On Saturday night, clarinet virtuoso Don Byron kicked off his return to MIT with a compelling and innovative gospel concert held in the Kresge Auditorium. With the concert being free to students and not more than 400 yards from my residence, I had no excuse not to attend.
The concert had two major halves. The first seven numbers featured solely Don Byron and his New Gospel Quintet. Before attending the concert, what I knew about Don Byron is that he was a jazz clarinetist/saxophonist and musical mastermind. I also knew that the concert was characterized as a “gospel” concert, which was a confusing idea to me; I didn’t think gospel was a style of jazz. Naturally, Don Byron and his New Gospel Quintet proved me wrong.
Don Byron is joined in his quintet by Carla Cook (vocals), Xavier Davis (piano), Brad Jones (bass, background vocal), and Pheeroan akLaff (drums). This gospel quintet is Byron’s newest project, based on his recent in-depth study of the genre. His major inspiration is Thomas Dorsey, whom Byron gives credit for bridging the gap between African American secular music and religious music. Byron’s performance featured several songs written by Dorsey, and intensely fused with his own style. Without fail, each piece included impressive improvised solos by Byron on either his clarinet, alto clarinet, or tenor saxophone.
The second half of the concert added the young talent of the Boston Arts Association Spirituals Ensemble, as well as a few horn players from the MIT Jazz Ensemble. What these pieces lacked on the side of improvisation, they made up for in brilliant harmony. Of course, Byron brought out the jazz in every piece with his perfectly-timed obbligato solos.
Don Byron gets music, and everybody in the audience knew it. It’s just an aura he exudes especially while playing, but even when he’s just listening. He puts his hand on the piano as the pianist takes a solo and voices the occasional, “Yeah!” when he is in love with what he is hearing. A Don Byron concert is not only about hearing Don Byron play, but also about seeing in person how a musical genius reacts to good sound. Don Byron introduced the closing number, Kirk Franklin’s “Hosanna,” by explaining how he wept the first few times he heard the number, because he was so moved by its chord structure. As the BAASE picked up the first few notes of the tune, every person knew exactly what he was talking about, regardless of his or her musical training.
Attending Don Byron’s inventive performance was a fine way to spend a Saturday night.
(Don Byron and his New Gospel Quintet appear next at Da Camera in Houston, Texas, on March 22, 2013. See here for details.)