll see us hitting a chord together. So it's not like you have the free thing with no harmony, and it's not like there's harmony with no free stuff. At certain very impulsive moments, there can be both. So that's the kind of playing that that group does, and I think it's really different than what a lot of people do.
AAJ: What interested you in that trio of Lester Young's?
DB: He made really advanced lines that had interesting, integral shapes. He really knew how to put things together and make very asymmetrical things make sense. He was a smart guy who had obviously studied a lot of harmonic material and had really integrated that into a way of playing that was very bluesy and kind of gutbucketyet he did that with a round, soft sound, so even when he was playing things that were really strange, they didn't sound that strange. They sounded kind of smooth. So he's just an interesting guy to listen to, and the other players in that group were interesting to listen to. I just wanted to bring people together that I thought were as interesting as those players, even if it was in a different kind of way.
AAJ: One of my favorites on the Ivey-Divey record is "HIMM (For Our Lord and Kirk Franklin), which is a duet of you and Jason Moran. I've always enjoyed hearing you play with just a pianist, as you do with Uri Caine on A Fine Line. Do you think your playing changes when you're in a duet situation?
DB: Well, I'm not thinking about drums. Thinking about drums and being a clarinetistthat's a lot to think about. And I like doing it, but it takes parts of your attention away. As a clarinetist, you can't really make it so tonally fine-and-dandy as you do when you're just playing with an acoustic instrument and no drums. So those are moments to play the clarinet more like I grew up wanting to play clarinetBrahms and Mozart and stuff like that. And that's a part of my early training, playing those really seminal clarinet things with pianists. The Brahms sonatas, the Schumann "Fantasy Pieces, those kinds of things. So it really returns me to that kind of sound.
AAJ: Tell me about your Bug Music For Juniors project, formerly known as Tunes and Toons, in which your sextet presents the work of composers Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott and John Kirby alongside classic 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons and other visual material. This is for young people, of course. Tell me what you do and how it works.
DB: Well, we show footage of the three bands involved, some footage of Raymond Scott at work, the Warner Bros. stuff. We explain how the instruments work and talk a little about some lightweight compositional issues. It's not dumbed-down at all; I think people who are older that come to see it enjoy it, but it's really targeted to make people kind of pay attention to this music that's always been around and its relationship to Ellington. People don't realize that there's a connection between John Kirby and Raymond Scott, and that those bands were kind of related. They were related to the early part of Duke Ellington's work in a very direct kind of way.
So it's a presentation, a multimedia presentation, but with live musicians who are really world-classnot just anybody. I mean, when we played on Broadway, Billy Hart played the drums. We had Billy Hart, [bassist] Mark Helias, [keyboardist] George Colligan and [trumpeter] James Zollarit was a real band that you'd pay to hear just playing what they play.
AAJ: I asked [trumpeter] Steven Bernstein this same question: What do young people like in music?
DB: I think you'd have to ask them. I only know what really interests me. I know young people hear the blues a lot easier than they hear a Tin Pan Alley song that our folks grew up on. Because they really haven't grown up in an era where it's not about the blues, not about more Junior Walker-esque values, as opposed to standard tunes and stuff like that.