"Byron's always absorbing music genuinely draws in the disparate elements of African and Eastern cultures, while retaining true jazz spirit…"
Byron Wallen was born July 1969 in London, England while the Apollo 11 crew were on their way to the moon.
Raised in a musical family, as a small child Byron studied classical piano. He also played euphonium but then switched to trumpet, studying with Peter Ruderforth in London and with Jimmy Owens, Donald Byrd and Jon Faddis in New York in the mid to late 80s. In 1992, Wallen graduated from Sussex University with a degree in psychology, philosophy and mathematics.
He played trumpet in various contexts and through into the early 00s was heard with jazz and pop artists, sometimes on record. Among these artists and bands are George Benson, Charles Earland, Chaka Khan, Ingrid Laubrock, Ronnie Laws, Hugh Masekela, Courtney Pine, Lonnie Liston Smith, Style Council, Jean Toussaint, and Cleveland Watkiss. In 1992, Wallen formed Sound Advice touring the UK and playing in Syria in 1996 and the Czech Republic in 1997. The band also appeared at the North Sea Jazz Festival, gaining critical and audience acclaim.
His compositions include Live, with Sheron Wray's dance company, Langston Hughes Suite, The Trumpet Kings, and Tarot Suite, an extended work of 22 movements, written for a 10-piece band. In 2003, Wallen won the BBC's Innovation In Jazz award for his third album Indigo.
In 1995 Wallen played in South Africa, recording with Airto Moreira and Moses Moseleku. A documentary film, Travelling, traces his 1998 trip to Uganda. In 2001 he appeared at the Harare Jazz festival in Zimbabwe and at South Africa's ARTS Alive Earth Summit festival in 2002.
He has also visited East Africa, Morocco, Nigeria, Indonesia and Belize (his parents' homeland). On tour Wallen works with local musicians, developing new ideas for his performances and compositions.
In the UK and during his overseas tours, Wallen has taught in schools; he also lectures and gives private lessons at London's Trinity College and Royal Academy. Wallen's performing, composing and teaching skills combine to make him a leading figure among the new wave of creative jazz musicians centred upon London.
A powerful composer, Byron's intuitive and spiritual leanings shine through his Tarot Suite, an enticing piece of music that draws inspiration from the symbols and imagery of the tarot cards.
Tarot Suite is a twenty-two-piece suite written for ten musicians, its world premiere in 1994 enthralled the British press, with Byron being acclaimed by The Guardian as "the most interesting new explorer of Miles Davis' legacy".
The band that was the first to feature Byron's positive and musically diverse vision was Sound Advice, which was formed in 1992. The first album Sound Advice features Airto Moreira and an all-star cast. Released on B&W Records in 1995, it proved to be a stunning debut. Byron's second album Earth Roots was recorded for MELT2000 in 1997. This album was unique in the way it presented the trumpet as a voice travelling through the continents of the world. It is a social comment on the plight of indigenous peoples and is a wake-up call to the social values that have created a world where nature is constantly being violated. Earth Roots was nominated for the MOBO awards and received rave reviews from the music critics, musicians and the general public.
The eclectic sound of the band led to invitations to the Anglo-Arabic Festival 1996 in Syria, and to the Czech Republic in 1997 where they were a major success. The band completed a tour of England and Scotland promoting their two albums. Sound Advice also performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival, where they played to an enthusiastic full house.
Byron's next project was a collaboration with Red Snapper, in which he co-wrote and toured with the band as special guests of The Prodigy. The resulting album Making Bones (1998) received rave reviews.
In 2000 he completed his first film score Pen Pals for Over the Moon productions. He followed this with the innovative project Sacred Circles, which featured Cleveland Watkiss and a wide range of traditional instruments, conch shells, technology and voices to create a spiral labyrinth of sound.
In 2001 Byron wrote a commissioned piece with choreographer Sheron Wray called Live, which was performed at the Clore Theatre in the Royal Opera House with Wray's dance company Jazz Exchange and an expanded Indigo line-up. The piece is dedicated to the AIDS victims in Africa, and is a philosophical protest aimed at the apathy of the West. The show was a sell-out and received outstanding reviews.
Byron released his third album featuring his band Indigo in 2002. The eponymously titled album was the first to appear on his Twilight Jaguar label. This was Byron's first release for four years and marked his return to the acoustic jazz arena. This was no standard jazz album as it incorporated the rhythms of east and central Africa and utilised Far Eastern modes and scales. Indigo saw the development of the textural cinematic approach of Earth Roots. Also in 2002, Byron was commissioned by The South Bank Centre to write music for The Langston Hughes Centenary Celebration at the Poetry International Festival. The piece was written for a sextet and developed to incorporate his own poetry.
In 2003, Byron received the BBC Innovation in Jazz award. This was an affirmation of his outstanding work on the pivotal Indigo album, the Langston Hughes commission and the Sacred Circles project with Cleveland Watkiss. Also in 2003, Plymouth University commissioned him for Opening, a new Shell Choir piece to launch the opening of its new Atrium building.
Birmingham Arts commissioned The Trumpet Kings project in 2004, which paid tribute to the legends of the trumpet who have influenced how the instrument has developed. This was performed at the CBSO Centre, the Royal Festival Hall and the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival.
In 2004 Brighton Jazz Club commissioned Convocation in association with South East Regional Lottery Scheme, recorded for the Jazz Outreach Project.
In 2005 the Jerwood Foundation commissioned Dangerous Duets, with jazz composers and musicians responding to photographic work by Annabel Elgar. The pieces were performed during the Black Flag exhibition at the Wapping Project and recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
This was followed by work on Sheila Hill's Eye to Eye project, commissioned by the Arts Council, also in 2005.
A major impact on Byron's musical life in 2007 was the release of his Meeting Ground album with his band Indigo and featuring Gnawa master musician Boujemma Boubul. For this Byron received nominations for Best Band and Best Album in the 2007 BBC Jazz Awards and Best Jazz Act in the 2007 MOBO Awards.
In the same year, as part of events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Byron was commissioned by Baroness Lola Young to give a solo shell and trumpet performance in Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament.
Byron's projects include the commissioned work Storm tracing the journey of African slaves through the middle passage into the African diaspora (i.e. the Americas, Caribbean and Europe) and another release on Twilight Jaguar with Byron's quintet As Is, which takes its reference points from diverse sources such as Miles Davis, Messiaen and East African funk. The album Divine Madness is a collection of songs and poems inspired by the romance of life and an ecstatic way of relating to Divinity.
His next solo album will be Planet Shell which explores vocal music from all around the world, from Kalahari San circle songs to the motets of 13th century Europe. All the vocals are created by various types and sizes of shells – a highly anticipated delight for audiences throughout the world who have heard Byron playing the shells.
In 1995, Byron made his first trip to South Africa. This led to recordings with Airto Moreira, Moses Mseleku and a host of world class musicians. The seed was sown for a life of musical exploration and travelling.
Gayan is yet another of Byron's projects which marries traditions – it focuses on Indonesia and East Africa and fuses them with the urban sounds of modern dance music and contemporary classical traditions.
Byron has travelled to these pillars of inspiration, working and studying with traditional musicians, and creating innovative new soundscapes and compositions. Some of the fruits of this research can be heard on Chantik which is a recording of traditional music from the heart of Java featuring Mr. Pa Jamadi on celempung and the celestial voice of his wife.
In 1998 Byron travelled through Uganda studying traditional horn and xylophone music. He made a film documenting his research, and the material he recorded provided inspiration for forthcoming solo albums as well as field recordings to be released on his own label Twilight Jaguar.
The album Nakibembe captures east Africa's pre-eminent xylophone group Embaire in full flight. Byron's documentary film Travelling chronicles his three-month stay in Uganda, with all its trials and tribulations, and is full of amazing music and dance footage.
Byron's love of traditional musics of the world has already taken him to Morocco where he performed and recorded with master Gnawa musician Maalem Si Mohamed Chaouqi, culminating in the brilliant Automatic Original release.
Byron also collaborated with Aladin Sani and the Arabian tabla master Rony Barrak in Kano, Nigeria for a special project launching the new British Council building in 2000.
Byron was a featured guest in the 2001 Harare Jazz festival in Zimbabwe. In 2002 he returned to South Africa to appear in the ARTS Alive Earth Summit Festival.
Byron has travelled to Belize where he studied and worked with traditional Garifuna musicians. This project, sponsored by the PRS Foundation for the Queen's Golden Jubilee in June 2002, was very personal to Byron as it was his first visit to his parents' homeland.
Byron has taught in a wide variety of contexts: Primary, Secondary, Further Education, Inclusive, Special Needs (Severe, Profound and Complex Learning and Physical Difficulties; Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties).
He has developed into a fine workshop tutor through many primary and secondary school sessions. He also lectures at Trinity College of Music and provides private tuition at the Royal Academy of Music.
Byron runs his own independent workshops in traditional music of the world, focusing on Indonesian, east and central African traditional music, jazz and composition. During his travels to Zimbabwe, Syria, South Africa and the Czech Republic he led workshops in improvisational techniques and composition.
Byron is currently working on a number of projects in primary, secondary and special schools in association with Creative Partnerships. This is a government initiative that is endeavouring to embed fundamental change in the British education system through creativity.
2007 Nominated for MOBO Awards and BBC Best Band and Best Album; Commission for the Houses of Parliament to launch the exhibition commemorating the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act – Blood Memory.
2006 Commission for the Sage Gateshead International Festival for Solo Dancer, Musician and Visuals – Seven Steps.
2005 Wapping Black Flag Project commissioned by the Jerwood Foundation – performed at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station November 2004 and BBC Radio 3 broadcast 10 September 2005; Tribute to Ken Saro-Wiwa Forest of Dreams – commission from the South Bank Centre; Sheila Hill's Eye to Eye – commissioned by the Arts Council.
2004 Birmingham Arts – for The Trumpet Kings project paying tribute to those legends of the trumpet that have influenced how the trumpet has developed. Performed at the CBSO theatre, Royal Festival Hall stage and the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival; Convocation commissioned by Brighton Jazz Club in association with South East Regional Lottery Scheme; Recorded for Jazz Outreach Project.
2003 BBC Innovation in Jazz award – received for the combination of the Indigo album, Langston Hughes piece and the Duet project with Cleveland Watkiss; Plymouth University commission for shells piece Opening, opening their new Atrium building.
2002 Commissioned by the South Bank Centre to write music for the Langston Hughes Centenary celebration at the Poetry International Festival. The piece was written for a sextet and developed to incorporate poetry written by Byron himself. The event was a collaboration with Wole Soyinka, Kwame Dawes and Yusef Komunyakaa; Garifuna Project commissioned by PRS Foundation; Performed at the Queen's Golden Jubilee June 2002.
2001 Arts Council commissioned piece with choreographer Sheron Wray called Live which was performed at the Clore Theatre in the Royal Opera House with her dance company Jazz Exchange and an expanded Indigo line-up.