Reed player and composer Byron Asher, a Maryland native based in New Orleans for the past decade, has been exploring the strong relationship between jazz and the socio-economic environment from which it emerged. With good reason. In the early years of the 20th century, jazz was a radical form of music, a way to resist and help overcome racism that was so prevalent in the Jim Crow era.
The result is Asher’s Skrontch Music project. Asher borrowed the name from a Swing Era dance step that Duke Ellington featured in his late 1930s Cotton Club shows with the number “Doing the Skrontch.”
This initial offering is a five-part suite created during Asher’s time as artist-in-residence at Tulane University’s A Studio in the Woods. The Skrontch project made its debut with live performances by his 10-piece ensemble starting in 2017 and this studio recording. Its goal: to absorb and understand the lessons of the past as a way to extend the music, and make a fresh statement in today’s unusual sociopolitical climate. [Note: check out skrontch on OffBeat’s media page].
The band includes both Asher and Ricardo Pascal on clarinet and tenor sax; Aurora Nealand on clarinet and alto sax; Reagan Mitchell on alto and soprano sax; Shaye Cohn on cornet; Emily Frederickson on trombone; Oscar Rossignoli on piano; Steve Glenn on sousaphone; James Singleton on bass and Paul Thibodeaux on drums. The first three tracks include excerpts of recordings by Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, snippets of interviews with early jazz makers that he found in Tulane’s oral history collection, and a reading from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 landmark decision in the NOLA-focused Plessy v. Ferguson civil rights case, riding over some of Asher’s new music.
The opener, “Blues Obligato,” begins with a tease of Mamie Smith’s vocals on “Crazy Blues,” blending thick ensemble passages and a series of duets, first by clarinetist Nealand and trombonist Frederickson, then by Cohn on cornet and Mitchell on alto sax. “Aural History” cushions its music with bits from interviews with Albert Nicholas, Alphonse Picou, Barney Bigard and Louis Tio. The Tio family, clarinet teachers from a largely Creole neighborhood, taught classical techniques to New Orleans’s most renowned jazz clarinetists, including Omer Simeon of Jelly Roll Morton’s band, Jimmy Noone and Sidney Bechet.
“Comité des Citoyens” begins with a reading of Plessy v. Ferguson over horn vamps that blossom into a hard-
driving, buoyant main section fueled by Pascal’s tenor solo and Rossignoli’s piano. The celebration winds down with a bit more of the Plessy narration. “Elegy” is an ensemble piece that opens with a simple clarinet vamp, with each of the other players join in on successive refrains. It becomes rich and vibrant, not mournful. At times, it sounds like several brass bands marching into the same Crescent City intersection, playing different tunes that end up complementing each other.
“After this/that” is the longest segment and Skrontch Music’s crème de la crème that is both minimalist and robust. It rides over a repeated, simple little piano filigree that inspires fine solos by Mitchell on soprano sax, Asher on clarinet, Nealand on tenor sax and Singleton’s arco bass segment. Together, they tie the project together with a contemporary sound to underscore that New Orleans jazz keeps evolving.
Asher isn’t done with this project. After finishing this initial suite, he started developing new material with similar themes for a smaller ensemble.