I caught up with clarinetist, saxophonist and bandleader Don Byron during a summer tour on the heels of his recently recorded homage to Motown star Jr. Walker. At a recent stop in Vancouver, we met in his hotel room where I noticed a book of Bach sonatas and partitas open for practicing, along with recently bought dvd’s of Loretta Lynn and the tv show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. While I set up my gear, he kept an eye on the televised tennis match from Wimbledon.
1. Clarinet Summit
Perdido (from Southern Bells, Black Saint) Jimmy Hamilton [right channel], John Carter [left channel], clarinets. Recorded in 1987.
Before: [listens intently for a chorus] Is it overdubbed or is it two different players? The player on the left has no rhythm happening at all. The guy on the right is holding it down but the guy on the left is like a lot of explosions of noodles, but it’s not really in time. When the guy on the left had to comp for the guy on the right, that wasn’t really happening. The guy on the right seems more like somebody you’d want to hear play jazz and the guy on the left seems to have some facility from somewhere but it’s not really digging in the rhythm. It was pleasant to listen to but I related more to the guy on the right channel.
After: Yeah, I could see that. I’ll stay with those comments. I was wanting to hear things settling. Jimmy Hamilton is one of my heroes. He was much more in there. I like Carter’s writing.
2. Michel Portal
Nada Mas (from Birdwatcher, Sunnyside) Portal, bass clarinet; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Tony Hymas, piano; Erik Fratzke, bass guitar; Francois Moutin, double bass; JT Bates, drums; Airto Moreira, percussion. Recorded in 2006.
Before: There are two horn players here? It’s in 7 and it’s on the dominant 7th chord. It’s not much of a composition. The bass clarinet player is a good bass clarinet player, I mean physically. There are not a lot of squeaks. The high register sounds very clear. It’s somebody who’s really a serious bass clarinet player. He was mostly playing a lot of very chromatic things. It wasn’t like this kind of chord change over that kind of chord change. It was more like chromatic runs and some squealy free things. The tenor player gets into that modernistic, post-Coltrane, post-Ornette kind of 60s, 70s information, whereas the bass clarinet player is really just more playing energy. It sounded like there were African cats or American Afro-centric kind of percussion as opposed to someone coming out of the strict Latin thing. It could be European people but I couldn’t take a guess. It’s not the kind of thing I’d be listening to. I’m more interested in a certain harmonic thing these days.
After: Interesting. Who was the tenor player? Tony Malaby, there you go. Michel Portal, he’s a longstanding person around this music.
3. Anat Cohen
La Chanson Des Vieux Amants (from Poetica, Anzic). Cohen, clarinet; Jason Lindner, piano; Omer Avital, bass; Daniel Freedman, drums. Recorded in 2006.
Before: Nice tune, sometimes in 5, it’s got a little metric interest. It’s a decent clarinet player, someone who plays the instrument well. Almost had a little klezmer feeling in some of the high note play.
When you say klezmer feeling, are you referring to the vibrato?
When you hit a high note, there’s a way you can combine pitch movement with vibrato, so when I say something sounds a little klezmery, that’s what I’m talking about. Of what you’ve played, this is the first tune that I like the actual piece of music. The music was nice; the way the pianist was comping behind him was nice. I enjoyed listening to that.
After: Yeah, I know her. She’s a good player. She plays at some joint on, like, 8th street that I sometimes eat at. I’ve mostly heard her playing this kind of chorino Brazilian stuff, which she sounds really good doing, and with some real Brazilian cats. I keep hearing that she’s doing more and more ambitious things. She’s a good musician, good player.
4. Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Carney And Begard Place (from Does Your House Have Lions, Rhino/Atlantic). Kirk, clarinet and baritone saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums. Recorded in 1972.
Before: Whew! I’m guessing Hamiet Bluiett. It’s the way the sound is being used, real shouty. This is wild clarinet, yet you could not play it if you hadn’t studied a lot of clarinet. I used to play a lot of wild clarinet, so I kind of relate to this. And there’s something about the baritone that reminds me of Bluiett. Very nice piano solo. Nice baritone and bass. Wow! And that’s not Bluiett? Who plays the baritone like that? It’s circular breathing on the lowest note on the baritone. Who else would that be? Jason Marshall? James Carter?
After: There’s something about using the sound so aggressively, screamy, vocal. Bluiett and Rahsaan are not that far off. Hank Jones! That was a real be-bop rhythm section. It was rough and kind of exciting.
5. Paulo Moura and Yamandú Costa
Gracias a la Vida (from El Negro del Blanco, Biscoito Fino). Moura, clarinet; Costa, guitar. Recorded in 2004.
Before: Hmm. In terms of the sound of the clarinet, it’s not my thing. It’s more like, kind of ethnic clarinet. If I heard a student that sounded like this, I’d say in the high register it gets a little smarmy, maybe you go up a half strength, reed-wise.
What do you mean by smarmy?
The intonation doesn’t hold itself well up high. The kind of jazz clarinet sound, the post-Goodman sound that people get, most clarinet players acknowledge as due to maybe a whole number or half number softer [reed] than a classical player would play. Where you hear the result is the high register. You can get a lot of movement and texture in the middle and lower register, [but] when you hit the high register you don’t hear the intonation of the note solid. If the reed isn’t hard enough it’s just not gonna happen. This had a creamy ethnic sound to it that was nice. Harmonically, it wasn’t that complicated but everything was right. If I had any criticism, I’d just say in the high register a half reed strength stronger would have been more in the vibe that I like to hear the clarinet in. Sometimes I like that sweet, ethnic sounding clarinet in that style, from Brazil or Columbia or even in the English speaking West Indies. For me, sound is technique. It was a nice tune. It had a little modernism in the breaks. I liked it.
After: Oh, Paulo Maura. I like him. I have some of his records. This guitar player was a great accompanist. That was slick. Moura’s got a lot of technique.
6. Anthony Braxton and Joe Fonda
Out of The Cage (from Duets 1995, Clean Feed). Braxton clarinet; Fonda, bass. Recorded in 1995.
Before: It sounds like two free guys going for it. The sound on the clarinet was just ok: Two guys looking for the sound, looking for those pockets of interaction. I don’t have any advanced comments about what kind of music it is. If you like that kind of music it’s great. If you don’t like that kind of music it’s not great. So it’s that kind of music played in that kind of way. I wouldn’t say that that clarinet player is somebody that only plays clarinet.
After: There you go. Anthony Braxton has a clarinet thing, and sometimes I like it. I wouldn’t say that’s the thing I want to hear him play the most. But in terms of the improvising, it was right in that style, it was right in that level of intensity. He’s a great composer, great player. The last thing I saw him do was with a million tuba players in New York last year. A great conceptualist.
7. King Oliver
Sweet Lovin’ Man (from Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings, Off The Record). Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, cornet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Lillian Hardin, piano; Bud Scott, banjo; Baby Dodds, drums. Recorded in 1923.
Before: Is this Bix Beiderbecke? Something of that era. [at entrance of clarinet solo] Whoo! Obviously it’s some kind of pre-swing stuff. It doesn’t have a lot of harmonic variety and there’s something plodding and square about the rhythm. I tend to be on the fence about early jazz clarinet like that cause I don’t like that kind of shaky vibrato. But you can hear that the basic sound and intonation was very strong. It was very regular, like nobody played a triplet. And everybody was playing that kind of way, even when they did that blues-bending kind of stuff. Based on the music it didn’t seem like something that Barney Bigard or Sidney Bechet would be in. I’m a little stumped.
After: It’s Johnny Dodds! Wow. I don’t really know that tune. It’s a nice transfer. It made it sound more modern. For a minute I thought it was some retro Chicago guys from later because the sound was so good.
8. Louis Sclavis
L’imparfait des langues (from L’imparfait des langues, ECM). Louis Sclavis, bass clarinet; Marc Baron, alto saxophone; Paul Brousseau, keyboards, electronics, guitar; Maxime Delpierre, guitars; François Merville, drums. Recorded in 2005.
Before: Hmm, nice tune, nice figure. It’s ominous sounding. I mean if you take some of the sound effects out, you can imagine a 70s detective show and some cat driving up, like Starsky & Hutch. I just like that as a piece of music. There wasn’t any soloistic clarinet up in it. It was kind of visual, filmic. It just used the bass clarinet as an ostinato. I have no idea who that might be. Who plays bass clarinet who could write something like that? [long pause] Somebody downtowny. I’m going to say Doug Weiselman.
After: Louis Sclavis. Alright. Fine. He’s a good player of clarinet. He’s kind of a national hero of France so he gets to do all these really diverse things. And he sounds good really good on clarinet and bass clarinet.
9. Perry Robinson
Shenandoah (from Kundalini, Improvising Artists). Robinson, clarinet; Roy, tabla. Recorded in 1978.
Before: Is he playing Shenandoah? That’s nice. Is this Tony Scott? [picks up his clarinet and plays along] It was kind of, if you played that for a classical player they’d just say bad clarinet. But I wouldn’t say that. It was kind of wild clarinet and, oddly, there were some very sophisticated things about it. You got a tabla player making certain kinds of slap tones. And the clarinet was hitting a tone and hitting some other keys to create resonances that were kind of like the hard tones on the tabla. He did that several times. And then he went into some things where he was really telling you that he knew some swing. I really shouldn’t assume it’s a guy. Maybe he or she didn’t have the chops that they have on another instrument but there was something educated about the modal choices. It was more sophisticated than it sounded. The thing I liked about it is that it didn’t break mood. There was a certain discipline to the mood of it that I thought was very effective. It was laid back and content. It didn’t go for a lot of chops-y kind of, it wasn’t about proving to the cats that you play a whole bunch of stuff. It just stayed in a mood of contentment. Some of those alternate fingerings might not occur to your average, very educated clarinet player.
After: Perry Robinson, Badal Roy. I was going to guess Badal Roy cause he’s the guy that most jazz guys end up playing with. Perry’s not on any classical vibe. I would say this is ethnic. To me, this is somebody who knows the clarinet but doesn’t really care about sounding in certain kinds of ways. I heard him several times when I was younger and there were some things he was playing that I related to. He was trying to be a modernist and that’s not such an easy thing to pull off on this instrument.
10. François Houle
Pour Jimmy (from Aerials, Drip Audio Max). Houle, clarinet. Recorded in 2006.
Before: Well this is serious clarinet here. This is very close to the way that I play. I’m not saying it’s imitative of the way that I play. But in terms of concept, somebody that was playing like this or like Anat Cohen are a lot closer to my personal angle on playing this instrument. Sounds good. I like that kind of clarinet playing. It’s got more of the classical conception of sound, intonation. In spots he lets it go and gets a little weird. I used to do a lot of that, hold that for a while then let it go, let myself get ethnic and then come back. I mean he or she doesn’t do it in such a big way but he or she is making pitches, he or she is keeping a certain kind of conception of sound, the reed is at a certain strength so things sound the way that I consider them sounding in balance. That’s serious clarinet playing, the way I see it.
Are those kind of intervallic leaps a particular challenge for the clarinet?
Especially if you’re going to playing way up high [demonstrates it on his clarinet]. If you’re going to be playing up in there you gotta know what you’re doing, you gotta be able to play at a certain level just to get a sound on this instrument. But to get a sound up high that’s not just completely out of left field or screeching, you have to have some control. That’s why I said after the first few notes that it’s a good clarinet player.
After: I don’t know him. That’s serious clarinet there. Of the things you’ve played, that and Anat are the things that are kind of closest to the space I work out of.
11. Alvin Batiste
Bat Trad (from Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste, Marsalis Music). Batiste, clarinet; Russell Malone, guitar; Lawrence Fields, piano; Ricardo Rodriguez, bass; Herlin Riley, drums. Recorded in 2006.
Before: Is this Alvin? Alvin liked to play those difficult things in fourths. He was the only one who was attempting this on the clarinet. I mean, when you talk about different kind of jazz cats’ lines, you have to talk about what kind of technical discipline it would take to come out with something like that. In terms of Coltrane or Eddie Harris or those kind of intervallic studies, not that many clarinet players would attempt to make a whole line based off of that, because the amount of technique you’d have to have to do that is very difficult to get, and he would be the only person that would attempt it. It doesn’t sound as settled as it would sound on a saxophone. You can hear that it’s hard. But, you know, he’s playing it. Alvin studied with Kalman Opperman, who was one of the pedagogues of the 70s and 80s. He plays double lipped, you can hear that in his sound. You couldn’t even attempt that kind of intervallic material unless you had a solid sound, you’d be squeaking all the time. And the kind of line that he’s making is very sophisticated and he can do it in a sustained way. I have my moments of playing intervals like that but I would never attempt a whole solo that had nothing but that. He’s a modernist from his own angle. He’s one of the only modern clarinet players that I would actually put on for lines. He was not a conservative guy, either. He sounds like he’s having fun exploring music. If anything, I wish he had done more in the world and recording. That’s on Branford’s label? I have to get that. There’s only one person that could have been. Really. He was a great player and a great teacher.
12. Jr. Walker & The All-Stars
Shotgun (from Hitsville U.S.A., Motown). Walker, tenor saxophone, vocals, unidentified All-Stars. Recorded in 1965.
You know, I think we could debate whether jazz is black music or whatever. To me, most American music is black music. But when you say that a music refers to something ethnic, you’re talking about vocal style. When you say something sounds black or Yiddish or Spanish, you’re talking about what vocal ornamentation and note-bending go into making a style. If you say that you’re playing in a style and you have no relationship to any vocal kind of anything, are you really playing it? What Jr. Walker managed to do was have a vocal style of his own that he could translate into instrumental terms. The people that I’m looking at now are like Arnett Cobb, Jr. Walker, Eddie Harris, because these are people who could translate a vocal style into an instrumental style in a way that had nothing to do with what other horn players did. You know when you talk Miles Davis you have to talk about Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, you have to talk about all these singers he was listening to. And when you’re talking about Jr. Walker, you’re talking about someone who, as a soul musician, could translate the deepest part of what was happening with Soul music. And let’s be clear, Soul music was a movement. When it was first happening there were gospel mannerisms superimposed on these minimalistic r&b beats and a kind of way of rendering the melody that was improvisational in terms of ethnic ornamentation. For me, that’s what I grew up with. Lately, the thing that I’ve studied the most is Marvin Gaye. Just what he’s singing, where is he bending the notes, what are these blues things that he’s playing and what do they amount to? The fact that Jr. Walker was a singer himself, and a good one, make what he’s doing that much more honest and accurate than what maybe some other people were doing who were not singers. Most jazz horn players, they play the blues the way that somebody that plays their instrument plays the blues. So, if you hear a trumpet player, he’s gonna play the blues like Freddie. Or a saxophonist will play the blues like Coltrane. But to really have the relationship that these guys had, you have to be thinking about the way that Aretha sings. And that’s a different thing than what the jazz discipline preaches. When I have students, I make them learn Maceo [Parker], even if they don’t like it.
So who do you think Jr. Walker checked out?
Gee whiz [long pause]. I think Jr. Walker was influenced more by his local preacher than a famous singer. To study that gospel stuff you have to study the preachers. And all that gospel improvisation really comes out of the preaching, as well as the common denominator of African-American speech. You can’t talk about gospel stuff without talking about preaching. I just hear preacher more than recorded musician in a lot of these folks. I think that’s more the common denominator musically than any musician.
Is it for you?
At this point, yeah. I grew up Lutheran but in the past 10 years I’ve been really embracing that and that’s how I got to Jr. Walker’s music. I always liked it but I’d always gone about things in a very intellectual, jazz harmonic language kind of way. And then it was like I hit this gospel thing and I could actually understand what he was playing. He had a ridiculous sound. And he seemed to have the horn whipped physically. Doing those things on the saxophone is really hard, lip trills and things like that. But to make melodic sense out of them, he was a great player of tenor. I don’t know if he could play Giant Steps or Moment’s Notice; probably not, but he’s one of the great tenor players ever. Ever!
This interview appeared in JazzTimes in the fall of 2007. Photograph by Larry Appelbaum.