Born in Nippertown: “Love, Peace and Soul”: An Interview with Don Byron
Interview and story by J Hunter
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Just about everyone in Lake George’s Shepard Park was wearing fleece of some kind on that evening last September, and rightly so, because DAMN, it was cold! And it may be a cliche, but we soon forgot about the ambient temperature because we all become enraptured with the fiery performance of the Don Byron New Gospel Quintet – a band that already had a monster reputation before it played the Saturday night show at “Jazz at the Lake.”
During the show, Don Byron (a world-renowned reed player and educator who was a Visiting Associate Professor at UAlbany from 2005 to 2009) explained that the music we were hearing was going to be featured on an upcoming release that focused on the work of Thomas R. Dorsey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who mixed traditional Christian hymns with the rhythms and structures of jazz and blues – a concept Rick Santorum might not get next to, but what does he know, anyway?
My reaction to the news that this music would be recorded was, “I want that disc NOW!” Well, I got it a couple of weeks ago, and the rest of the world gets it today (Tuesday, February 21). It’s called “Love, Peace and Soul,” and it’s everything that set at Shepard Park was… and more! The base elements of this music may come from two different universes, but on “Love, Peace and Soul”, it works like an absolute charm. D.K. Dyson’s vocals are every bit as galvanizing as they were when she “witnessed” to all of us; Byron’s performances on his arsenal of reed instruments are completely next-level, and he gets great support from heavy hitters like pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Brad Jones and special guest guitarist Vernon Reid.
And the coolest thing? The concept for this disc was born right here in Nippertown! Byron was good enough to take time to talk about that, and about a lot more:
Q: Although “Love, Peace and Soul” comes out this month, the New Gospel Quintet’s been around since 2009. Was the gap between creation and recording a question of developing the concept to a certain point, or was it just a question of finding a label that would give the project the green light?
A: We – my manager Hans Wendl and I – started with no record deal, booked tours in Europe and South America, all before we had a recording to help us. It was after all that that we hooked up with Savoy, a great label with a great legacy in both Jazz and Gospel.
Q: You were teaching at UAlbany at the time you came up with the concept. Can you talk a little about the class you were teaching, and how you came to see this music as something you wanted to explore?
A: It was a class about music and identity. Basically I wanted to show my students that the music choices they were making were very expressive of who they wanted to be and who they wanted to be around, but also show that the music and the identities associated with the music were all constructions of the industry. Country music is very much a product of industry tinkering, and the merging of southern white music with a fictitious picture of music in the old west, yet there are millions of people living within the identity it represents. I habitually dealt with film music and country music first: the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, etc.; showed them Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Throughout the semester each student did short presentations on their favorite bands, talked about the bands’ origins and core audience. Some students resisted the idea that their choices were anything but free will, but by semester’s end many of them could at least see these factors in other students. At one memorable class, a student compared a band’s marketing techniques to “selling soap.” The final papers I assigned made them probe family members about these issues, and usually they found irrefutable evidence in the testimonies of their own families.
As I said in (the liner notes to “Love, Peace and Soul”), Thomas R. Dorsey is one of a handful of people who shaped our cultural identity. While the idea of the record came later, in the act of creating the course, I concluded that he was a very important musician and included him in a stylistically broad list of industry moguls covering classical music, country music, pop. Latin, dance, and R&B. In subsequent research, I realized that he was even bigger that I’d figured.
Q: Did you enjoy your time at UAlbany? I was lucky enough to attend a birthday concert you played at Page Hall a few years ago, and the atmosphere was very much like a homecoming.
A: I liked many things about teaching there. The technical level of musicianship was not conservatory level, but I know that I was the first person in their lives to expose my students to several things. It made me think about what my truths were about the music business, playing, composing and improvising. It forced me to create my own canon.
Q: You gave the Capital Region a taste of “Love, Peace and Soul” last September when you played the evening show at Lake George Jazz Weekend. What do you remember about that show?
A: I’m an asthmatic, and cold air is my mortal enemy. I remember not playing so much clarinet for fear of my instrument cracking.
Q: Did you know D.K. Dyson before the New Gospel Quintet? The chemistry you two share onstage seems like that of very old friends.
A: We went to high school together at the High School of Music and Art in NYC. We didn’t know each other personally – the instrumentalists and vocalists didn’t end up having much to do with each other – but everybody at Music and Art knew D.K.
Q: The thing that knocks me out about “Love” is not the music itself, which is all seriously heavyweight; it’s that there are many points on “Love” where you’ve got traditional gospel music standing side-by-side with “non-traditional” jazz excursions. For instance, both your intro to “It’s My Desire” and your lines on the ride-out to “Highway to Heaven” goes deeply into Eric Dolphy territory. Could you talk a little about the blending of those two idioms, and how smooth the process was?
A: I have to have people around me who can understand more than one idiom. That’s why you have smart musicians around. I think the Gospel idiom’s current idea of Jazz comes more from “Smooth Jazz” than either be-bop, or post bop. By bringing in skill-sets from other styles of Jazz, I am resolving a split that doesn’t need to be a split.
Q: After three fairly “straightforward” gospel tunes, you hit the listener with Eddie Harris’ “Sham Time”, which – outwardly, anyway – seems about as secular as you can get. What’s the link between Dorsey and Harris?
A: This record and the Junior Walker record (“Do the Boomerang” on Blue Note, 2006) are about Soul Music, not as a subconscious expression of involuntary ethnicism, but as a self-conscious movement. Eddie Harris was part of that movement, as were King Curtis and Arnette Cobb. Many other Jazz musicians were not. It’s not about these sorts of players being from Texas, though many of these players may be from Texas. These are musicians who have absorbed the Gospel sound.
Eddie came from Chicago, the city that gives us Mahalia (Jackson), Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. Eddie was playing from a vocal space, emulating the ornamentation, note bending, and phrasing of all sorts of singers. (Lester Young and Miles were similar kinds of players, pseudo-vocalists). Eddie had a lot of Gospel in him and could emulate the great singers of his day on his horn, and later sung himself. Initially he sang into his instrument, using his electric saxophone rig to amplify and alter the sound. Later he sang outright, recording songs like “That’s Why You’re Overweight.”
Q: You show up twice on my Best Concerts of 2011 list – your show at Lake George, and your cameo appearance on “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor” with the David Bromberg Big Band at the Egg. How did the latter gig come about, and what do you remember about the performance itself?
A: His manager, Mark McKenna, is an old friend. I enjoyed playing the song, and I would have enjoyed playing more with David. He’s a fine musician. I also remember that the Al Kooper band had two horn players, and one of them, Darryl Lowery, was one of my teachers of my freshman class in New England Conservatory’s Third Stream Department. I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years.
Q: Your past projects have ranged from the funk & hip-hop of “Nu Blaxploitation” to the Old School, no-bass trio-jazz of Lester Young on “Ivey-Divey.” How do you choose your projects – or is it like the old cliche that they choose you?
A: I just work at things I am interested in. I never have to look too far away for something interesting, and I have a curatorial desire to share.