- Cori Wells Braun
It’s long been a mystery as to how and why the clarinet came to lose its standing. A wind instrument once as synonymous with jazz as the saxophone or trumpet, it was the axe of choice for a string of superstar bandleaders and iconoclastic stylists that began with Sidney Bechet, led to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and, to many, stopped with Eric Dolphy. Perhaps it’s all those hokey, Bourbon Street-souvenir Pete Fountain LPs currently clogging thrift store bins that have unfairly branded the “licorice stick” as the nostalgic device of the straw-boaters-and-red-blazers set. For shame: The clarinet is one of music’s most versatile and magnificent instruments, capable of sounds ranging from low-and-slow molasses tones to shrill, paint-peeling screams. And since he emerged from the Boston and New York scenes in the 1980s, Don Byron, who leads his New Gospel Quintet at Club Helsinki and the Falcon early next month, has arguably done more than any other modern player to remind us just how dang cool the clarinet really is.
In additiaon to being revered as a superb instrumentalist and composer, Byron, who grew up in the South Bronx and has been a Woodstock-area resident for several years, is also recognized as one of today’s greatest stylistic interpreters. While studying under pivotal arranger George Russell at the New England Conservatory of Music, he joined Hanus Netsky’s Klezmer Conservatory Band before moving back to New York to work with David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Craig Harris, and others on the avant-jazz scene.
After debuting with 1992’s exploratory classic, Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra/Nonesuch Records), Byron revisited his klezmer roots with the likewise-praised Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Elektra), and next embarked on a series of albums that have seen him investigate Latin music (1995’s Music of Six Musicians; Elektra), improvisation (1996’s No Vibe Zone; Knitting Factory Records), swing (1996’s Bug Music; Nonesuch), hip-hop (1998’s Nu Blaxploitation; Blue Note Records), arias and lieder (2000’s A Fine Line; Blue Note), modern classical (2006’s A Ballad for Many; Cantaloupe Records), and the work of R&B legend Junior Walker (2006’s Do the Boomerang; Blue Note).
The reedsman’s latest project is the still unrecorded New Gospel Quintet, which finds him navigating the rich canon of American gospel music, with a core focus on the songs of composer Thomas A. Dorsey. In addition to the leader—here on tenor sax, as well as clarinet—the fivesome includes vocalist DK Dyson, bassist Brad Jones, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, and pianist Xavier Davis.
“In the past few years I have listened more intensively to black religious music than ever before,” explains Byron. “Examining the specific blues styles peculiar to country, R&B, and rock led me to thorough studies of the blues-based religious music of white and black Southern gospel. I am combining my own compositions with traditional gospel pieces in a way I have not attempted before. This project coincides with a growth in my own faith and is for me a religious expression.”
Indeed, it’s his endeavor to attempt the previously unattempted—combined with a profound sense of expression—that continues to define Byron’s art. And consistently produce such glorious results.
The Don Byron New Gospel Quintet will perform at Club Helsinki in Hudson on July 2 at 9pm ($18, $22) and The Falcon in Marlboro on July 3 at 7pm (donation requested). Club Helsinki: (518) 828-4800; www.helsinkihudson.com. The Falcon: (845) 236-7920; www.liveatthefalcon.com.