By Laura Byrd
Living in a college town is a like living in a real life Mayberry. I ride around on my bike and wave “Hi!” to the neighbors. I walk through campus seeing all the bright-eyed (well, sometimes) students. J.R. & I live in Denton, TX, a town that has the honor of housing two universities, Texas Women’s University and the University of North Texas. As some of you may know, J.R. studied jazz at the University of North Texas. This school, famed for its music department, specifically the jazz school, is known by many as a university that produces the up and coming jazz artists of our day. You may have heard of the illustrious “One O Clock Band,” which was established in 1946. This historic big band has won six Grammy awards. Every jazz student in the music school diligently practices so that one day they might claim a chair in the coveted One’ O Clock. Just like any other prestigious music school, they quickly weed out the good from the bad, the serious musicians from the flippant, and find the people who yearn to create new music, sounds, and landscapes in a genre that seems exhausted. It’s a rigorous school that seems to pride itself on breaking down their musicians, making many of them jaded and dark, but not Spenser Liszt. This man is a beacon of positivity and warmth, which I believe is translated in his work through his warm tone and melodically infectious phrases. If you hang out with him enough, you realize that this guy is super positive and friendly. He supports other musicians, including us, and has a passion for aspiring artists to get paid to play, instead of playing for free, an epidemic that plagues Denton and other artistic towns. He has been one of the people who have inspired J.R. & I to live in that space, to ooze positivity and go for it. It’s not just about the music. It’s about the people.
The first time I met Spenser was at his album release party for his freshman album, Until Further Notice at The Greenhouse in Denton, TX. Known for its live jazz, this restaurant showcases young artists in and from the UNT jazz school, allowing them to highlight their original works in front of a captive audience. The room, filled with hipster glasses, long beards, and ironic t-shirts, is not your typical jazz venue. Being new to the town at the time, I was stunned by how many people, young people, were into jazz. I come from Dallas, where makeup is mandatory, high-priced clothes and shoes are a must, and live music is met with a clear message: “meh.” Not in Denton! You could stroll in with dirty jeans and unwashed hair and no one would be the wiser; they are too busy listening. Jazz is in this town’s soul. The $3 martini glasses clinking and conversations getting louder, I wondered if this band could really gain and keep their attention.
Spenser Liszt heads the quartet on horn, usually tenor saxophone. He grooves with other accomplished UNT jazzers: piano and keyboard player Addison Frei, upright and electric bassist, Perrin Grace, and drummer prodigy Matt Young. With a strong team behind him, the music begins and all heads turn toward the band. Spenser Liszt and his Disciples, as they are dubbed, begin to showcase their new music from Until Further Notice.
The CD contains seven pieces, many longer then the average pop song, The average pop song doesn’t have what many consider the real talent in a musician, improvisation. The first piece, “Hyperbolic Time Chamber, “ transports the listener into another space and time, obviously over exaggerated, hence the hyperbole. The piece begins with a mellow soundscape, featuring Liszt on the tenor, and outlines the main melodic content at the beginning and end, with improvisation smacked in between, a standard compositional structure in jazz music. With Frei’s delicate balance of utilizing piano and other electronic sounds, we hear a smooth ivory bed of transcendence that accompanies many of the solos, often peeking its head in to lift his intriguing riffs out of the texture. Seemingly, these riffs exude from his head straight to the keys, mesmerizing us with his dexterity. With Liszt leading and Frei right behind him, the sounds Frei chooses create a continual landscape heard throughout the album. Rounded out with the warm tones of the saxophone, Liszt shows he can play both with sensitivity, agility, and vigor.
Throughout the album, Liszt masters the direct, melodic improvisation, never getting too Bee-Bop-y. Something today’s average listener might not appreciate. The versatility of the album is apparent. It would be interesting to the trained listening ear as well as an unseasoned listener or a college student. One of my favorite tracks is “Relief.” As a vocalist, I love this song for its creative use of vocals and keys to design a feeling of hollow space, a technique also used on a grander scale in “Mr. David.”
Thematically, my favorites are both “Until Further Notice” and “Troll Dance. “Until Further Notice” is established with a Liszt-like (the dead one) Neo-Romantic piano theme that always makes my ears perk up, as I am a classical music enthusiast. With this darker ambience laid out in front, Liszt (the live one) plays on top, advancing the theme and then improvising upon it. It builds steadily to its ultimate climax, bookmarked by the rhythmically driven theme. “Troll Dance,” seems to be a crowd favorite, I would postulate this is because of the catchy theme consisting of a simple, yet aggressive downward spiral, repeated throughout the song, and gaining intensity each time. The solos in between the theme are just as worthy of praise, leading us to the end, driving home the picture of our little dancing trolls. “The Observatory” seems to stray from Spenser’s style in only that the groove seems funkier, with distinct space in between the notes. Grace’s bass prowess is highlighted in his solo, recognized by his interesting improvisation off of the chordal harmony. He always brings us back, though, something Frei also seems to do very well. Matt Young, an extremely talented young man, always fits within the texture, but when he solos, you can see why he may be one of the best jazz drummers at the ripe age of 21. I love how Young, when an opportune time presents itself, plays off the beat with precision, wavering in and out of time with ease. Although he is young he knows exactly when to come out of the texture and when to be the backbone of the quartet. His unique way of playing the sticks creates some edgy sound effects. Matt Young is one of those you need to keep your eye on.
Overall, Liszt’s album succeeds with a congruent sound throughout, something that can be quite hard to do. The improvisations are not too long, so the listener does not lose attention. We are always brought back to a carefully crafted theme to feel like we are home again. I hope in the future Liszt continues to experiment with vocals, as this element was one of the most unusual soundscapes of the album and could easily be built upon to create a quality unmatched in today’s jazz.. The interesting rhythms and strong melodies make it versatile for many listening audiences. No matter if they are playing at Carnegie Hall or J&J’s Pizza, these guys need to be noticed. With Liszt work ethic and continued positivity leading the group, in time he will attract attention to his career as a performer and a composer. As the saxophone player in J.R. Byrd & The Tracks, we feel lucky to call him friend.
Watch them live at J&J’s Pizza. Trust me, if you like jazz, it’s worth it.
You can also find Spenser’s work on Itunes, CD Baby, Amazon, or Google, and get to know the artist through Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
Laura Byrd is the wife of singer-songwriter J.R. Byrd. She has been writing since she was a kid but fine tuned her skills through grad school. She earned a bachelors of Music Education, Voice from Baylor University and, a Masters in Music in Choral Conducting from Southern Methodist University and a Masters of Sacred Music from the Perkins School of Theology. Laura currently enjoys her work as J.R.’s booking agent, website administrator, photographer, videographer, and blogger. For fun she is usually hanging out with J.R. & their dogs: Lucy, Holly, Giraffe, and Duncan.