PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 24, 2006

The Microsoft of New Music

by Jim Newsom

Don Byron is one of the most adventurous modern-day jazz musicians. His eclectic catalog includes distinctive interpretations of klezmer music, Ellingtonia, Mancini, Miles and Junior Walker. But it’s his own compositional prowess that elevates him above the rest of today’s jazz pack.

Byron recently collaborated with the Bang on a Can All-Stars for a genre-busting outing on Cantaloupe Records called A Ballad for Many. He and the BOAC sextet come to the American Theatre Saturday night for what promises to be a fascinating concert.

All-Stars clarinetist Evan Ziporyn called me earlier this month to talk about the project. He had just left a rehearsal for the premiere of his own bass clarinet concerto at Carnegie Hall, and was walking down a Manhattan sidewalk as we spoke:

JN: What is Bang on a Can?

EZ: Bang on a Can is a collective of musicians and composers who are interested in exploring the outer regions of our own creativity. We are people who bonded together because we felt like there wasn’t another place for our music—it wasn’t really popular music and it wasn’t classical music. My friend Mark Stewart described it as “semi-popular music.” It’s not designed to sell two million copies, but at the same time, we really do feel like music should communicate with people who want to listen to it. Our music tends to draw on a lot of pop and jazz influences and not shy away from things like a steady beat or nice chords.

JN: Isn’t there a Bang on a Can Festival?

EZ: Yes. It started in 1987. When it started, it was a real downtown event in a small art gallery in Soho with whoever we could round up to play. I was not even 30 years old and nobody had ever heard of anything I did, and there were people like John Cage, Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich. Within a few years, we seemed to have become something of a New York institution, so in the early ‘90s we decided to form the All-Stars to take it on the road.

Now it’s a much larger organization and we present other concerts, we have a recording label, we’ve got this group and some other groups under our umbrella—it’s kind of the Microsoft of new music.

When I was a student, the idea was that if you were going to play contemporary music, you were going to do it for 25 people, all of whom knew each other. That just didn’t seem to me the way things should be; if you’re a musician, you should want people to hear your music and you should think about what it’s going to take for you to do that. So we’ve tried to find a way to do the music that we believe in and that we feel needs to be made, but at the same time do it in a way that is open to the public.

JN: When did you first work with Don Byron?

EZ: About six years ago we commissioned a piece called “Eugene,” which is the first thing on this CD. It was a silent episode of Ernie Kovacs’ TV show from about 1959; it was radical for the time—half an hour of visual physical comedy with no dialogue. We do it with the film, and the soundtrack goes along with everything that happens in the show.

People think of Don as a jazz musician, but he’s coming out of a much broader, kind of Leonard Bernstein perspective where he’s drawing on all sorts of types of American music. Writing for a soundtrack like this allows you to do that.

JN: How did you become a clarinetist yourself?

EZ: My own decision was as random as it comes. Basically, I wanted to play the trumpet, and all the boys in my grade school wanted to play the trumpet. So some of us got stuck on other instruments.

When I was in college at Yale in the late ‘70s, I played in a punk band on clarinet, and we used to play at this club in New Haven. I left for the summer and the next time the band played there, the club advertised it by saying, “We shot the clarinet player—You can come back now!” At that point I decided maybe clarinet and certain kinds of music didn’t go together!

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.