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Rhapsody Films Double Feature: Elvin Jones and Jaki Byard

John Kelman By

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Rhapsody Films Double Feature:
Jaki Byard - Anything for Jazz (1980)
Elvin Jones - Different Drummer (1979)
Rhapsody Films

As part of its ongoing reissue of classic jazz titles on DVD, Bruce Ricker pairs two documentaries - Ed Gray's '79 Elvin Jones film, Different Drummer , with Dan Algrant's '80 piece on pianist Jaki Byard, Anything for Jazz. An interesting pairing, given Jones' influential stature in the jazz world, and Byard's sadly more overlooked contribution. Both documentaries paint compelling portraits, mostly in the artists' own words, with bassist Ron Carter providing commentary on both; the glue, perhaps, that links the two pieces together.

Different Drummer has Carter describing Jones, appropriately enough, as a musical rebel, a sentiment echoed by Jones, who talks about difficulties finding work because of his unorthodox approach, until his meeting with John Coltrane would result in the formation of a landmark quartet where breaking the rules would be the only rule. Some exciting film footage of Jones with Coltrane demonstrates how, to this day, few ensembles reached the same level of overt experimentation and interplay.

But even more interesting is the interview/demonstration segment, with Jones illustrating how the simple phrase of his piece "Three Card Molly" can be used as the inspiration for a broader-reaching drum solo. Jones takes the basic rhythmic theme on snare drum and, by gradually adding bass drum, high hat and then tom toms, shows how even the barest of ideas can propel the kind of polyrhythmic exploration that typifies Jones' approach. Jones also illustrates how the different components of the drum kit can allude to various colours, and how by combining these elements in different ways, new shades and textures can be created.

A performance by his then-current quartet of saxophonist Pat Labarbera, guitarist Ryo Kawasaki and bassist David Williams illustrates just how the spirit of Coltrane continued to pervade Jones' musical direction, more than ten years after his death. Still mining the modal territory that the Coltrane Quartet explored so deeply, Jones and his group are a powerful force. Jones' own groups never achieved the same level of acclaim, and to be certain they didn't break the same kind of ground as Coltrane, but Jones is a supportive leader, one who clearly drives and motivates his younger band-mates.

Short though it is at a mere 30 minutes, A Different Drummer is all the more important with Jones' passing earlier this year, as a document of a drummer who, as Ron Carter describes, can be best illustrated without words, simply by listening to drummers pre-Elvin and post-Elvin.

Carter also tries to explain Jaki Byard's position of lesser prominence at the start of the 25-minute documentary Anything for Jazz by saying that if Byard had been with a Miles Davis kind of leader rather than a Charlie Mingus kind of leader (with whom Byard played for ten years), then he would clearly have "received more ink" and perhaps been more well-known. Pianist Bill Evans, interviewed only a short time before his death in 1980, also asserts that Byard's lack of prominence may have been the result of personal choices - a decision, for example, not to be a session player.

Other factors may have come into play. Footage of Byard playing solo find him to be both a more extroverted improviser than Evans, and more angular - as capable of blending tender melodies with jagged dissonance all within the same piece as he was of showing his roots in stride piano while displaying a more contemporary edge. Byard's style is less eminently-approachable than Evans, and this may help explain why he never achieved the same level of popular acclaim, even while he was highly-regarded within the music community.

Byard also comes across as an outspoken and somewhat opinionated individual, more reasons why he failed the popularity test - asserting, for example, that he originated the "disco" beat on the title track to '66's Freedom Together. Despite that, however, there is no doubt that he was a masterful musician, as the ample live footage - surprising, given the documentary's brief duration - both solo and with his Apollo Stompers Big Band — capably demonstrate. With Byard's passing in '99, this short documentary is, like the Jones piece, relevant in keeping the memory alive of an artist who may not have been as well-known as Jones nor as monumentally influential, but as a pianist who played with everyone from Charlie Mingus to Eric Dolphy to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Byard helped shape the foundation on which other, more prominent players would build their careers.


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