At Columbia University’s Miller Theater on Feb. 25, Don Byron gripped his clarinet in between songs. “We need to talk about Thomas Dorsey,” he said, referring to the pianist and composer acknowledged as the father of African-American gospel music. “Dorsey is literally the guy who took the nastiest blues you could play and put it together with religious music,” he told the audience. “The dominance of gospel blues in African-American tradition was not a given back then. One person had that idea.”
Leading his New Gospel Quintet, Mr. Byron celebrates the enduring power and surprising range of Dorsey’s idea. As on his new CD, “Love, Peace, and Soul” (Savoy Jazz), in concert his group also occasionally imbued that idea with the elements and feel of modern jazz. Drummer Pheeroan akLaff’s rhythmic innovations were decidedly subtle and spare, the tambourine affixed to his drum kit’s hi-hat occasionally invoking a tent revival. Pianist Xavier Davis delved deeply into stride piano during “It’s My Desire,” elsewhere moving in complex lockstep with bassist Brad Jones. Guitarist Brandon Ross, a special guest on both the concert program and the recording, turned Eddie Harris’s “Sham Time”—which isn’t gospel but fit the mood—into something explosive and abstract. Carla Cook’s vocals moved from churchlike reverence to fevered blues (on the CD, DK Dyson veers more toward rock inflection). Dean Bowman, another guest, sang the personalized pleas of Dorsey’s “Consideration” with plain-spoken directness.
Dorsey’s songs are meant for singers, yet Mr. Byron carried the music’s message with the greatest force. Sometimes it came via his tenor saxophone, as through his knowing counterpoint on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” But it arrived mostly and best via his clarinet, as in wonderfully biting dissonance on the refrain of “Hide Me in Thy Bosom” and with disarming tenderness and stunning technique on “When I’ve Done My Best.” Mr. Byron made his point as composer too, with one stately original, “Himmm.”
Mr. Byron’s music often comes with a lesson, typically focused on subversive elements, forgotten heroes and subtexts of social commentary. His brilliant 1996 album, “Bug Music,” enlivened the notion of repertory jazz while exalting the music of Raymond Scott and John Kirby, two bandleaders who straddled the worlds of jazz and classical music in the 1930s. In the liner notes to his 1993 CD dedicated to the klezmer music of Mickey Katz, Mr. Byron argued for Katz as “one of the most important artists America has produced.” His record debut, 1992′s “Tuskegee Experiments,” featured compositions by both Duke Ellington and Robert Schumann, along with original pieces that defied genre classification. If there is one through-line to his career thus far, it is confounded expectations.
“People are always trying to figure out what I really am,” Mr. Byron said in an interview. “What I am is someone who can do anything he puts his mind to. I believe in that. I prepared for that.”
Mr. Byron is a clarinetist of uncommon range and skill, a self-confessed “music nerd” whose rigor is often concealed by his easeful swing. While growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., he was exposed to a variety of music by his father, a postal worker who played bass in calypso bands, and his mother, a phone-company employee who played classical piano. He studied classical music in high school and attended the New England Conservatory, where he apprenticed with Third-Stream originator George Russell and played a prominent role in Hankus Netsky’s Klezmer Conservatory Band.
On a 2004 CD, “Ivey-Divey,” Mr. Byron found inspiration in saxophonist Lester Young’s 1946 recording with a bass-free trio of pianist Nat Cole and drummer Buddy Rich. It’s not Young’s most celebrated work, but for Mr. Byron it showcased Young’s ability to create coherent structure from improvisation that sounded offhand. With “Love, Peace, and Soul,” Mr. Byron considers the deeper dichotomy embodied in the life and work of Dorsey, who is best known for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” but also composed the raunchy blues number “It’s Tight Like That.” Before devoting his energies to religious music and prior to his work with Mahalia Jackson, Dorsey was known as “Georgia Tom,” performing with Ma Rainey and her Wild Cats.
“Not only was he a great songwriter,” Mr. Byron said, “but his incorporation of blues into 20th-century worship music was revolutionary. A lot of things in American culture flow from that move.” Mr. Byron found a rewarding trove from which to work. “The sheet music is impressive in the way that old Gershwin sheet music is impressive,” he said. “You could actually learn the style from reading it. All the harmonic moves that we know as gospel are in there, everything James Cleveland and Aretha Franklin played on piano.”
For Mr. Byron, who is 53, this gospel project isn’t just his latest musical investigation. More than a decade ago, when his mother was dying and he was facing middle age, he found himself hanging on the words of ministers, hearing the music in their delivery. “I needed something,” he said. He began listening to gospel music, and especially to Kirk Franklin. “I could look at the elements, figure out all the fancy chords that Franklin used that made me respect him as a musician, but there was something beyond that. That I could feel the greatness of God through a piece of music—that’s really personal. It just hit me like a ton of bricks.”
So is this new project a direct offering of faith? Mr. Byron closed his eyes, thought for a moment. “Yeah, sure. There’s some Jesus up in there.”
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.
A version of this article appeared March 6, 2012, on page D7 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Celebrating the Union of Raunch and Religion.