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New Orleans Ensemble Bends Jazz Tradition

Composer and clarinetist Byron Asher and his jazz ensemble, Skrontch, will visit the University of Mississippi on Wednesday (March 4) to share their recent project, Skrontch Music.

Asher will be a guest on “LMR Live,” an hourlong online talk show with host Nancy Maria Balach, at 1 p.m., and the full Skrontch Music ensemble will perform in concert at 7:30 p.m. Both performances in Nutt Auditorium are free and open to the public.

The music – which includes traditional and contemporary jazz, improvisation, soundscapes, historical recordings and other elements – sinks into the New Orleans locales where jazz was born, especially the clarinet tradition. Those were the same neighborhoods that fostered some of the city’s most important anti-Jim Crow activism, and Asher uses the music of Skrontch to explore that relationship and proximity.

“There was something that was happening at the time that led to both political agitation and artistic excellence, and I wanted to address that duality,” Asher recently said of the project, a five-movement, research-based suite for 10-piece ensemble.

The ensemble features some of the heavyweights of New Orleans’s older generation jazz performers, such as James Singleton, as well as younger lions on the scene, including Aurora Nealand.

Bassist and improvised music elder Singleton describes Skrontch Music as a continuation of the tradition of early jazz musicians.

“People have to understand: when Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong were making their music, it wasn’t traditional at all,” he said. “It was radical, new, scary music, and I’m really thrilled that this piece continues that particular aspect of the tradition.”

Balach said she is looking forward to the conversation she’ll have with Asher on “LMR Live.”

“In developing Skrontch Music, Asher drew from unusual resources, such as his oral histories of jazz clarinet elders in New Orleans and text from Plessy v. Ferguson – but he never strayed from the musical excellence for which he’s known, and his ensemble includes musicians of extremely high caliber,” she said. “I can’t wait to talk with him about this fascinating project, and welcome everyone to be a part of the studio audience.”

Skrontch Music borrows its name from a lesser-known swing-era dance step that Duke Ellington featured in his show at the Cotton Club in the late 1930s. The ensemble released a recording last year on Sinking City Records.

Asher has explained that he made an intentional decision to assemble a multiracial, intergenerational and multigendered ensemble of instrumentalists to reflect a true cross-section of the creative music community in New Orleans.

“I knew that asking free improvisers to play with straight-ahead virtuosos, and for them in turn to make space for traditional players was maybe asking a lot, but the No. 1 thing everyone had in common was the size of their ears and their openness to each other’s expression,” he said. “It’s as if the ensemble developed a collective language unique to this particular piece of music.”

The Wednesday events are a result of a partnership among the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Department of Music and Living Music Resource. It is made possible with the support of Jazz Road, a national initiative of South Arts, which is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with additional support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

By Lynn Adams Wilkins, UM Communications

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