Don Byron: Moving Towards the Idiomatic


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Don ByronDon Byron is one the most familiar names in contemporary jazz music and by far the most prominent clarinetist of the last 20 years. Born in the Bronx—and proud of it—Byron was introduced to an eclectic world of music and culture at a very young age by his pianist mother and bass-playing father. His early years saw him studying classical clarinet, playing and doing arrangements in salsa bands, and eventually attending the New England Conservatory of Music under the aegis of George Russell.

Byron's got impeccable clarinet technique, but his reputation has grown as much out of his imaginative composition, defiantly broad musical taste (as demonstrated by his arrangements of then-neglected klezmer pioneer Mickey Katz, animation composer Raymond Scott and most recently, Motown saxman/vocalist Junior Walker) , sociopolitical perspective and, of course, his penchant for playing the clarinet in hitherto unfamiliar terrain.

Although it was only one of many musical settings in which Byron played, it should be noted that he was playing klezmer music many years before it became a commercially viable genre for a musician. Byron's first recording under his own name, Tuskegee Experiments (Nonesuch, 1992) was the best jazz album of that year and still one of the best of its decade. He's never put out a bad album, and his Latin/Caribbean Music For Six Musicians (Nonesuch, 1995), his Raymond Scott/John Kirby/Duke Ellington connection-drawing Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996), his exquisite, sighing quartet set Romance With the Unseen (Blue Note, 1999) and his inside/outside Lester Young tribute Ivey-Divey (Blue Note, 2004) are jazz recordings of such importance and quality that it's difficult to over-praise them.

Byron has become as celebrated a composer as a musician, and A Ballad For Many, his collaboration with the new-music group Bang on a Can on their Cantaloupe label—one of his two 2006 releases—shows off his compositions to great effect. His Blue Note CD from last year, Do the Boomerang: the Music of Junior Walker, goes the opposite route as Byron and a crack band perform cracklingly tight and rather faithful versions of various songs from the discography of the great R&B tenor player/singer. Byron sticks mostly to tenor saxophone on this recording, an instrument he's currently preferring to the instrument he's made his reputation playing.

I spoke to Byron about his most recent releases, his new interest in playing both the tenor saxophone and more idiomatic musics, and a great deal more.

Chapter Index

Why Junior Walker?
Pop and Soul Music as Composition and the Flow of Information
Collaborating with Bang on a Can
Bug Music For Juniors
The Longstanding Music for Six Musicians Group
Moving Beyond Clarinet

Why Junior Walker?

All About Jazz: You've got a couple of new releases out. I think we'll talk about them and then go back a little to discuss some other projects of yours.

First, we have your recent Blue Note release, Do the Boomerang: the Music of Junior Walker. This is a tribute to the great R&B tenor player and vocalist. With the exception of the James Brown tune "There it Is, the CD consists of songs Walker recorded in his 1960s heyday. Your A Fine Line album from 2000 was made up of other peoples' tunes, but the arrangements were your own. Here, you and a crack band duplicate the musical configuration and arrangements of Walker and his All-Stars on well-known hits of his, and also some lesser-known material. It's high time Walker got some more attention—he was always something of an anomaly at Motown and his records are really pretty perfect. For the most part, you are playing tenor sax here instead of the clarinet you're known for.

So—before we discuss any particulars: why Junior Walker? And why the overall duplication of the arrangements on his recordings, right down to your playing tenor and drummer Rodney Holmes also including the tambourine that was often so dominant on Walker records—for that matter, on Motown records?

Don Byron: Well, why Junior Walker? Because I grew up loving Junior Walker. I was always a clarinetist, so I never really thought about playing like Junior Walker, but I just always loved his playing. I saw him play several times in different places, and I guess when I started studying tenor again—and, you know, I'd had a tenor for years but never played it—it was really through exploring Lester Young's method. I consider what he did a method.

So after doing that, I was like, "Oh wow, I'm really playing this instrument—why don't I start looking at Junior Walker? And at that point, I had checked out enough gospel music to have a different handle on what he was playing. Once I looked at it after that point—after having both checked out some gospel music and checked out my own faith—I got to the point where I was seeing the way that he played really differently. So that was just a thing that I wanted to do. Those two musicians were the reason that I play that instrument. They're the only reasons that I play that instrument. Maybe with some Eddie Harris mixed in; I was really into Eddie Harris.

AAJ: You couldn't have put together a better group of players to perform this stuff. From bassist Brad Jones to organist George Colligan and especially guitarist David Gilmore, everyone is so good and so together—this is really a band. I mention Gilmore especially because Willie Woods' guitar was so essential to the Walker records and Gilmore's more than up to the challenge. Tell me how you chose these players—and did you give them any conditions under which to play?

DB: No. I was using that rhythm section for my orchestra at Symphony Space. What we were doing with that orchestra was interpreting different pieces of pop music. We did one concert that was Henry Mancini and Sly Stone. We did one that was Earth, Wind & Fire and the Tijuana Brass. We were just really looking at those things orchestrally and letting people in the group besides me arrange stuff. It was an interesting group because it was really taking that kind of attention to detail that jazz musicians can have and just turning it towards something else—not trying to turn it into jazz, but turning that level of attention about chords and bass lines and stuff like that to music that has as much detail as jazz does.

So this group was essentially my rhythm section. [Trombonist] Curtis Fowlkes, who appears on the record in the James Brown section, was one of my horn players. It was that rhythm section, a couple different singers, D.K. Dyson and Gordon Chambers, and at one point we were joined by the actual Sugarhill Gang. We were just looking at the culture, and we were really a sort of modern version of what pops orchestras do—but not with classical musicians and not with strings. Or not necessarily with strings, but being able to look at these different eras of black music and non-black music in terms of what they were really about orchestrally. So that group had already played lots of different kinds of music and looked at it very seriously together. David Gilmore sometimes uses that rhythm section for his groups and George Colligan sometimes uses that rhythm section—you know, we're all friends. So they all know each other really well.

AAJ: I'm interested in your willingness to submerge yourself in this music. It's a Don Byron record, but you're certainly not always the prominent player at all times. On "Do the Boomerang, after your great clarinet intro, you disappear completely. Obviously, you thought up the project and I assume you transcribed the parts for everyone, and there is plenty of saxophone soloing here, but is this project an opportunity for you to just be a little more in the band?

DB: I'm not really sure what you mean, but I can say that it's interesting for me to play an instrument that sounds so idiomatic, instead of trying to make the clarinet work in situations where it's never worked before. I always enjoyed that challenge of, say, playing a clarinet with Living Colour and knowing that no one had done anything like that on the instrument. It's kind of an interesting challenge and a scary challenge. But when you play tenor in a group like this, it just sounds idiomatic. It's just normal, which is a different position than being a clarinetist. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

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