Jazz history is rife with piano geniuses: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor, Herbie Nichols, and so many others. But aside from the monolithic figure of Art Tatum few if any have succeeded in blending virtuosity, imagination and a complete command of the instrument like Jaki Byard did. His senseless murder last year marked the demise of an instrumental intellect virtually unparalleled not just in Jazz, but in modern music as a whole. All that is left now are the memories and recordings he left behind, but fortunately in terms of the latter there is much to choose from. The release of this recent Prestige reissue makes even more material available for perusal.
Packing in nearly 80 minutes of music this disc pairs two somewhat disparate sessions. Actually in the larger scheme all of Byard’s sessions were disparate. His fertile mind was filled with so many influences and ideas that a single tune could incorporate everything from stride, to bop, to free improvisation, to pop melodies. Solo Byard sessions are no longer the rarity they once were when the first session was released. In the intervening years he recorded prolifically in just such a setting for labels like Muse, Soul Note, Concord and Leo. But this session for Prestige was the first and all of Byard’s ingenuity is on display even on this pioneering date. The highlights are numerous, but one of the most arresting moments occurs during the opening dissonance of “New Orleans Strut,” which eventually segues into a undulating bluesy roll.
The second session takes the ‘with strings’ template made first made widely fashionable by Charlie Parker and turns it on it’s ear enlisting the aid of a diverse cadre of musicians. Nance, the senior of the group, first made his mark as principal trumpet in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, but here he favors his second instrument. His work, particularly on “Falling Rains of Life” evidences folksy delicacy that meshes beautiful with Byard’s lyrical chords. He even takes time to bark out a vocal turn on the playful, if somewhat prosaic “Ray’s Blues.” Conversely Ron Carter is featured on his own first instrument, the cello. Benson (in a very different bag that the one he was to take later in his career) and Davis round out the strings and Dawson’s drum kit drives the percussive end. The two lengthiest pieces “How High the Moon” and “Cat’s Cradle Conference Bag” allow for a startling array of group permutations and Byard’s layered arrangements of both audibly challenge the players with their complexity.
One unsolved mystery is Fantasy’s decision to blend the original albums together in terms of sequencing. Were they concerned that the solo piano pieces wouldn’t hold listeners’ interest if presented in succession? The answer is unclear, but as it stands while the order does break things up and provide nice contrast between Byard alone and with company, it also abolishes the original continuity. This is a minor quibble however and what’s most important is that all of this music is finally returned to circulation. For this the folks at Fantasy should be commended.