On January 25th, Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet shared their heartfelt gospel jazz and fur hats with Morningside Heights. Seeker of the Funk Kem Walker reports from Miller Theater.
Southern gospel is not the standard Morningside Heights musical fare—but that didn’t stop Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet from jamming at Miller Theatre on Saturday night. Byron, with fuzzy hair and a few cheeky corn rows, plays New Gospel, a jazz fusion that sounds like a vocal sort of bebop.
The show celebrated Thomas Dorsey and his contribution to gospel jazz. He was the first person, said Byron between songs, to meld the pain of the blues with religious music. A fragile but resilient character, he suffered breakdowns and an understandable funk when he lost both his wife and child during childbirth. He responded by writing a song, which Dean Bowman came out to sing: “I gave my heart to Jesus. How about you? How about you?”
When Bowman pointed, half-accusingly, into the audience, he seemed to erect a barrier between the performers from the crowd. In another awkward moment, Byron donned a large fur hat for the second half of the show, soliciting titters from the audience.
It was a show of tensions: “All down the highway, there’s a God every step I take.” Nasty blues and uplifting gospel, Byron’s dissonant clarinet sprinkles, a nervous guitarist and a facetious-seeming singer.
With the last song, the quintet ended with a bang, getting the crowd to clap along. “When I die, can’t nobody hold my body down!” they shouted. In a moment, Byron’s almost-lectures between songs, the petulant dynamic, the teasing minor seconds, seemed to come together to become something real. A moment of transport on a Saturday night. And for $7, it sure beat a mojito.
Don Byron’s NGQ via Miller Theater