Jaki Byard: On the Spot!
Jaki Byard was an encyclopedia unto himself; in a French concert it’s said he went "from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor." You hear that in his albums, even in the same song; with Mingus he would take explosions and follow them with classical beauty. On this date there’s more variety than ever: studio and live tracks, a program that covers six decades, an alto sax on two numbers. Thank his resourcefulness, his broad knowledge. And thank the talent that put it all together. It’s a bright spotlight; he takes it with ease.
With some striking exceptions, the feeling is subdued. The tom-toms opening "Toodle-oo" have a spooky presence, calm yet unsettling. The horns likewise: weaving three notes, the tension builds – even more when Jaki lays multiphonics. Jimmy Owens has a breathy ease; Byard pops a riff at odd intervals. His own solo has a tenor man’s rasp and a confidence you don’t expect. "Fall in Love" is an old-fashioned ballad, with a modern approach. Each man plays different: there’s Higgins whisking a steady cymbal, Jaki glowing in echoed splendor. And Paul Chambers stands tall, a steady and reliable presence. When he bows it adds a classical gravity, built on beautifully by the pianist. "Olean Visit" (it’s a town Mrs. Byard went to) starts sedate, a gentle horn as Jaki steps up, in lines of irregular length. His solo tosses light figures with a measured left hand; better when he rings dissonant on Owens’ turn. Jimmy is strong, with Jaki sounding like he does on Booker Ervin albums. There’s even a burst of pure Cecil – then Chambers bows a quiet beauty (Maybe too quiet; it’s hard to hear at times,) and the final notes drift, as if Jaki doesn’t want it to end. Neither will you.
"Spanish Tinge" is the live track, and be warned of the sound. Not only is the crowd noticeable, but the piano is way out of tune. This actually becomes a plus: the tune is a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, and Jaki romps it hard, an old-timey feel from the left hand. Hear the dancing of Byard’s regular drummer Alan Dawson – so delicate beneath the stomping! "Alexander’s" has a similar tack: bluesy right hand, and a low drone like Vince Guaraldi. (Think of the intro to "Cast Your Fate to the Wind".) The liner notes compare Higgins "like a refined Ringo Starr"; this, in fact, has the same charm of "When I’m 64." (There’s also sharp jabs like thelonious Monk!) And "GEB Piano Roll", completing the oldies, is a tribute to three men who died young, all of whom played with Jaki. (Like George Tucker, who played on "Spanish Tinge". The style changes every moment: lush blankets of sound, a light stride, a gentle waltz, then a turn worthy of Fats Waller. This one rolls along – and decades of history go by your ears. A good feeling.
"Second Balcony Jump" brings back the alto and the edgy mood. Owens flugels deep like a trombone; Jaki hums at first, then floats high in the Dolphy style. Tense, modern, slightly avant – yet it jumps. "P.C. Blues" (not the Red Garland tune of similar name) is a feature for Chambers; a nice theme, though hard to make out. Byard has a great solo – strong chorded blues, with a feeling you can taste.
"Snow Flakes", left off the original LP, sounds like a rehearsal; the track fades in and stops without really ending. Jimmy, on the left speaker, trills five notes up and down again; on the right Jaki hits lush chords, unrelated to what Owens does. That’s when Jimmy takes charge, sounding thoughtful with a big French horn tone. It fits the piano, which if anything gets lusher. It ends just as Owens gets good, which makes us want a few more minutes. We also wanted a longer life from Jaki, but what we got was rich – and enduring.