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Bobby Zankel's Warriors with Don Byron at the Painted Bride

Victor L. Schermer By

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Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound
Painted Bride Art Center
Philadelphia, PA
May 5, 2015

This concert by Bobby Zankel and the Warriors with guest artist Don Byron (who replaced saxophonist Oliver Lake due to the latter's family emergency) was also a celebration of jazz as a rich contributor to the arts. One of the features was the presence on stage of the artist Jeff Schlanger doing one of his inspired sketch-paintings whereby his brushes and palette moved to wherever the music took him. (You could see him dotting the paper with rhythmic pulses, wandering with colors in a daydream-like state across the white space, and doubling back to a part of the picture when the music reminded him of something he heard before. This phenomenon pointed to the relationship between the senses, especially vision and sound, something that many jazz musicians toy with in their heads. Here it was right up front for all to witness.)

In addition, John Szwed, noted author, critic, and biographer of Sun Ra and most recently Billie Holiday, presented the Jazz Journalist Award for the advancement of music to Mark Christman, the director of Ars Nova Workshop, a more than decade-long Philadelphia-based project for presenting innovative musicians and groups in diverse performance spaces. Fans in Philadelphia know that Christman has a way of singling out music with a special thrust and putting all the pieces together for performances that generate community interest, excitement, and a sense of forward movement. The Warriors and many other jazz groups owe a lot to the exposure that Christman and Ars Nova have given them. Fans obviously love these concerts and keep coming back to them, which helps keep jazz alive and vital in Philadelphia.

The featured performer for this concert in a series of special invitations to participate with the Warriors was the great Don Byron, a clarinetist and composer who has achieved a remarkable eclecticism, an ability to build his playing around a variety of genres from klezmer music to German lieder (!) and other classical forms, to the other side of the spectrum: hard rock, heavy metal, and rap. Byron made himself part of the band by sitting right next to Zankel in the saxophone section, but his attire and demeanor made it clear he was not just going to blend in. He seemed to be rivaling Miles Davis' sartorial pride by wearing a dapper brown suit and a white scarf around his neck, looking like a Parisian dandy out of a Lautrec painting. And when he played, he got into the music with his whole body, finishing many phrases by ripping the clarinet out of his mouth, swinging it as far as his arm would allow, and looking out into the cosmos for a response. But all these dramatics faded into the background as all ears turned to listen to the nuances of every note he played.

The set consisted of several extended compositions by Zankel that have by now become Warriors "standards." These included his scoring of John Coltrane's "Acknowledgement" (from A Love Supreme, as well as the originals, "Spirits Break to Freedom," "Trickster," "Lotus Flower Blooming in the Swamp," and "The Next Time I See You." Remarkably, they always are new and fresh at every performance. The reason is that Zankel brilliantly arranges the scores to allow for ample breathing space and for the musicians to stretch their limits with extended solos. In this concert, in addition to those of Byron and Zankel himself, some of the soloing, especially by pianist Tom Lawton, violinist Diane Monroe, trumpeter Stan Slotter, baritone saxophonist Mark Allen, and percussionist Francois Zayas, literally took the breath away. Including Zayas in the band has proved to be a brilliant coup, bringing the Warriors into the big band innovators "hall of fame" with his energetic Latin rhythm underpinning (think of the Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, and Charles Mingus large ensembles).

Amazingly, the Warriors are able to assimilate a variety of genres into Zankel's own definitive and unique compositional style. In this respect, Byron proved a perfect complement for them, doing as much for them as they did for him. He quickly absorbed the Zankel vocabulary while at the same time he added a variety of distinct flavors, including touches of post-bop, Bartok, French impressionism, and tonal twists, exploring the whole range and the unique sound of the clarinet itself. It was obvious from his playing that he was listening intently to everything that was going on and reflecting it back in his solos. Especially in "Spirits Break to Freedom," his improvisations were of such finesse that if you transcribed them, they could form the basis of a clarinet concerto. Byron is an artist supreme, and it is rare to find another whose playing is so well-structured and secure.

Compositions: Coltrane "Acknowledgement" (from A Love Supreme) arr. Zankel; "Spirits Break to Freedom"; "Trickster," "Lotus Flower Blooming in the Swamp"; "The Next Time I See You."

Personnel: Bobby Zankel, leader and alto saxophone; Don Byron, clarinet; Julian Pressley, alto saxophone; Mark Allen, baritone saxophone; Diane Monroe, violin; Josh Lawrence, trumpet; Stan Slotter, trumpet, flute; John Swana, valve trombone; Larry Toft, trombone; Tom Lawton, piano; Lee Smith, bass; Craig McIver, drums; Francois Zayas, percussion.
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