Alto saxophonist Frank Strozier’s music is dyed-in-the-wool hard bop—how could late-’50s jazz from blues-and-gospel Memphis be anything else? As such, it’s a bit jarring to hear his compositions juxtaposed with Chris Byars’ classically informed arrangements. Trombone, bass clarinet, oboe and guitar assail the material on The Music of Frank Strozier, along with Byars’ alto and flute.
But the hybrid works. Byars simultaneously softens the edges of Strozier’s tunes, then sharpens them again. On the opening “Extension 27,” Pasquale Grasso’s guitar acts as a sedative, the charming bed of chords sounding much like a soft-touch piano against Stefan Schatz’s brushwork and in Grasso’s delicately constructed solo. But on top, Byars, with a salt-and-vinegar sound in his alto, and trombonist John Mosca attack with adrenaline, and Stefano Doglioni applies a coarse edge with his bass clarinet. James Byars’ oboe leavens “Remember Me” simply by virtue of being an oboe—but then Doglioni and Mosca pull the tune into swing so determined it approaches grimness. By the time of “Long Night” and “Ollie,” these orchestral textures sound like they were made to play the blues. “Ollie,” a ballad, is really Byars’ alto feature, and he hits it hard. Still, Grasso’s accompaniment reeks of bent notes and bluesy substitutions, and the horns squeeze together in soulful pathos, Mosca especially shining.
As might be expected, the mellower qualities do hold sway when Byars picks up the flute. Yet he has a light prance of an approach to the instrument, so that even as he gives a softer side to “Neicy” or the rhumba “For Chris,” Byars kicks up the tune’s rhythmic side as well. That’s an impressive balance, and a masterful one.Originally Published