Saxophonist, composer, arranger and bandleader Chris Byars is one of the most versatile musicians on today's jazz scene. A consummate professional, Byars began performing at age 7 as a singer and ballet dancer. He started studying alto sax the same week as his final performance and he hasn't looked back since. His musical activities have included Sunday night jam sessions at Smalls with his Octet, the quartet Across 7 Street, a Lucky Thompson tribute, performances as a cultural ambassador with the Ari Roland Quartet and a grant to bring Gigi Gryce's music back into the schools. This is a man with a mission and the energy to carry it out.
Two new CDs showcase Byars' talent and inherent musicality. Night Owls is a terrific CD by his Octet, a group of first-rate musicians including three Vanguard Orchestra stalwarts - John Mosca (trombone), Gary Prikbek (alto sax and flute) and Richie Vitale (trumpet and flugelhorn). The group also includes Mark Lopeman (baritone sax), Sacha Perry (piano), Neal Miner (bass), Andy Watson (drums) with Byars on tenor sax, flute and clarinet. Byars also arranged 10 of the disc's 12 songs and composed two of them, as well as put in all the hard work needed to keep a large ensemble fresh and functioning.
The CD is mostly composed of chestnuts, but although the songs are traditional the music feels modern and vital. Highlights include a tight, rapid arrangement of "All or Nothing at All . The front line is absolutely seamless, in sync with not a loose note to be found. Byars' solo is fast and fluid, backed by the hard-driving rhythm section. Byars' ballad "The Inevitable is full of wistful complexity - you can feel the regret pouring out of his horn. "The Way You Look Tonight is another hot-tempo version of a classic. Byars' solo is formidable and the front line impresses once again with its ability to play fast and furious without losing an iota of control.
This is a charismatic group, full of energy and high-powered sounds. It's clear this music is deeply felt by all the musicians and the songs are full of toe-tapping rhythms that get into the listener's bones. These days large ensemble groups are a rarity and it's testimony to Byars' talent and drive that his Octet is such a thorough success.
Steeplechase Jam Session Vol. 15 is also impressive. Part of the venerable Steeplechase Jam Session series, this CD features an unusual front line composed of three alto saxophones: Byars, Loren Stillman and Kris Allen. They're backed by Steeplechase pillar Andy Laverne on piano, plus Steve Laspina (bass) and Billy Drummond (drums). The liner notes generously provide the solo lineups, allowing the listener to dig in and appreciate the alto sax' versatile magic.
The CD's nine songs include an original by Byars, three by Laverne and appropriately two by Charlie Parker, jazz' seminal alto player. Their version of "Steeplechase walks the tricky line of evoking Bird without imitating him. Each of the saxists solos and each subtly quote Bird but these are strong players who speak their own language. The song is delightfully agile, with the rhythm section propelling the saxophones every step of the way.
Laverne's "I Got it Good and That Ain't Bad has a lovely melody, warm and slightly wistful. Drummond plays a gentle bossa beat that provides the perfect background for the saxophonists, who each get generous solo space. There's also a nice solo by Laverne, full of enchanting runs that evoke his teacher, the great Bill Evans. The CD also has a beautiful medley composed of three ballads, each one a solo by one of the altoists: "You've Changed with Stillman, "Autumn Nocturne with Byars and "Prisoner of Love with Allen. It's a nice concept that gives each soloist the space to shine. Altogether the CD is thoroughly enjoyable, with a refreshingly understated energy.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: All Or Nothing At All; The Inevitable; Grid; Manhattan Valley; In Da Funhouse; Blue Gardenia; Night Owls; The Way You Look Tonight; Nancy; Conception; Village Beauty; Let's Kiss & Make Up.
Personnel: Chris Byars: tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Gary Pribek: alto sax, flute; Mark Lopeman: baritone sax, clarinet; Richie Vitale: trumpet, flugelhorn; John Mosca: trombone; Sacha Perry: piano; Neal Miner: bass; Andy Watson: drums.
Steeplechase Jam Session # 15
Tracks: You Know How It Is; Apropos; Steeplechase; I Got It Good That Ain't Bad; Ballad Medley: You've Changed; Ballad Medley: Autumn Nocturne; Ballad Medley: Prisoner of Love; Hydroponic; Blues for Alice.
Personnel: Andy LaVerne: piano; Billy Drummond: drums; Chris Byars: alto saxophone; Kris Allen: alto saxophone; Loren Stillman: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Steve LaSpina: bass.