Recommended Dose: Stream Byron The Aquarius' Guest Mix : All Songs Considered The jazz keyboard prodigy and house aficionado spins some hard-hitting tracks, including his unreleased cut with Kai Alce, for his Recommended Dose Guest Mix.
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Guest Dose: Byron The Aquarius

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Guest Dose: Byron The Aquarius

Guest Dose: Byron The Aquarius

The Keyboard Prodigy Selects Tracks From Moodymann, Kyle Hall And More

Guest Dose: Byron The Aquarius

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Byron The Aquarius Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Byron The Aquarius

Courtesy of the artist

Though Byron Blaylock made his recorded debut as Byron The Aquarius only a year ago, by most standards his musical journey had already been long and fruitful. Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Blaylock had been a keyboard and hip-hop production prodigy during the golden Myspace days of the late-Aughts. He was best known for collaborating with the Parisian producer Onra (Arnaud Bernard) on The Big Payback, a quietly influential project of mostly instrumental, soulful broken beat tracks, which in turn opened the door for him to work with Flying Lotus — before running away from the biz to study jazz at Jacksonville State University.

Last year's High Life, the "comeback" EP that Byron the Aquarius made with his Atlanta-based mentor and house music lifer extraordinaire Kai Alcé for Theo Parrish's legendary Sound Signature label, was a different beast entirely. It showcased Blaylock's skills on the electric piano and Rhodes, while jumping into the deep end of the current jazz-meets-house-meets-R&B conversation. A flurry of other releases, including a mini-LP for Kyle Hall's Wild Oats label we deemed one of last year's best electronic releases, earmarked him as an amazing new talent.

Both the conversation we had with the now 28-year-old Aquarius and his fantastic Guest Dose mix which we're premiering today address this new major uptick in a world where soulful house music and instrumental improvisation are mixing.

Piotr Orlov: Long before you made house music you had a pretty broad musical background. Can you walk me through it?

Byron Blaylock: I was raised by my grandparents, who got me into piano lessons at the age of five, so I started playing classical music — Beethoven, DeBussy— learning how to write and read music. Later on, I guess around 16, I got into jazz. I got training from a teacher named Doc Adams — he passed last year — who played with Duke Ellington and played in the Sun Ra band. He just kept training me until I was about 18, and that's when I started doing work with Onra, The Big Payback. That's when I got into programming and hip-hop. But really my whole introduction to music was jazz, I went to Jacksonville State University for Jazz Studies, playing with big bands. It's an hour-and-a-half from Atlanta, so sometimes me and my friends would skip class and go... that's how I met Kai [Alcé]. I was like 23 or 24. I wasn't really into house music, I probably heard of it but I didn't really know, 'cause I was a jazz-head and a hip-hop-head. I was always coming into the Sound Table, and I saw Kai one time. I had my laptop and was programming music – cause sometimes I like to go to cafes to get inspiration, and I create music right in the café while people are partying. So Kai just walked up to me, took a listen to my music and then he took me to his spot. I started playing keyboards on his stuff, he introduced me to house music, and that's basically how the whole thing got started, really.

You also have a connection to Detroit. Tell me a little bit about that?

I went up there and stayed for a year. A lot of people thought I was producing house music because they tie that with Detroit, but I was up there working with Eminem's producer Denaun Porter from D12. I was just kind of doing work with him on a mainstream level, making hip-hop. I can't say it helped me, but you know how the industry is. It gave me a lesson. I was just motivated to come Detroit anyway because my main influence always was J Dilla. Motown too. [But] Detroit is kind of weird... a lot of people think that, 'oh man, you come to Detroit you're going to hear tons of house music' and it's not really like that. I'm from the South, and I come up there and heard more people trying to rap, and it left me tripping. From my age, I'm thinking, the young people up there are going to take this thing like a torch, like "yeah, we're from Motown" but I guess they look at it different. I was talking to Kyle Hall and he said the only time it really jumps is during the festival.

The music you are making right now, and the music on the mix, is a great combination of jazz and house music. Can you walk me through how you approach combining them?

Basically, it all started with "Aquarian Voyage" [off the High Life EP]. Since Herbie Hancock is a huge influence, you already know where that came from — it came from "Maiden Voyage." I took the elements of that song, Kai made the rhythm and I applied a live feel. If I am playing with just a drummer, or with guys I don't know and we just in front of each other and we playing, it's like I am vibing and improvising. To me, that ties together house music and jazz. I know some people don't think about it like that, but it's all improvising. Like a horn player. That's just what I did. Kai made the rhythm and I used that same vibe from "Maiden Voyage" to blend it in together and gave it more of a house groove. Everybody approaches it differently. Even with artists like Moodymann and the chords people are using or sampling from the MPC — those emotional chords are all jazz and fusion chords. The swing, the filters, they all come from each other, from hip-hop to house to jazz. I think they're all tied-in together. That's my approach: I'm jamming. Some people loop stuff around, and keep looping. But when I play on a track, I play it like a jazz track, all the way through without making changes. I think that's what put me in a certain lane and it kind of stands out.

Do you still play with live musicians a lot?

Yeah. I still have bands in Atlanta that I play with, people in Chicago I know, here in Birmingham. I like playing with bands. I don't know what it is. Sometimes it could be a jam session and afterwards I can go back and create a track off just vibing with band members. So it is an influence, I love doing it. The musicians that I jam with are not that well known. There's only one whose name may be recognizable — Rasheeda Ali, she's done work with different jazz musicians and gone overseas. Otherwise, people I jam with are like...how do I explain this? It's kind of like we just do it for the love. They're not people in the game or work in music, they're just friends and people who get together and play. I am, right now, working on getting at least a three-piece band together. Because currently I am working on a release for Brownswood, Gilles Petersen's label, and that is gonna be in the style of the "Chameleon." But I also do play live in clubs: DJing and playing live at the same time. Like "Aquarian Voyage." I have a Moog synthesizer that I play right on the side of me. That's what I have been doing overseas. Kind of like a Patrick Adams-type of vibe.

Who else would you say has made an impression on you in the world where jazz and house meet?

Theo inspired me on... I can't really even say what perspective. As I said, it was really late when I got introduced to house music. When Kai mentioned the High Life release, and said "Theo Parrish, Sound Signature," I was just like "OK" cause I didn't know who he was. That was my introduction. Some house DJs I see, they have to play house non-stop — if they switch up, they can't do that, especially if they've got a huge crowd who just want their dance tempo, if you get what I'm saying. Theo, though, started just playing straight-ahead jazz, and the crowd, all young people, was going crazy. I never saw nothing like that. And then he went on to play fusion, then more house, he was just playing all over the place. The thing about Theo is he takes chances, he don't care. That's what I like, that's what motivates me.

So what else do you have coming up?

I've been doing something with Alexander Nut and Eglo Records. I been working on some stuff with Funkineven, and given it to him. But my motivation has been coming from Kyle Hall and them. They've been motivating me to start my own label; so I've just been working on my own music, preparing myself to start a label somewhere in the future.

Are you going to base it out of Birmingham?

Yeah, I think so. I'm kind of weird. I like it here cause it's slow. I'm down for the fast-pace, but it gives me room, it's chill and it gives me more time to focus. When I am in other places it's like everything's going on at once. Tons of shows, tons of people coming to shows, you can't help but leave the house all the time. I kind of like being centered and focused so I'll say yeah Birmingham, I'm gonna stay here.

Guest Dose: Byron The Aquarius

  • Max Graef & Glenn Astro, "Magic Johnson (Byron The Aquarius Remix)" (Ninja Tune)

    Max Graef & Glenn Astro, The Yard Work Simulator - Remixes
    Courtesy of the artist

    "Max Graef mentioned my name and the label just came on to me. They like my music and they wanted me to give it the live element. It's one of my favorite remixes. I love the playful, sexy Rhodes and synths that just hit you in the face with the drums."

  • Kenny Dixon Jr, feat. Norma Jeane Bell, "Goes On" (Grassroots)

    Kenny Dixon Jr. Feat. Norma Jeane Bell, Moodymann EP
    Courtesy of the artist

    "This is one of my all-time favorite house joints: Kai gave me that joint. He gave me a batch of music on a hard-drive. I took a listen to it and that joint just stand out to me. It's got this edgy type of feel to it — the way the beat rides the moody, lazy Rhodes vibes. That's what I like about that joint and its real smooth at the same time and it bumps."

  • Kai Alcé, "Movin Thru" (Sounds of the City)

    Kai Alcé, Movin' Thru
    Courtesy of the artist

    "Kai Alcé will forever be a mentor to me. This is one of my favorite joints here, I love to play this in the middle of the night. I played on this track. It's a midnight vibe. Looking at the full moon chords just do something to me, and Kai's lush drums on the MPC with chord sample."

  • Kyle Hall, "Strut Garden" (Wild Oats)

    Kyle Hall, From Joy
    Courtesy of the artist

    "Me and Kyle Hall met chatting back and forth on Soundcloud, but it was from a hip-hop perspective. He loved the stuff I did when I was 18 with Onra, the early stuff. He was telling me how the album was a huge influence on him. This joint just puts the hump in my back, doing the lean Detroit hustle. Nasty synth chords on this, one of my favorite joints, and pads that just stab you out of nowhere."

  • Hugo LX, "It's a New Day" (Balance)

    Hugo LX, The Diary / The Sanctuary
    Courtesy of the artist

    "A hard-pumping track with a dope sample and hip-hop element in it that makes it ride. Hugo Lx is one of my favorite producers from Paris; I met him through my booking agency when I did a show. When we started talking I mentioned The Big Payback with Onra, and he said "wait a minute I was on a compilation with you and with Jay Scarlett and the Spacek crew." The connection was that we were all making hip-hop music during that time, the Myspace days basically."

  • Chaos in The CBD, "Phantom Melodies" (Church)

    Chaos In The Cbd, Constraints Of Time Travel
    Courtesy of the artist

    "I like a lot of their tracks, their feeling. Especially this one. It's got the percussion, the feel in it, this tribal African rhythm to me with sexy, jazz chord stabs too. Love playing this track as it always gets the crowd moving. (This brings me back to memories of being in Greece chilling on the beach looking at the water great vibrations right here.)"

  • Byron The Aquarius & Kai Alce, "Dancefloor in Flight" (unreleased)

    Byron The Aquarius & Kai Alce, "Dancefloor in Flight" (unreleased)

    "One of my nasty cuts, exclusive, unreleased. Me and Kai made this when we was working on the High Life EP. Keep a lookout for this joint, and other heavy jazz-house vibes with Mr. Alce going all the way in on the MPC."