“Just Playing Music That I Like”: Q&A with Don Byron
There are few musicians of any stripe who first make a splash by playing klezmer music, then 20 years later record at the head of a gospel-jazz quintet. And that doesn't even begin to describe clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron's career trajectory. The gap between those projects has been filled by explorations of Latin music, funk and hip-hop, swing, classical form, and Motown—among others. Byron, who performs with a quartet at Bohemian Caverns on Sunday night, is always full of energy and ideas, and talked with Arts Desk earlier this week about some of them, as well as his choice of instruments and his approach to composition.
Washington City Paper: I understand you have new ideas that you’d like to try out with a small audience. What are some of those ideas?
Don Byron: I’m actually gonna play a lot of the music that I play with the quartet; stuff I wrote and different kinds of repertoire that I’m looking at. Like I did some gigs with Allen Touissaint, so I’m gonna play a tune by Allen Touissaint; play a song by The Association. Just playing music that I like. I’m very interested in Hank Williams music, so I’ll be singing a Hank Williams song; stuff like that.
WCP: I understand you’re also working again on your "Music for Six Musicians" concept?
DB: I am gonna play some tunes from "Six Musicians," yeah.
WCP: How’s that going to work with only four musicians?
DB: Well, I mean, "Six Musicians" was never about how many musicians there were. It was kind of an Afro-Caribbean compositional project. It was around those beats, but it just happened to be two horns and four rhythm section players. And I was kind of into the fact that it was six, and six was divisible by two, and divisible by three, and so it was a whole mathematical thing involved in the fact that it was six musicians. But it doesn’t have to be six musicians to play that music.
WCP: Will you be working through all these different styles within the quartet? Or will you adapt the music to the format?
DB: Well, when I play my music it usually goes like that: I have a number of projects that are about special genres, or groups, or tunes that are special or specific or by one composer, one bandleader. But this is a mix of my own composing, and other things.
WCP: When you say your own composing, do you approach it in terms of varying styles, as well? Or is there a singular, Don Byron style?
DB: Well, as a composer I’ve done things for a lot of different groups. I’ve done two string quartets, so I know how to write that; I just recently wrote a piano sonata for a classical pianist. And so when I write it really has to do with what the group is, and some of the different styles of writing, I know how to do, and sometimes I do things that are surprising and sometimes I do things that are actually, for what I’m doing, pretty in the pocket. So I kind of mix and match being idiomatic and non-idiomatic.
WCP: The music you’re playing this weekend, was any of it written for this quartet? And is it idiomatic or nonidiomatic?
DB: Well, some of it was written for a quartet; maybe not specifically these four people, but some of it is for quartet. And some of it is for piano—I write a lot for piano, and I’ll be using a pianist [Aruan Ortiz], and a lot of my compositions really center around writing for the piano. So it’s good to have a good pianist.
WCP: That’s interesting: Why, as a reedist, do your compositions focus on the piano instead?
DB: Well, I’m a composer! And as a real composer you have to write for it. I play piano myself; I play less piano than I used to, but at one point I played piano professionally. And on other instruments you can only play one instrument at a time. Well, you can play two, but it sounds more like a straight shot. Any composer is going to have a relationship with the piano. It’s the easiest at which to write music.
WCP: But surely you have to consider the range and possibilities on your own instrument as well, and how it will work on clarinet or saxophone.
DB: I do, but I think when you’re writing for a group, you think about the elements of the group: the bass and the drums. So it’s both.
WCP: You’re primarily a clarinetist, but it seems to me that the saxophone has been making more appearances in their music lately. Is that true?
DB: Well, right now my favorite instruments to play are the tenor sax and the E-flat clarinet. And those are mainly the instruments I like to improvise on. When I was learning the clarinet, you couldn’t get instruction on clarinet at a high level and even tell anyone that you were interested in playing the saxophone. That was the environment, when I first started college music training—it was verboten. But now it doesn’t matter what I do, so I’m playing an instrument that I like playing.
WCP: You had initially planned to use a trumpeter [Ralph Alessi], but you’ve replaced him with a pianist. Those are very different instruments that are being swapped out. How does that change the approach you’ll be taking in the concert?
DB: Well, it changes the sound in that there will be more chords! (Laughs.) With Ralph it would have sounded more spare, but now it’ll sound more like a conventional jazz quartet.
WCP: Anything you’d like to add?
DB: It’s great to be playing in D.C., and it’s been a while since I’ve played my music in D.C., so I’m looking forward to coming down and playing there.
Don Byron performs at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday at Bohemian Caverns. $15-$20.