Re-Experiencing Jaki

In 1978, a large Third Avenue storefront that couldn’t keep tenants for more than a year or two reopened as a restaurant called Blue Hawaii. The place was so spacious that a good night in a normal restaurant meant half capacity at Blue Hawaii—and it was rarely that full. The owner was a nice man who loved jazz and installed a fine grand piano in a corner niche, perfect for listeners while suitably removed from uninterested diners. This short-lived island paradise (the décor included sea-blue paint and fish nets, and the menu offered forgettable dishes that may or may not have involved pineapple) was situated directly across the street from my apartment, and the owner refused money from jazz critics. Better yet, the incomparable Jaki Byard was often in residence, solo.

The audience was usually so, let us say, intimate that the sets were like séances, with much give-and-take between the artist and the house, which on certain nights consisted of, say, two freeloading critics with dates and Jaki’s witty wife, Louise. During one set, Jaki noodled for a moment and then came up with an idea: He would play a medley of Dizzy Gillespie tunes. Well, you can imagine how utterly enthralling that performance was, especially when, toward the end, he moved into a rhapsodic “Con Alma.” Suddenly, he ceased his romantic wizardry, looked at the keyboard, and with one hand or one finger picked out the bare melody of “Con Alma,” just the first few measures. Then he stopped, turned toward us, and asked, “How the hell does he think of things like that?”

I recall that my colleagues and I grumbled about the indignity of great musicians playing in restaurants and bars: We were young! We were idealistic! We were out of our minds! Of course, now I would happily pay for all the meals I ever cadged for one more evening of Jaki at Blue Hawaii or anywhere else. But wait (and cancel the check). What is this I hear before me? A previously unreleased 1978 solo recital by Jaki Byard, recorded at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner by its proprietor, Todd Barkan, and available to one and all from High Note Records as Sunshine of My Soul—and a triumph, no less, without an idling measure anywhere—one of the best Byard recitals on record. Don’t even think about not getting hold of it.

The title, of course, is an incredibly dumb and pointless provocation—the same title as Byard’s classic 1967 Prestige trio album with David Izenson and Elvin Jones. Better to have borrowed the title of the opening track, “Tribute to the Ticklers,” a deliriously energetic cousin-once-removed from “ATFW You,” the Byard solo that opens last year’s other—and, yes, even more surprising, rewarding, revealing—recovery from the mists of time, Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy, Cornell 1964, on Blue Note. (A remedial class in album-titling might not be unwarranted; and while we’re being parenthetical, full disclosure mandates pointing out that I wrote liner notes for the latter.)

The fervent reviews that greeted the Mingus concert paid homage to Byard, but for some reason those plaudits seem to stop short of his own catalog. As I write, Amazon ranks the Mingus at 1,217 and the Byard at 83,221. Yet we are in a Byard revival of sorts. During his lifetime, he was frequently dismissed as an all-purpose, tongue-in-cheek eclectic. Now pianists who came of age back then offer a corrective. Jason Moran, one of his students, has been most diligent in reviving Byard’s compositions and flair. Other Byard students who carry a torch include Fred Hersch and D.D. Jackson. Mingus himself is unusually forthcoming in expressing his pleasure in Jaki’s work at the Cornell concert—during the numbers, not in-between.

If Cornell 1964 whets the appetite for the Jaki Byard experience (the name of another Prestige classic, with Roland Kirk), the Sunshine recital is an ideal repast. Byard opens with ringing, descending tremolos that clear the air for the stride tribute to come—it’s like beginning the meal with palate-clearer and dessert. A Mingus medley begins with a masterly reconsideration of “Fables of Faubus,” played at first with melancholy compassion and then with angry resolve—a spellbinding interpretation that finds a new way of looking at an exceedingly familiar melody. The following transition runs through almost as many 19th-century piano signatures as he usually does ranging over jazz, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so startling, especially as the payoff is a boogie-woogie rendition of “Peggy’s Blue Skylight.”

“Spinning Wheel” is one of the savviest jazz adaptations of a rock hit ever. Byard plays it respectfully but also turns it inside out. He begins it with an oom-pah-pah vamp, flies lyrically through the chord changes, plays the melody as a semi-stride blues (in the manner of other Byard adaptations like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”), and then, as if losing interest in the melody, shrouds it in ever-richer chords that set up a superbly imaginative improvisation, the heart of the performance, before retracing his steps back to the melody and the triple-rhythm vamp. It’s a small Byard masterpiece. And so is “Besame Mucho,” a standard he played frequently, though not always with the operatic grandeur he bestows on this splendid version. When he goes into time, it’s the time of a Tatum or Garner, as reliable as a metronome, despite astonishing close-harmony chords thrown in along with artful rests and sweeping arpeggios. This is a fantasia, at once spontaneous and carefully worked out.

Byard’s originals are no less illustrative of the pure pleasure he took in his virtuoso chops, most of which he kept in reserve, sampling them in the appropriate context and then, at times, unleashing them with effects that surprised even him. “Hazy Eve” is one of his prettiest tunes, and “European Echoes” one of his most buoyant—a fearless, glittery, striding tour de force that shows how much he owed to the masters of the form as well as how little. He develops “Song of Proverbs” into a stream-of-consciousness romance with the proper touch of Lisztian bombast; you can imagine him in tails with a candelabrum on the piano. “Sunshine,” an ingenious, spiraling workout, gets an exemplary reading, the kind that makes you wonder, “How the hell does he think of things like that?”

Originally published in January/February 2008

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