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The Chris Byars Octet: Lucky Strikes Again

Greg Simmons By

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If a theorem states: "three harmonizing saxophones create compelling, rich, sonic textures," then the proof is the Chris Byars Octet's homage to saxophonist Lucky Thompson, Lucky Strikes Again.

Lucky Thompson (1924-2005) is primarily remembered as a bebop saxophonist, but he was also a fine and underrated composer, leading small and mid-sized bands. Byars has collected ten of Thompson's compositions using the same small big band instrumental mix: three sax's, two brass, and the rhythm section. The instrumental mix is crucial to the sound of this album, which is defined by the harmonics of that three-sax frontline.

The greatest challenge to performing this music was the lack of written scores. To recreate them, Byars resorted to transcribing fifty-year-old NDR radio broadcast tapes. According to Byars' liner notes, "When you transcribe like that it is the most sincere form of listening and learning experience because you are in the chair of the composer and you can see and understand the decisions he made in slow motion."

The transcription effort pays off with a jumping set highlighting powerful, complex harmonies. "Could I Meet You Later" uses the full instrumentation to build the melody, and then applies it as background for the reed solos. The beauty of the horns isn't simply the harmonies, but the way those harmonies are staggered, building into chords in rolling sequences.

There is plenty of room for the individuals to shine here as well. Byars' work on both tenor and soprano saxophone is faultless, and Mark Lopeman's baritone is a double threat—a standout soloist, he also anchors the reed section with rock-solid bass weight.

Lucky Strikes Again coaxes a huge sound out of five horns, a credit to the quality of the arrangements. They're musically expansive, getting the most out of the instruments at hand, but are also compact and well-organized, with only one running more than seven minutes. Byars has put together a set of concise, rewarding tracks with a band that turns in a terrific performance of outstanding material.

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