Jaki Byard, 1922­1999

Jaki will be best remembered, however, for the astonishing recordings he cut between 1961 and 1972, mostly for Prestige, though he insisted his personal favorite was a solo date for Futura in Paris (1971, never released here); and for piloting Richard Davis and Alan Dawson in one of the greatest rhythm sections ever assembled. If he never acquired a commensurate following, he was long a critical favorite and he had a loyal and imaginative producer in Don Schlitten, who assembled that rhythm section in 1963, for the first of the Booker Ervin "Book" LPs. Like Armstrong's Hot 5 or Morton's Red Hot Peppers, it existed only in the studio, but over the next decade it proved a telling alternative to HerbieRonTony, a combustible, cohesive, swinging unit that never tempered the individuals involved— you couldn't believe what was going on in that cauldron.

Jaki Byard: Promethean eclecticism was only the beginning.
Don Schlitten
Jaki Byard: Promethean eclecticism was only the beginning.

Most of the albums are out of print, some for more than 15 years. But they've been slowly returning, one by one, and they merit reassessment. Jaki was the kind of musician who played "Giant Steps" slow (Here's Jaki) and "Lush Life" fast (Out Front). On Hi-Fly, he disguises the title tune with a full-bore rhythmic buildup and makes James P. Johnson's "Yamekraw" sound modern. He was also an exceptionally deep and versatile blues player, as you can glean by comparing "Searchlight," "Out Front," and "Freedom Together." The untuned piano at a place called Lennie's on the Turnpike inspired him (as did saxophonist Joe Farrell) to one bashing climax after another on the two volumes of Live! (a third volume was never released). For the full Byard effect, however, you must follow him into the twilight zone of Freedom Together! (Schlitten has always liked exclamation points); On the Spot! (the title track is brutal hard bop while "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is r&b); the dazzling Jaki Byard Experience (with Rahsaan, a friskier companion to Kirk's own Rip, Rig, and Panic); and the staggering Sunshine of My Soul, where his assimilation of Taylor is given free rein on "Sunshine" and "Trendsition Zildjian," his fluent Tatum chops sweep through "Chandra," and his own bopping proclivities erupt on "Diane's Melody." Jaki Byard With Strings! has "Cat's Cradle Conference Rag," in which the leader plays "Take the A Train," Ray Nance plays "Jersey Bounce," George Benson plays "Darktown Strutters Ball," Richard Davis plays "Intermission Riff," Ron Carter plays "Desafinado," and Alan Dawson plays "Ring Dem Bells"— at the same time. A few complicated arrangements notwithstanding, that album is mostly an upbeat jam. His most resonant work is to be found on the lavishly varied recitals, Solo Piano, There'll Be Some Changes Made, Duet! (an ardent collaboration with Earl Hines), To Them— To Us, At Maybeck. Perhaps, someday, even the Futura album he loved will cross the Atlantic. Jaki gave up waiting long ago; me, never.

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