After years of live collaboration, Don Byron and Bang on a Can step into the studio together to create Byron's follow-up to his Grammy-nominated Ivey-Divey. The inimitable clarinetist shows off his talent as a composer in his new CD with the genre-blurring Bang on a Can All-Stars.
The CD is dedicated to ground-breakers, with large-scale works dedicated to one-of-a-kind comic/satirist/star Ernie Kovacs, and to the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous African-American WWII-era fighter squadron.
Lovingly recorded by Byron long-time engineer Tom Lazarus, A Ballad for Many features the Bang on a Can All-Stars at their best, whether negotiating breathtaking cello-piano duets or rocking out with one of Byron's great grooves. This CD creates a unique opportunity to hear Byron's stunning compositional acumen as interpreted by a group other than his own.
"Byron, jazz's best clarinetist, plays on just three of these tracks, but his genius for composing category-defying music shines throughout. Bang on a Can's sextet pulls off Byron's challenges, from the jump-cut humor of the six-part 'Eugene' suite to the wobbly beauty of the waltz-like 'Basquiat.' Don't call this eclectic: It's simply complete."
- Entertainment Weekly
"Calling Don Byron a jazz musician is like calling the Pacific wet?it just doesn't begin to describe it... Byron has carpentered an extraordinary career precisely by obliterating the very idea of category."
"An intelligent and insightful composer"
-CMJ New Music Report
"It's not a rock band, not a jazz combo, not a chamber ensemble. It's all three, only different. It's Bang on a Can All Stars, an instrumental group from New York, which plays intellectually stimulating, gut-enjoyable music by living composers of all backgrounds."
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"An elite band of omnivorous performers with the chops to handle the thorniest avant-garde screed but also the power to crank out a withering sonic blitz."
- Vanity Fair
About the Music
I was born and raised in New York City, a place where you could hear the best music in the world in several genres. My pre-adult memories of live music include Pericles Halkias, Eddie Palmieri, James Brown, Mandrill, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Marley, Ben Vereen, Larry Kert, Elaine Stritch, The 5 Stairsteps, Miles Davis, The NY Philharmonic, Ray Barretto, The Met, Claude "Fats" Greene, The City Ballet, Bill Evans (the pianist), Thad Jones, Tipica 73',Betty Carter, La Sonora Poncena, Joe Henderson, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillispie, Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington, Peter Schickele, Graham Central Station, Louis "Perico" Ortiz, Eubie Blake, Angel Canales, and Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez.
I was appalled by the conservatism expressed by young jazz musicians of the 80's and 90's simply because I'd grown up in New York, and had seen so much high-quality music of different genres that no one could ever convince me that jazz or classical music were the only musical forms worth pursuing. I followed the careers of versatile players who were capable of making major contributions on more than one scene (one of my favorites was the Baritone Saxophonist Ronnie Cuber). American composers should know and employ the techniques of all the music that was invented and perfected here. Sly, Leroy Anderson, Wayne Shorter, Aretha are all are great composers who have my complete respect, if not yours. What American musician can afford to ignore the music that's changed the world?
Eugene is the first piece I completed for the All-Stars. It accompanies a video of the great comedian Ernie Kovacs. One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting on my parents' couch, swaddled in blankets, watching what would be the last of Ernie's TV specials. I can remember a blackout of Ernie posing as a used car salesman, slapping the hood of a suspect vehicle and seeing the entire car disappear into a hole in the ground. There were great silences, and interesting choices of music. I would not see his work again until I was in my teens, when PBS started airing reruns. By that time, I'd seen Bunuel, Dali, and Nam Jun Paik, so I understood the artistic gravity of what I was seeing. His choice of music was quite hip. Stravinsky and Bartok, silly songs of solfege, Esquivel, country music-- anything he liked was fair game (he even did an animated version of Firebird using cooking utensils). The Eugene character was probably an amalgamation of several things, with maybe a bit of Tennessee Ernie Ford in there. Eugene faces absurdity with bravery and joy. Something about him expresses his moment in history: nuclear threat, Cold War, McCarthyism, and a shift in what is considered high and low in our culture. Eugene presents himself to upper class people with no shame. They are the only humans of consequence that he encounters. He eats noisy vegetables, and wonders why they are so dull. He is all of.
"Blinky Blanky Blokoe" was my cousin Raymond's name for me. He made up silly names for all of his cousins. He retired from the military, and is a working trombonist. "Fyodorovich" is Stravinsky's middle name. "Basquiat" is named after the great Haitian-American painter, a brother who knew high art things he wasn't supposed to know, and ended up in high places where he wasn't supposed to be, while the people in those places tried to pretend they didn't think that way. I wish he'd lived longer. The Library of Congress commissioned "Spin". Originally written for violin, I was thinking about the cute sonatas of Poulenc when I wrote it.
The Tuskegee Airmen have been an obsession of mine for quite some time now. They were the first Black military pilots, and their successes led to the elimination of segregation and discrimination in the U.S. Military, many years before those laws were imposed upon civilians. My first album was dedicated to them (along with the victims of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis experiment). When I first hit music school, I had never seen an African American clarinet player in any symphonic chair. I shrunk from having to be the first at something, from fighting the disbelief of the majority. Music was a spiritual thing for me, too spiritual to have to put out the kind of force field one needs to be the first Black person to do a thing. So I gathered the experiences I needed to improve my playing and writing completely outside the system, but I have never fully escaped the scenario of being "the first".
Just a few years ago, Black quarterbacks were said to be incapable of being NFL quarterbacks. That's how the NY Knicks ended up with Heisman Trophy Winner Charlie Ward as their point guard. That's how Doug Williams could win a Super Bowl one season and be unemployed the next. It's through the efforts of the Airmen, under galling conditions that all Black folks can understand, that we live in a highly improved, but still imperfect world. They carried the hopes and dreams of a people on their backs, and fought with pride and patriotism for the country that made their lives so much more difficult than need be.
Show Him Some Lub is a confessional piece. The All Stars have a "rock star" element in their persona, but are not confessional themselves. Things that rock usually are confessional. For me the biggest issue in a person's life is ethnicity and how they play it, not race. Acknowledging race is acknowledging a whiteness, a cartel whose membership has changed much. In 1900 Jews, Greeks and Italians would not be counted as whites. I prefer to focus on ethnicity. To be white is to live as if that's always been so. While chromatically this may be irrefutable, the circumstances of many white ethnicities' paths tell more complex stories. The Irish and Chinese, now more socially mobile, worked as migrant laborers. Every ethnic group has faced adversity here, and seeks liberation from it. The thing we share is that there is a date, in our past, future or present where liberation was, is, or will be achieved.
I asked the All Stars a series of leading questions about their ethnicities: the name and birthplace of their maternal grandmothers, what their ethnic affiliations were, and when they thought that ethnic group would live or began to live in a discrimination-free America. When Martin Luther King talked about "the mountaintop" that he might not get to himself, he was locating a date somewhere in the future. It wasn't simply a nod to his own mortality; he was saying it might take a while. One All Star correctly understood what was afoot, and answered the question of ethnic affiliation with the word "Gay" and gave a date in the future for his group's freedom. I assume other bands playing the same piece would have different answers. Or, if a band member did some research on their ethnic history, the date could change. And we're only a Supreme Court ruling away from someone's Liberation Date moving forward or backward. I also asked for the names of their favorite music, and times when they got wet in public, and in the ocean. That's a lot of stuff to know about a person.
For more information on the composer, please visit the artist page for Don Byron.