Oklahoma born tenor saxophonist Don Byas moved easily between swing and bebop with an earthy, blues sound that brings to mind Coleman Hawkins but with a lightness of touch and rhythmic agility reminiscent of Lester Young. He successfully synthesized these two influences, in many ways updating them into the bebop era. Byas mastered the breathtaking tempos associated with Parker and Gillespie but avoided the angular, sharp phrasing- with the result that his up-tempo approach had a more rounded, swing solo sound. Byas reminds us that bebop arose out of the world of swing, and that many of the most significant jazz musicians of the forties were at home in both worlds.
Byas arrived in New York via Kansas City. His journey included stints with Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra and Walter Page’s Blue Devils, both highly regarded mid-west bands. Having worked with Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, and Andy Kirk, Don Byas was far from being unknown in the New York jazz scene of the early 1940s. In 1941 he replaced Lester Young in the Count Basie Band. Several years later he was playing tenor in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. In short, Byas was a rising tenor star of exceptional talent, backed by an impressive resume.
His recording career as a leader in the United States lasted for about two years, from 1944-46. In the autumn of 1946 he left for Europe touring with the Don Redman Band; essentially, from that point on he simply stayed in Europe until his death in 1972. Considering the time period, and the extent of his talent, expatriation was a doubtful career move if he was concerned with his place in the contemporary jazz scene and ultimately his place in jazz history.
This four disc set, Don Byas: Complete American Small Group Recordings, documents Byas’ recordings as a leader prior to his emigration, with one disc documenting his work as a sideman in a variety of bands. Although he was later to record extensively in Europe, Byas should be established as a major tenor saxophonist based on this four disc set alone.
The opening disc presents a Don Byas composition, an up-tempo, boppish "Riffin’ and Jivin’" that brings together Count Basie’s influence and a peek at the modernists to be in the alternating swing and almost boppish solo and riff passages. The easy communication between the two styles is evident with the extremes best illustrated by the bowed swing bass of Slam Stewart and the aggressive, trumpet solo of Charlie Shavers. The easy back and forth is suggestive of the evolutionary rather than revolutionary nature of be-bop. Compositions such as "Riffin’ and Jivin’" and the Ellington/Hodges’ composition "The Jeep Is Jumpin’" is evidence enough, if anyone doubted, that be-bop grew from the soil of swing.
This fine band, that Byas fronted as the Don Byas Orchestra, included Clyde Hart on piano (and celeste), Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Slam Stewart on bass, and Jack “The Bear” Parker on drums. These two 1944 sessions helps to set the tone for the four disc set: excellent musicians with a bluesy feel and an extraordinary range of resources. Count Basie’s influence and Kansas City loom large in the background; the rising development of bebop appears in flashes, compositional touches, and in the solos of individual musicians. Charlie Shavers is superb throughout the nine tracks with this band presenting a good foil to the bluesy Byas with his staccato, bright, trumpet sound. This is for the most part a pre-modernist Clyde Hart, demonstrating an obvious Count Basie piano influence.
The second and third tracks present a sensual Byas in a ballad mode with his performance on his own composition "Worried N’ Blue" being especially noteworthy for his long beautifully developed tenor solo. Shavers slides into an Eldridge like solo and Clyde Hart is effective on celeste. The fourth track, "Don’s Idea" shifts the band into an up-tempo swing number with solos all around. Slam Stewart’s bowed bass solo roots the music in the swing world. The opening to the fifth track features Clyde Hart with a pointillist piano solo above Parker’s strong bass line. This is an excellent rhythm section with power and a bounce to the whole unit. In general, Hart plays a supportive role throughout these recordings with the main solo work going to Byas, and Shavers. The bluesy feel and the comfortable rapport of the musicians typify the Byas led bands throughout this four disc set.
The first disc features Don Byas as a composer on 13 of the 24 tracks; on the remaining three discs his name is on 7 more tracks. The first disc has the only 1944 sessions, both in the summer of 1944 as described in the previous two paragraphs. By the end of the first disc the listener has been moved along to March of 1945 to a four track session with a Byas-led quartet backing the great blues singer Big Bill Broonzy. Between the 1944 sessions and the Broonzy sessions, Byas hooks up with two different quintets, both featuring the compatible pianist John Guarnieri, forming a tandem with Byas that also shows up throughout the second disc. Guarnieri seems to bring out the best in Byas challenging him into some of his most memorable solos, while nudging him into a more modernist mode. Guarnieri’s spare comping brings the bass and drums forward, leaving Byas plenty of room to maneuver. Having Cozy Cole or Denzil Best on drums insures that the music will swing with style. With either Joe Thomas or Buck Clayton on trumpet, these sessions never get far from their solid swing foundation. In short, this is a beautiful disc, emotionally rich with exciting music. Byas becomes a commanding presence in the Guarnieri quintets with extended solos that are at times breathtaking.
Disc two keeps up the momentum. One of the highlights is the 4 track session featuring Byas with Erroll Garner on piano. There are also 12 quartet tracks, again bringing together Byas and Guarnieri. The last 3 tracks bring introduce Dizzy Gillespie via the Don Byas Swing Seven. In general, Byas sounds more like Coleman Hawkins the more swing based the music becomes; he tends to become more risk taking and original the further toward the modernist era he is nudged. This can be illustrated by comparing the Garner quartets with the Guarnieri quartets; in addition, the musician who plays bass and drums is also an important factor stylistically.
The Erroll Garner tracks sound at times like a Garner/Hawkins, but we’re talking good Hawkins. Slam Stewart’s bowed bass is also a significant solo presence. Doc West on drums meshes well with Stewart and Garner. Soloing, Byas is soulful and Garner is playful. Garner’s comping behind Stewart is light and witty. Byas soars above this excellent quartet, inspired in his more conservative mode. Highlights include Count Basie’s "One O’Clock Jump" followed by a classic Byas performance on "Harvard Blues."
In September of 1945 Guarnieri returns in a lush solo exchange with Byas on "Laura." This track is followed by a long, exquisite Byas opening solo on "Stardust." He’s far from shore on this one with a more abstract conception and sound, returning to the melody after a short Guarnieri solo. This is startling, asymetical stuff, perfectly conceived and executed. But Slam Stewart has a way of bringing everything back to earth, which he accomplishes in the Byas-Stewart composition "Slam, Don’t Shake Like That." These two tracks do a good job illustrating the modernist-swing influences that shaped Don Byas into the mid-forties.
One of the highlights of the disc is the Byas-Guarnieri duet version of "Embraceable You," a slow melancholy sax performance above an ultra-spare piano accompaniment. The setup includes two long Byas solos bridged by a concise Guarnieri statement. On this disc the Byas-Guarnieri match-up is featured in three sessions, each with a different rhythm section. These tracks dominate the disc with comfortable solo exchanges and casual solo virtuosity. At times, Guarnieri sounds like Count Basie’s best student and at other times he sounds slightly like Monk or more precisely Ellington as a precursor to Monk. In short, he has his own sound that is deeply rooted in the tradition while being open to contemporary influences, including classical. In either a swing or a modernist mode he tends toward sparseness laced with a gentle wit. No swing is sacrificed in his concision. His comping is always interesting, favoring a bright, light sound that plays well against Byas’ bluesy, sensual, Kansas City influenced sound.
The last three tracks on the disc, with Dizzy Gillespie, feature the blues vocalist Albina Jones. Gillespie’s high, soaring solo work adds a charge to this session. Both Gillespie and Byas are in good form. Albina Jones belts out the blues over this attentive band: short solos and a solid rhythm section.
Disc three returns us to the Byas, Garner, Stewart, and West quartet. On this session Stewart is brought forward as the third main soloist. Garner is particularly affective on "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." Both his soloing and comping dovetail with Byas’s simpler, straight, swing style. Garner’s choice of a florid solo style contrasts with well with Byas. Stewart and West are more than solid throughout, deftly weaving the rhythm. On the following track, Garner slides into a straightforward, single note blues style during "Slamboree," demonstrating that he can do just about anything he wants on piano. During Slam Stewart’s bass solos Garner and West carry the rhythm with off-handed ease. This is a wonderful quartet, and a delightful session.
Although the rest of the disc is sprinkled with name musicians (such as Max Roach, Benny Harris, and Jimmy Jones) overall the supporting casts are not as distinguished as on the first two discs or the bands as cohesive. At times, Byas seems to simply take over while the band plays in a polite, supportive role, competent but not impressive. But Byas proceeds to knock out one outstanding solo after another. Stylistically this the most varied of the discs: from a strong vibrato and almost sentimental attachment to the melody to outrageously up-tempo be-bop runs, as on "Cherokee." Overall, as in the whole four disc set, the emphasis focuses on swing, and Byas proves, over and over again, to be a grand master of the genre.
Disc four features Don Byas as a sideman during the years 1944-45. His role in the different groups vary, with limited solo time in the Eddie Heywood and His Orchestra tracks that feature a vigorous Ray Nance on trumpet and violin. The fleet-minded Eddie Heywood on piano does not disappoint. This is an interesting band but Byas plays primarily a supportive role. He has a more prominent role in the Emmett Berry Five, a well balanced quintet graced with Milt Hinton on bass and J.C. Heard on drums. Byas, trumpeter Berry, and pianist Dave Rivera swap solos in a comfortable, modest swing style. It’s a shame only three compositions were recorded.
The Hank D’Amico Sextet follows with a clarinet, trumpet, and tenor front line. Cozy Cole on drums keeps the session moving. Dave Rivera on piano is noteworthy for his grace and good taste; the rhythm section seems more than ready to go but D’Amico and trumpeter Frank Newton’s somewhat tepid solos do little to heat up the session.
The action picks up again with the Cyril Haynes Sextet. In this straight, swing session pianist Haynes, trumpeter Dirk Vance, and Byas present in a mostly upbeat manner in four attractive Haynes compositions. The rhythm section keeps everything fresh with drummer West being particularly creative. The sharp interplay between Byas and West on "Across the Road" is one of the highlights of the session. Byas and Dirk Vance also demonstrate a lively rapport.
Nat Jaffe and his V-Disc Jumpers are featured on only one track. But it’s a memorable one, the Hodges-Ellington classic "The Jeep is Jumpin’." This boppish composition features a vigorous, fast tempo exchange among Jaffe, Byas, and most impressively Charlie Shavers. Specs Powell is on drums. Again, too bad there’s only one track available of this band.
For the last four tracks of the disc Johnny Guarnieri returns as a leader. In this solid quartet, the casually intense rapport between Byas and Guarnieri is again featured. Drummer J.C. Heard is outstanding in a conservative, swing mode. Byas on Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" is a treat; Guarnieri’s superb accompaniment and savvy solo work demonstrates real sophistication in the best sense of the word. It is fitting that this four disc set finishes up with Byas and Guarnieri. Their opening duet on Guarnieri’s composition "Around the Grove" develops into a delightfully humorous exchange, with J.C. Heard’s taste and touch being the foundation. During these four tracks Byas stretches out on a series of long fascinating solos reminding us, once again, that we’ve been listening to one of the masters of the tenor saxophone. Highly recommended.
This four disc set is available through Worlds Records (800-742-6663) www.worldsrecords.com At $32.00 for the set, an unusually good bargain, especially considering all four discs are over 70 minutes long. This set was released by Definitive Records and Disconforme of Spain. Don Byas: Complete American Small Group Recordings includes a ten page booklet with notes that also lists tracks and musicians.
DISC ONE: 1) Don Byas Orchestra: Charlie Shavers, Clyde Hart, Slam
Stewart, Jack Parker. 2) Don Byas Orchestra with Rudy Williams (as)
added. 3) Don Byas All Star Quinter: Joe Thomas, Johnny Guarnieri, Billy
Taylor, Cozy Cole. 4) Don Byas All Star Quintet: Buck Clayton, Johnny
Guarnieri, Eddie Safranski, Denzil Best. 5) Don Byas All Stars: Kenny
Watts, John Levy, Slick Jones. 6) same as previous band, add Big Bill
Broonzy and rename as Little Sam & Orchestra.
DISC TWO: 1) Don Byas All Star Quintet (same as 4 above with Buck
Clayton). 2) Don Byas Quartet: Erroll Garner, Slam Stewart, Doc West. 3)
Don Byas Quartet: Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart, J.C. Heard. 4) Don
Byas Quartet: Johnny Guarnieri, Sam Hall, Sid Catlett. 5) Don Byas All Star
Quartet: Johnny Guarnieri, Eddie Safranski, J.C. Heard. 6) Don Byas and
His Orchestra: Jimmy Powell, Hal Singer, unknown piano, bass, and
drums, Rubie Blakey vocals. 7) Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Sedric, Sammy
Price, Leonard Ware, Oscar Smith, Harold West, Albinia Jones vocals.
DISC THREE: 1) Don Byas Quartet: Garner, Stewart, West, same as
previous disc. 2) Don Byas and the All Star Rhythm Septet: Gene
Schroeder; Tony Gottuso, Slim Durham, Johnny Blowers. 3) Don Byas
Quintet: Benny Harris, Jimmy Jones, John Levy, Fred Radcliffe. 4) Don
Byas Quartet: Teddy Brannon, Frank Skeete, Fred Radcliffe. 5) Don Byas
Quartet: Sanford Gold, Leonard Gaskin, Max Roach. 6) Don Byas Quartet:
Beryl Booker or Tony Scott, John Simmons, Fred Radcliffe.
DISC FOUR: 1) Eddie Heywood and his Orchestra: Ray Nance, Aaron
Sachs, Eddie Heywood, John Simmons, Shelly Manne. 2) Emmett Berry
Five: Emmett Berry, Dave Rivera, Milt Hinton, J.C. Heard. 3) Hank D