Monday, July 14, 2008

Jaki-ing: A Jaki Byard mixtape // Extra-sensory deception?

My dear friend Jeff--we came of age together in KC, where we'll meet up in mid-August; he's now teaching in South Korea--was asking me to define Total Piano, a concept I've often alluded to on this site and elsewhere. I can think of no better way to illustrate the term than with a wealth of examples of Jaki Byard's peerless keyboardism, so here--for Jeff and anyone else who's interested--is...

Jaki-ing: A Jaki Byard mixtape
[a zipped folder of eight MP3s; track listing and credits below]

The main exemplars of Total Piano, as I see things, would be the late Byard (the grandaddy), Bobby Few and Dave Burrell (Burrell's Windward Passages is as total a document of Total Piano as one could ever hope for; truthfully, I'm not sure a more stunning solo piano recording exists). I don't know enough of Don Pullen and Randy Weston to know if they really belong in that company, but from what I've heard, I believe they do. Basically it refers to a pianist who not only has the whole history of jazz, from raw blues, stride and ragtime all the way up through bop and free at their fingertips, but also tends--within a single given performance--to leap impressionistically between these styles in a kind of pastiche sort of way. Listening to Byard improvise is like being inside a whimsical time machine that's given to all sorts of anachronistic juxtapositions. There are obviously musicians on other instruments--like, say, Henry Threadgill or Lester Bowie or actually most musicians of either the AACM or BAG lineages--that exemplify this trait, but on piano--listening to a player like Burrell or Byard who can go from stride to stratosphere in the span of a few bars--the real sweep or panorama of the thing really comes into focus. I'm trying to think of an artist in another realm who really has this mix of classicism and modernism all wrapped into one. Maybe someone like Matthew Barney? Hard to say, but when you listen to a lot of Byard, you learn that eras are slippery and that that historical porousness can make for some of the most gleeful and moving experiences in jazz.

Before I get to the track list--which draws mainly on Byard's superhuman '60s work--I just wanted to point out: Weird to think that all this was going on around the same time as the contents of my last mixtape, which dealt with early free-jazz drum revolutionaries such as Sunny Murray and Milford Graves and their temporal and, sometimes, aesthetic proximities to the inside-outside likes of, say, Tony Williams. The middle '60s is in many ways The Best Time for jazz. Anyway...

1. Charles Mingus Sextet - Fables of Faubus [excerpt] (Mingus)
rec. 3.18.64
Mingus (b), Clifford Jordan (ts), Eric Dolphy (b-cl), Johnny Coles (tp), Byard (p), Dannie Richmond (d)
from "Cornell 1964"
[check out Blue Note's interactive site for Cornell '64, including some nice contemporary video footage of this band.]

2. Sam Rivers - Luminous Monolith (Rivers)
rec. 12.11.64
Rivers (ts), Byard (p), Ron Carter (b), Tony Williams (d)
from "Fuchsia Swing Song"

3. Jaki Byard - St. Louis Blues
rec. 10.31.67 (!)
Byard (p, v), David Izenzon (b), Elvin Jones (d)
from "Sunshine of My Soul"
[Note that a sliver of the brilliantly surreal cover rendering (which I felt compelled to paste below) of Jaki's Falstaffian visage sometimes serves as the patron saint over at Destination Out. Also note that there was another Byard record issued last year entitled Sunshine of My Soul: Live at the Keystone Korner, but that's actually a solo set from '78. Anyone heard it?]

4. Jaki Byard - Diane's Melody (Byard)
rec. 12.16.60
Byard (p)
from "Blues for Smoke"

5. Earl Hines and Jaki Byard - Sweet Georgia Brown
rec. ??.??.72 [can't find recording date for this anywhere; help?]
Hines (p), Byard (p)
from "Duet!"

6. Jaki Byard - Freedom Together (Byard)
rec. 1.11.66
Byard (p, el-p, cel, vb, ts, d), Richard Davis (b, cel), Alan Dawson (d, vb)
from "Freedom Together"

7. Booker Ervin - A Day to Mourn (Ervin)
rec. 12.3.63
Ervin (ts), Byard (p), Davis (b), Dawson (d)
from "The Freedom Book"

8. Jaki Byard - Memories of You
rec. 9.17.68
Roland Kirk (ts), Byard (p)
from "The Jaki Byard Experience"


Some quick notes on the music. I started with Mingus strategically for a few reasons. One, his bands were Byard's first major showcase. More specifically, Mingus was the first to understand the Byard Berth, namely that Jaki needed a lot more SPACE than your average pianist--and not b/c he was a somewhat portly guy. As you'll hear on this glorious "Faubus" excerpt, Mingus and the other members of the '64 sextet were given to leaving Jaki alone--not in the sense of abandonment, but in the sense that they realized he was a man of copious ideas, and that he often needed the freedom to untether himself from the song and Just Play. I won't spoil it for you, but Jaki tiptoes his way here to a *very* familiar melody. This move may have eventually become canned, because you can hear the same allusion in concerts from a few months later, but if you've never caught it before, it's a charming surprise.

Now moving on to the Rivers, you'll see how that band--teaming the leader with his Boston cronies Byard and Williams--also respects the Byard Berth and lets the big man get his willies out at the end of each chorus. Byard keeps taking these little mini-excursions--many are totally unaccompanied--away from the track's hurtling postbop milieu into swaggering boogie-woogie and by about 3:50, Williams has given up trying to fight and just starts swaggering right along with him. Fascinating push-pull here.

(Once you start to notice the Byard Berth, you hear it everywhere the pianist goes: Pick out any record from the Mingus era forward where Byard is a sideman and it's likely there's at least one moment in the session where the band just gets out of the way and lets him indulge his eclectic fantasias, just like Mingus always did.)

This "St. Louis Blues," from Sunshine of My Soul--which boasts one of the most amazing rhythm sections you'll ever check out: David Izenzon on bass and Elvin Jones on drums--is a stunner, both straight and out, with an almost maniacally cartoonish, funhouse quality. Love Elvin's booming, speaking tympanis and Izenzon's brooding arco excursions. Byard gives these sidemen space to shape his session much as others had done for him.

You can't join the Total Piano club without a penchant for dreamy romance. Bobby Few picked this trait up and ran with it, but Byard was walking the walk back in 1960, as you can hear on "Diane's Melody"--written, I'm pretty sure, for his daughter--from his debut album, a fascinating and fully formed solo set called "Blues for Smoke." What can you say about this? It's like an Art Tatum cyborg with an outsized heart and an exaggerated capacity for witty tempo play.

Hard to know who's playing what on that "Sweet Georgia Brown" piano duet w/ Earl "Fatha" Hines but it's a total romp. Virtuoso meets virtuoso. Unlike say the Cecil/Mary Lou Williams pairing, there's no generational or stylistic dissonance. The end result just sounds like one ultradextrous piano titan.

"Freedom Together" is where Byard really geeked out in the studio, playing a bevy of different instruments on one track, including tenor sax, celeste and electric piano. It's kind of a scatterbrained experiment but very good-natured. In a similarly whimsical vein, check on the album "Jaki Byard with Strings," which teams him not with an orchestra, but with guitar, cello, violin and bass. Some really fun and peculiar stuff on that one.

"Freedom Together" convenes the godly rhythm section of Byard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson, which also appears on the wrenching Booker Ervin ballad "A Day to Mourn" (from "The Freedom Book," a perfect '60s jazz record). One doesn't usually think of Byard for his somber moodcraft, but here he instantly puts you in a rainy frame of mind. Listen to how Davis and Byard go swimming in murky improv waters at about the 2:30 mark. When Ervin returns, it's free-time elegy time.

"Memories of You" is where Byard met his match: Yes, Roland Kirk, the only other m.f. alive who was as insanely agile and omnivorous as he was. The two made Kirk's outstanding Rip, Rig and Panic together (along with Jones) in '65, but here they are on Byard's Jaki Byard Experience sesh and playing as the bossest duo you've ever heard. This is the background music at the saloon in heaven, exploding with bluesy, gutsy invention. Both players are Beyond at all times, Kirk bringing his Total Sax Lungs to bear on Byard's Total Piano Digits, which never sounded more freakishly panoramic.

Anyone know Byard's later work well, e.g., his big band the Apollo Stompers or some of the other solo recordings such as Empirical? Many of his post-'60s records are very tough to find. There's also a Ken McIntyre record featuring Byard that I've got my eye on: the 1975 Steeplechase set Home. If anyone's got this in digitized form, I'd love to hear it.


For more on Byard:

-->Gary Giddins's Byard obituary

I try not to read others' work on a topic I'm about to cover myself, so I haven't made my way through this yet, but the provocative photo caption did catch my eye: "Promethean eclecticism was only the beginning." Maybe, but how to productively argue *past* this core aspect of Jaki's musical persona? I'm sure if anyone has figured out how, it's Giddins.

--> Byard on YouTube, a repost but why not?

--> A nice tribute site helmed by the aforementioned Diane. This loving homage really brings home the tragedy of Byard's violent death: He was shot in his Queens home in 1999.

Lastly, here is my Time Out New York piece on the return of ESP Records, for which I interviewed label founder and president Bernard Stollman. I tried to portray this story in as even-handed a manner as possible. I'm aware that to many musicians, "ESP" is a curse word. The details are still being sorted out. See what Mr. Stollman has to say and decide for yourself.


Anonymous said...

awesome--been looking for some of these albums. these make great appetizers. jaki is da man! thanx 4 yr great taste.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed, never knew what I liked had a name (TOTAL PIANO) and that someone beside myself owned a copy of that Dave Burell's WINDWARD PASSAGES. Ya may want to check out Stanley Cowell's MAYBECK RECITAL HALL disc, too.

Arcturus said...

Just came on yr site today - quite enjoyed the Taylor-Oxley piece. Not sure if I like the phrase "Total Piano" - it raises some bounadry questions. If it can include Few/Burrell/Pullen(?)/Weston(?), then would it also include, say Taylor, Tapscott, Walton? Sun Ra? Why or why not?

But what you're getting at, or what I've 'gotten' previously & am now applying to yr phrase, is Jaki Byard's conscious, intentional summoning & mixing of the history of jazz piano in his solos. Another pianist who regularly brought that sort of sensibility to his playing - tho one would be hard pressed to show it on the basis of recorded work - was the late Ed Kelly of Oakland, CA (who stayed local & recorded rarely - w/ Michael White, Pharoah S, & has one record under his own name on Theresa where what I'm thinking about might be best heard)

anyhoos- am enjoying reading yr thoughts . . . bests!

orleyfarm said...

I just came across your blog on the hunt for info about Jaki Byard's "With Strings." I'm sorry the .zip file that accompanied this post isn't up any more. I'm excited to explore the rest of yr fine-looking blog.

Anonymous said...

Hello and thanks for a fantastic blog! Any chance to get this very fine looking mixtape back up again? I am a big Jaki Byard fan (my first disc was "With Strings") and would like to find out more about him. This might be a great way to discover various facets of his work. Thanks!!