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Greg Byers: Take A Bow

Greg Byers: Take A Bow

Courtesy Greg Byers


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I knew that if I was to be taken seriously then I needed to be just as a good an improvisor as the saxophonists and the pianists... regardless of what instrument I was on.
—Greg Byers
Greg Byers does not like hearing that something is not possible. Or perhaps he does, for the cellist seems to thrive on challenges that others deem impossible or unrealistic.

Taking a jazz major in cello? It just isn't done, he was told. Well, ticked that box. Learning Charlie Parker's solos on upright bass? Impossible they said. Oh really? At every step of his career, Byers has confounded others' expectations and lived up to his own.

With Dear Zbigniew (Self-Produced, 2023), his first major studio project in a decade, Byers pours his musical soul into an album that was years in the making. As the title suggests, the album is a musical letter, inspired in large part by Zbigniew Seifert (1946-1979), the Polish violinist in Tomasz Stańko's first great quintet who went on to carve out a brilliant but tragically short solo career.

But Dear Zbigniew is also a musical letter to collaborators past and present, to all those who will listen to this exceptional multi-instrumental string player, and, in a way, to Byers himself.

First Steps In The Right Direction

Byers' life-long love affair with the cello began at age three in Rochester, New York. Music was already in the family household.

"My father played blues guitar. He used to play all these really old-school blues songs. He got into ballroom dance later in life and became a very accomplished tango dancer. So, a lot of the time we would just have tango music on the house 24/7."

Blues and tango may have prevailed at home, but classical music was the focus of Byers early musical training, which he studied at the Eastman School of Music until the age of 18. Even then he was also curious about jazz.

"In New York I was lucky to have some friends who encouraged me to try playing jazz on the cello. I sucked in the beginning," he laughs, "but I thought it was really cool that not everything was notated out and if I felt a certain way on a given day I could play that way."

It was in his senior year at high school, in 2003, when Byers got the opportunity to study at Berklee. It was here that jazz would make a lasting impression on him. "That's really where I got the jazz bug," he recalls. "Oh, man! What is this?"

It proved to be a turning point. "The Dvorak concerto is lovely, but I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do with my career."

Double Trouble

What Byers wanted to do was to take a jazz major at college, but he faced the twin hurdles of lack of experience and the simple fact of his being a cellist. He also felt that he had outgrown Rochester. "I knew I needed to spread my wings and head somewhere a little more multi-cultural."

Miami beckoned. His father was originally from Miami, so Byers had plenty of relatives there to welcome him. But for a cellist aspiring to study jazz, the doors were closed.

At University of Miami, Byers' ambitions were initially thwarted when the Dean poured a bucket of cold water on Byers ambitions by informing him that the cello was not one of the instruments listed in its jazz program.

"It seemed very silly," says Byers. Happily, however, there was a change of regime in Byers' Senior year and the incoming Dean of MU, Shelly Berg, had a completely different philosophy.

"I said I would like to be a jazz cello major. And he said, 'Yeah, Ok.' That was the whole conversation," Byers recaps. "It was that simple. I am still grateful to Dean Berg, grateful that he arrived and understood that a cellist might want to improvise."

Byers would become the first student at University of Miami to take a double major in Instrumental Performance/Studio Music and Jazz on cello and double bass. He knew, however, that he had to prove himself.

"At the time I knew that cello wasn't a typical jazz instrument, and I knew that if I was to be taken seriously then I needed to be just as a good an improvisor as the saxophonists and the pianists. If I wanted to be able to sit at the table then I had to be able to hang, regardless of what instrument I was on."

The culture that Byers encountered at University of Miami was positive and enabling. "There were so many talented musicians, even in my freshman year. There was a great atmosphere of supporting each other in the jazz school. It was kind of an open rehearsal room policy; people would just come in with their instruments and start jamming. It was great to have classmates who set the bar so high at the time."

There were few reference points when it came to jazz cello—it remains a select club—but for Byers that was irrelevant. "I was not interested in emulating an instrument or an instrumentalist or a cellist. I wanted to sound like a jazz musician."

No Strings Attached

His main jazz influences then as now were non-string players. "Joe Henderson is still one of my all-time favorite improvisors. I really gravitated towards the energy in his playing... the register of the tenor saxophone as it relates to cello—very similar registers. So I think that connected with me as well. He's a very rhythmic player but still has a lot of harmonic language."

Anther musician who excited Byers was organist Larry Young. His album Unity (Blue Note, 1966) hangs on Byers' wall at home.

"I remember the first time hearing him and thinking 'This is really cool!' I could hear how he was trying to make his own sound with the instrument and not be worried about what had happened on the organ before, you know? He encapsulated everything I was trying to do, because he wanted to do something different to every soul-jazz organist coming up in the '60s."

It would have been too easy for Byers to assimilate what the handful of other jazz cellists had done or were doing. "I have highly developed relative pitch that is pretty close to perfect pitch," Byers explains. "If I hear a cello it takes very little thought for me to know what that cellist is playing, but I didn't want to take tools from other string players and copy that. I didn't want to approach it like that."

There was only one way for Byers to go. His own way.

Byers' Bounce

As Byers' interest in the double bass grew, a teacher passed him a Charlie Parker Omnibook and recommended that he check out the tunes. That much was fine, until the teacher told Byers he needn't pay any attention to the solos as they were too tricky. Byers' response? "I was like, 'Watch me!' Watch me!' And that's what I did the summer going into Miami. It kicked my butt, but I would take one solo and work on it for a week just get up to speed."

Fast-forward to today. With the same Parker Omnibook, Byers passes his can-do spirit onto his own students. "Some of the licks and the lines and the shapes and the phrases fit so well on string instruments."

Byers' message to his students is simple. "You are a jazz musician, an improvisor—the instrument is secondary."

No Limits

Byers' prowess as a multi-instrumentalist is in full show on Dear Zbigniew, where he plays cello, violin, viola and double bass, not to mention electric bass, acoustic guitar, percussion, synth bass and drums.

"Part of the fun of doing this album was definitely trying to make it a jazz cello album but at the same time one that is not limited by the traditional set-up. I didn't just want a bassist, a drummer and no production. I wanted to have more breadth than that and show off some of the arranging stuff I do in tandem with the compositions."

Though half a dozen other musicians feature on different tracks throughout the album, Byers alone features on the title track. On this multi-layered homage to Zbigniew Seifert, played very much in the spirit of the Polish violinist, Byers juggles violin, viola, cello and double bass. Byers took inspiration from Seifert's composition "Sunrise," where Seifert's distinctive voice carves a path through rich orchestral textures.

"I wanted to do something in that vein," Byers acknowledges, "and I wanted to write a musical letter to Zbigniew about the state of bowed-string jazz, a reflection on the musical world and how things had changed in the fifty years since he had recorded that." [For an overview of Seifert's career, see review of Aneta Norek-Skrycka's Man Of The Light: The Life And Work Of Zbigniew Seifert (The Zbigniew Seifert Foundation, 2016)]

Introducing Zbigniew Seifert

Byers had first heard of Seifert in 2016 when he was teaching at Christian Howes' Creative String Workshop in Colombus, Ohio. There he met Tomoko Omura and Jason Anick who had both just competed at the 2nd Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition in Luslawice, Poland.

His interest was piqued, both about Seifert's music and the competition. After checking out all Seifert's music that he could find, Byers applied to and was accepted for the 2018 edition of the Seifert competition—the only cellist among the competitors.

Fortune was not on Byers' side. His flight to Poland was delayed by 48 hours and he arrived in a sweat with almost no time to rehearse properly. Adding insult to injury his pedal board then played up during his performance. Still, he took all the positives he could from the trip—namely the musical friendships he had made with the other participants and local musicians.

Inspired by his journey into Seifert's musical world, Byers embarked upon writing music for an album as soon as he returned to Minneapolis.

For The Record

His trio partners at that time were drummer L.A. Buckner and keyboardist Javier Santiago. "They are incredibly accomplished musicians who always bring their unique musical voice to any setting they are in," says Byers. "I really wanted to hear how they would play my music."

A lot of the rhythm section tracks were recorded by the trio in 2018. This trio, however, would soon drift apart.

Santiago moved to California where he began working with Herbie Hancock's Jazz Masters program. Buckner was also enjoying success with his own group, Big Homie, not to mention with his on-line music show Sound Field.

"They kind of got too famous for me!" laughs Byers. "I love both of them to death, and I'm so proud of what they're doing. It honestly makes some of these recordings more special because of the time I was able to spend with them."

Dear Zbigniew is much more than a tribute to Zbigniew Seifert. Byers' openness to all music seeps through on Latin-influenced tracks like the dancing "CoCalypso," which features fine flute and piccolo work from Kenni Holmen, and "Salsa de Manzana," this latter driven by Andrew Gillespie's Afro- Cuban percussion.

There are shades of George Duke and Flora Purim on "Diversion," a breezy soul-jazz cum Latin number that features Byers on vocals, in addition to cello, viola, violin and bass. "Yeah, there's definitely some George Duke, Chick Corea influence there. I love all that Return to Forever—it's a huge influence on me. And Airto [Moreira] and Flora Purim," he acknowledges.

Windows On The World

Byers reveled in the cultural melting pot that is Miami, finding himself drawn to Cuban and Brazilian music. "Brazilian music in particular is something that has influenced my musical styles a lot," says Byers, "but there are so many other cultures in Miami."

He cites jazz, Brazilian and Japanese music as his main sources of inspiration. Byers' route into Japanese music came about when a friend in middle school introduced him to the anime series with music by Yoko Kano. Her music deeply touched Byers.

"The music was unlike anything I had ever heard. I loved that show and I think a large part of it was how well the music supported the story and the emotions of the anime."

Above all, however, Byers was drawn to Kano's eclecticism—her musical open-mindedness that preaches 'anything goes' and that draws freely from Latin, classical and sci-fi soundscapes as much as jazz. For Byers, the proposition was simple: "Why can't I be interested in all these styles of music? It really started there."

Yoko Kano provided Byers with the inspiration to approach all music at face value and to embrace the music he liked, whatever its provenance.

"I was never worried about what genre music was, particularly because I knew there probably wasn't going to be a cello in it in the first place. I have always been more interested in how we can bring all these elements together."

Byers' love of different styles of music, and his healthy disrespect for musical boundaries, is a large part of what makes Dear Zbigniew such a rewarding listening experience.

"I never liked getting locked into one style, like a swing number, because I think that really stymies your options of where you can go. And there are plenty of people in the world who can write a great three-minute song in one specific genre."

... Then Play On

Two compositions on Dear Zbigniew, "Harvest Waltz" and "CoCalypso" have enjoyed a separate life in Byers' music-meets-food project, Acoustic Cuisine.

"I have always loved food and I have always loved music, but I always saw pairings of the two as under-representative," Byers explains. "I wanted to have a concert where the food and the music really were intentionally paired."

Byers approached local, award-winning restaurant Alma about the concept. They liked the idea, and a partnership was born. Preparation for Byers meant rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty.

"I actually got to go and stage at the restaurant and basically do grunt work in the kitchen. They had me plucking leaves from stinging nettles. It was a really fun partnership and a good challenge. I love the challenge of 'will this work? I don't know, but let's go for it and I'm gonna give it my all.'"

The ensuing concert drew a hundred people who were served a multi-course tasting menu as Byers' and his ensemble played the specifically tailored soundtrack. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, leaving the door open for a possible second act. "Everybody loved the concept," Byers reflects fondly.

Many Hands

Byers expresses his sincere gratitude to the State of Minnesota whose arts grants funded both Acoustic Cuisine and Dear Zbigniew. "I feel very, very fortunate that I moved here," says Byers. "There is great support for the arts and a great community around the arts."

The support could not have come at a better time, given the precipitous loss of income and the uncertainty provoked by COVID. "Figuring out the financial element sure helped motivate the rest of it, I'll tell you what," exclaims Byers.

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Byers once again entered the 4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition—an on-line edition, naturally. As well as a live performance, Byers entered a video performance of "Kilimanjaro/Pinocchio" where he plays no fewer than sixteen different instruments. [See YouTube video below]

"That was a great challenge for me. The choreographer hated me for having to edit all the sixteen videos together, " Byers laughs.

It is a bravura performance. The top prize in the competition once more remained elusive, but Byers did scoop the Jazz Journalists Jury's top prize, an award that felt like a vindication for all his hard work and determination.

Bridging Past And Future

In a sense, Dear Zbigniew is much more than just a tribute to Zbigniew Seifert. It represents a time capsule of five years in Byers' career—indeed, of his life. It has been a long time coming, a slow gestation, but Byers is conscious that with this album he is delivering a calling card that may serve him for years to come. Cutting corners simply was not an option.

"I'm a perfectionist about my sound, my work. I'm a slow composer," admits Byers. "Generally, compositions come to me, I don't come to them, so that means when the composition is ready I write it."

Another factor in the lengthy period between albums is the reality of being a professional musician in today's world. As many musicians will doubtless sympathize, paying the rent necessitates a steady income. For Byers, his corporate group, The String Showdown and his educational projects provide that safety net.

"I love all those things and I enjoy making a living, but I also need this outlet of my own creative stuff. To retain my sanity," he laughs.

"I put out an EP in 2012, and that would be the last true, focused studio project that I did. That's a decade ago! And I don't know when the next album will be, so Dear Zbigniew could represent me and my sound for a decade if it needed to."

Dear Greg...

And what of Zbigniew Seifert's music? How does it speak to Byers after all these years? "Something that always struck me about his playing, which I think I also have, is a focus. Seifert has this bold sound, part of it is tone and I think part of it is his approach to melody. Whether he is playing something simple or something really busy, there is a clarity and a focus to that message that I have always loved," Byers explains.

"What is Seifert saying? From composition to composition that changes a lot. I think it was a lot of questioning things—hypothetical questions. Maybe this is too literal, but I think he would do things harmonically or melodically that were purposely against the expectation in that you are raising a question; why are you choosing to make the rub go against the grain like that? It forces the listener to question what is happening. It is not easy in that way. So that is what I hear in Seifert's music."

When it would have been the easy option to remain in Tomasz Stanko's high-flying group, Seifert went out on his own. When it would have been easier to play with the Polish musicians he already knew, Seifert instead pushed himself against the likes of Joachim Kuhn, Albert Mangelsdorff, Michael Brecker, Billy Hart, Cecil McBee, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and Oregon.

Just as he was building a reputation as a band leader and composer, Seifert recorded Solo Violin (EMI, 1978), an album of solo violin improvisations with loops. Even the diagnosis of cancer—which would take his life at the age of just 32—only spurred him on to continue his work.

Single-minded determination, courage, focus and resilience—you feel that Seifert would have recognized these very same qualities in Greg Byers.

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Beyond Orbits



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