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Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath

Jazz on the bandstand is as much about variety as it is confluence, and this intergenerational trio unites a handful of historic vernaculars into its unique jargon. Meaning pre-bop rhythmic ploys might be wedged against moments of modernism — few songbooks open the door to both James P. Johnson and Eric Dolphy. One thing’s certain: As the septuagenarian drummer sets everything in motion — check the action on the impressive Tootie’s Tempo — the power of poise is set in high relief.

Jan. 29-30, 9:30 p.m., 2014

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Wilderness’ (k)no(w)here Unleashes a Madcap Urban-Pastoral Cacophony

For a band named Wilderness, the Baltimore quartet make dissonant art-rock that’s distinctly urban, full of throat in a way that develops when you’re shouting to be heard in cities that never break or breathe. They specialize in a kind of crescendo minimalism: Through two albums of often shapeless cacophony (featuring thick, intertwined guitars and tom-and-kick drumming), they’ve crafted long-form songs that, though patient and deep-lunged, rely on the anthemic bursts to which they lead. At the fore but not the center, then, there’s lead singer James Johnson, whose slurred vocal style’s been compared to figures like John Lydon and David Byrne. But within such minor tempests, he’s not a frontman per se: His warbling disconnects from the words issued and becomes just another instrument, his lyrics broken down into simple repeated cries and chants that rise above the band’s shapely chaos, a further element of their dim but aspirant atmospheres.

For their third album, (k)no(w)here, Wilderness set out to compose a single piece that could be split into “tracks” only in that they’d appear that way on your iPod. The record moves with an ear toward its broader gains as one song diced into eight, another crafty epic that takes its theme from this year’s headlines. But Johnson’s language is one of urgency, the meanings made by volume, the words lost in William Goode’s muscular tom-tom patterns. When the drums barge in over a dense guitar bed on “Strand the Test of Time,” Johnson recites, “Here comes the new law merchant” like it’s the last remembered phrase from a hobo’s brighter days. “Silver Gene” rings out a strange bedhead alarm, its clamoring guitars and clunky rhythms giving Johnson the nervous backdrop he needs to wail about the tongue-tieds and confused souls that populate his “songs.” “Chinese Whisperers,” the centerpiece of a sort, reveals the band’s talent for delaying gratification, elevating two minutes of repetitious guitar stabs and cymbal-ticks into a propulsive sweep of, well, the same parts set into frenetic motion, a jumbled din that makes perfect (non)sense behind Johnson’s madcap litany.

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Music

Well, thinks I to meself, finally a Fats Waller CD. Good—I never play
my Book-of-the-Month Club vinyl, or those unsorted Vintages. But soon
I notice many apparent obscurities fleshing out “The Joint Is Jumping”
and “Your Feets Too Big”—some superb, like Fats striding through James
P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” most merely good. So I go buy RCA’s
2000 The Very Best of Fats Waller, figuring the gold is buried there.
Only it’s not. Neither of these CDs features the original “Ain’t
Misbehavin’ ” or “Honeysuckle Rose” (Very Best has two others), and
though I remain a seeker, not an expert, this is clearly suspicious.
So here’s what I propose: one expertly annotated CD of piano solos,
with a few band instrumentals and organ numbers thrown in, and one of
the novelty songs that made him a crossover pioneer—selected, please,
by somebody with a cheap sense of humor. I’d be grateful if it
included his “One Meat Ball,” which I haven’t seen nor heard since my
parents threw out their 78s—and which I am thus no longer sure ever
existed.

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Books

Ex-Kerouac flame and tireless memoirist Joyce Johnson continues her incisive dissection of late-20th-century boho Manhattan in Missing Men, a three-part chronicle that centers around the lingering influence of absent—physically and otherwise—fathers and lovers. A follow-up of sorts to Minor Characters, Johnson’s celebrated 1983 recollection of life with the King of the Beats (her archetypal AWOL lover), Missing Men describes her sequential post-Jack marriages to two struggling abstract expressionist painters. Moody, magnetic alcoholic James Johnson and distant Brit Peter Pinchbeck, we learn, are cut from the same cloth as Johnson’s maternal grandfather, a tormented immigrant poet whose suicide established a legacy of loss his female progeny seem helpless to escape. The book’s first and best segment describes one such descendant: Johnson’s mother, Rosalind, a fascinating, iron-willed mix of pathos and pluck who cajoled the young Joyce into a brief but memorable stage-acting career and started her down the path of artistic endeavor. Johnson comes across here as something of a charmingly old-fashioned New York snob whose awareness of life beyond Soho and the East Village is willfully limited, but she also establishes herself as an unusually keen observer of emotional flux.

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Purely Piano

Mid September’s 2002 Verizon Music Festival—note the absence of the J-word—offered little to the J-audience beyond McCoy Tyner and Tony Bennett, at least in the big halls. But a week of solo piano recitals at the Jazz Standard filled me with more optimism about the J-future than anything else this year. Though dramatically different from each other, three pianists born in the ’70s indicated a united front in their unconventional approaches, filtering of influences, and involvement with the music of their time. Each devised an emphatic solo style—a purely pianistic music, as opposed to a trio music without the trio. Several times I wondered whether Ethan Iverson, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran were playing jazz at all, but I never really cared. All of this was no less true of 41-year-old Matthew Shipp, who I will catch up with when Equilibrium is released in January. I assume it was also true of 47-year-old Fred Hersch (who I missed), knowing his intermingling of jazz and classical techniques. But I doubt that Hersch accessed one ingredient connecting the other four, especially in their new or imminent albums: hip-hop beats.

It was just a matter of time. For more than a decade, jazz musicians seeking concord with contemporary pop hired rappers, who sometimes rapped about jazz, as if that would make their intrusions more palatable. The answer was as close as Miles Davis, who knew to cherchez the rhythm. Jazz musicians who know hip-hop or grunge as part of the wallpaper of their youths are neither intimidated by nor contemptuous of it. They follow a key principle of jazz aesthetics in stealing anything that works (“Jazz is an octopus,” Dexter Gordon said), which is different from mixed drinks that dilute both factors. When Herbie Hancock, a pioneer of monotonous fusion and electronic beats, argued for the acceptance of “new standards” (rock tunes), he had to superimpose harmonic patterns to make them playable—he might as well have stayed with Tin Pan Alley. The borrowings of the under-30s are so natural that you may not notice them unless signposts are erected: No one can miss the dubbed beats in Moran’s version of Afrika Bambaata’s “Planet Rock,” but until I checked the sleeve I had no idea that the wildly effective fifth track of Iverson’s The Bad Plus is a Nirvana cover.

Iverson, with shaved head and goatee, looks like a cross between Pete Fountain and Dr. Cyclops, and the latter’s influence is the more prominent—in the microscopic attention to melody, the bombastic bursts of Lisztian fury, the patiently unpredictable bemusement while studying his captured song morsels. At the Jazz Standard, he opened with what might have been a John Ford soundtrack, the right hand picking “My Darlin’ Clementine,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Red River Valley,” while the left erected conflicting waves of dissonance or bounding ornamentation or a resolute ostinato, much of it foot-pedaled (the right pedal got a fierce workout all week). His control and plangent attack made the instrument roar, though an occasional stiffness grounded him. He lightened up on standards, including a whirlwind “All the Things You Are” cadenza, but he never relaxed for long, preferring to shake the rafters like the bells of Notre Dame.

The Bad Plus is a cooperative with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King, and no one will confuse it with an orthodox piano trio. The CD (on Fresh Sound) boasts an unmistakable jazz pedigree, but it also rocks, and even when they play theme and variations, they keep the theme in view, playing at and around it, never discarding melody or the equilateral rapport that gives the group its intensity. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a highlight, the chorus cued by a mad Cubano glissando in an arrangement that alternates permutations on the song’s two themes, while the dynamic King steamrolls the beat, caroming into his marks. Abba’s hopeless “Knowing Me Knowing You,” however, a sorry opener for a good album, reminds us that jazzing pop can be as coy as jazzing the classics, and no amount of dissonance or artillery throttles the banality. Similarly, on “Blue Moon,” the trio can’t decide whether it likes the tune or wants to humiliate it. Yet the five originals close the sale. “The Breakout” begins and ends stormily and envelops a ripe ballad by Anderson; and Iverson’s “Labyrinth” gets under way with a five-beat thumping, before flowering as a concise meditation spurred by the natural momentum of inverted harmonies. One can imagine a jazz-to-grunge reversal here, a rock band laying claim to the piece—not that there’s any need.

Vijay Iyer opened his Jazz Standard set with an elbow to the bass clef, followed by a dark drone balancing a light single-note tune and belling treble chords, sustaining a rhythmic pulse without giving into foursquare swing. An airless romanticism blanketed his original pieces and one by Steve Coleman, but gave way to a stirring triptych of Ellington’s “Le Sucrier Velours,” Monk’s “Epistrophy,” and a Cecil-like barrage engineered around Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe.” He is a stirring player who shares Iverson’s penchant for fat chords and pedaled volume but compels attention with long, confident phrases that race around the keyboard and avoid the usual stops. He, too, is involved in a cooperative: Fieldwork, with tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and another raging drummer, Elliot Humberto Kavee, whose rumble brings Your Life Flashes (Pi) to instant life. Iyer wrote most of the music, but the pieces take their final form through interactive serendipity. There’s so much going on, you never miss the bass. And rarely does anyone lay out for more than a few bars—this is all trio, all the time. In one passage, Iyer plays static chords in the extreme registers of the keyboard, and the effect is as if he’s dropped out to favor a tenor-drums passage; he returns by claiming the middle register. Stewart’s warm sound, reminiscent of Dewey Redman, adds to the flow and intimacy. Only “The Inner World,” one of two slow and moody pieces, derives conspicuously from generic ’70s jazz; “Mosaic” alights with hip-hop accents. Most of the pieces are terse, spellbinding miniatures that never stand still.

In addition to being close in age and crossing their conservatory techniques with pop fancies, Iverson, Iyer, and Moran reflect the influence of pianists overlooked in the ’60s and ’70s, when every keyboard player seemed under the sway or Evans, Tyner, or Taylor, or, later, Hancock, Corea, or Jarrett. Now we keep hearing talk of and works by Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, and Muhal Richard Abrams, plus the earlier stride hierarchy, not to mention Ellington, whose The Queen’s Suite evidently has a special resonance. Jason Moran’s selection from it at the Jazz Standard was “Sunset and the Mocking Bird,” during a set that never completely abandoned a jazz groove, or a sanguine originality, even as he employed such devices as Horace Silver vamps, Monk dissonances, and partying stride; on the autobiographical “Gentle Shifts South,” he added taped family voices. He doesn’t use the tape for the version on Modernistic (Blue Note), but he has enough other rabbits in his hat. Indeed, this is one of the most rigorously unpredictable and rewarding solo piano albums in years.

Moran takes liberties, and the album has something to please or offend everyone. Consider four of the pieces he didn’t write. The album title derives from James P. Johnson’s 1930 recording, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” which the composer played at tremendous velocity, as a succession of 16-bar strains. Johnson is one of the founders of a jazz piano style that goes beyond Harlem; it hews to melodic embellishments, something the players in the Jazz Standard series appreciate. They are as free as they want to be, yet incline toward a variational fidelity. Thus Moran polished Johnson’s key theme even as he opened it up after each four-bar section with echoes of the last-played phrase, giving his reading an asymmetrical impulsiveness, with starts and stops, despite the stride underpinning. His “Body and Soul” may be the only genuinely new attack since Sarah Vaughan’s 1978 duet with Ray Brown, which begins with the bridge. Working exclusively with the song’s first melodic idea, Moran never plays the bridge at all. And so sure is he in working and reworking the hook, tied to an ostinato, that you don’t mind its absence. Near the end, he suddenly erupts with a full-bore arpeggio; in that one gesture, he lets you know how much piano history he commands.

On “Planet Rock,” Moran uses dubs and reversed tape—it’s a different planet than Bill Evans’s Conversations With Myself—to set up the melody, which he interprets almost as an anthemic lullaby, a radio tune stuck in your head. As an addendum, he adds a two-minute pensée on a beat he contrived for the arrangement. Covering all bases, he essays Schumann’s “Auf einer Burg,” from the second Liederkreis cycle, as a popular song—two 18-bar episodes with a four-bar transition. Moran plays the simple tune with a solemn loveliness, adding subtle variations in the harmony, which becomes a kind of chord progression for his second chorus. At that point he embellishes the theme with rhythmic interest, yet never breaks the spell. He follows it with “Gentle Shifts South,” and in this context his own melody emerges as an inversion of Schumann’s, sustaining its lyrical mood. Modernistic is a remarkable album.

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Bad Haircut, Good Ragtime

In westerns, the saloon pianist never gets any respect. Always a foil and never once a hero, he’s there in a thousand movies, utterly nondescript in his bowler and gartered sleeve—a professional dweeb who plays “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” too fast and if he’s lucky gets to accompany Ann Sheridan or Angela Lansbury, but whose primary job is to duck like a clown as soon as the fists or bullets start flying. Who is this guy? Was he schooled, did he have a wife and kids, did he audition for the gig, could he read music, did he have a day job, was he paid tips or salary, was he a solid citizen or a drifter, where did he find material, did he ever get applause, did he have to bring his own garter? In real life, the job was not without allure. The adolescent Irving Berlin, for one, could think of no grander position.

Chicago-based Delmark, now in its fifth decade, which documents blues, traditional jazz, the avant-garde, and anything else owner Bob Koester admires, has just issued a surpassingly strange disc that restores to posterity a barroom pianist known in his day as the Ragtime Kid. Brunson Campbell is well known to ragtime experts, because in addition to privately making a handful of records in the 1940s, one side only (“If they want to hear two tunes,” he told writer Floyd Levin, “let them buy two records”), he was an influential propagandist for the postwar ragtime revival. If Campbell and his compatriots remain unknown to the rest of us, blame the lingering paranoia, snobbery, and ignorance that segregates jazz from its predecessors. Eubie Blake spent decades in the wilderness before his amazing comeback in 1969. Grove’s new three-volume jazz guide doesn’t even have an entry for Scott Joplin. Compared to them, Campbell is a footnote’s footnote, but one worth savoring.

Campbell’s fame rests on his standing as Joplin’s first and possibly only white pupil. Though only 14 when he ran away from his Kansas home to pound the keys, Brun, who was born in 1884, would stroll into saloons and play rags or back barbershop quartets to “pick up easy money” from the customers, who, during 10 years on the road, included outlaws Cole Younger, Henry Starr, and Emmet Dalton, as well as Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill, Lew Dockstader, Bat Masterson, and Teddy Roosevelt. “In those days,” he wrote in Art Hodes’s magazine, The Jazz Record, “pianists played on old battered square pianos. Some were inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and none I ever played on were in tune.” He witnessed his share of fights and shoot-outs, but his eureka moment came early, in an Oklahoma City music store, in 1898, when ragtime pianist and composer Otis Saunders showed him a handwritten manuscript of “Maple Leaf Rag” and told him he was on his way to join its composer in Sedalia. Campbell headed that way, too, and Joplin taught him how to play his first four rags.

In 1908, when ragtime was at its height, Brun abandoned professional music and married. Twenty years later, he established himself as a barber in Venice, California, where he quietly plied his trade until the 1940s, when young enthusiasts discovered him; with a little encouragement, he would close shop and regale them with stories. Turk Murphy told pianist and historian Terry Waldo, “You could always tell the guys who were going to see him, because of their haircuts. He wasn’t really that good of a barber—but he played good ragtime.” He was also, by all accounts, a good man; his early encounter with St. Louis’s black ragtime elite washed away any taint of racial prejudice the South might otherwise have instilled. He argued passionately for recognition of the superior black players, recorded for the sole purpose of sending royalties to Joplin’s ailing widow (“Of all Scott’s old friends, you are the only one who has ever offered to do anything for him,” she wrote him), and helped establish the Joplin memorial at Fisk University.

After Campbell’s death in 1953, Paul Affeldt released some of his recordings on his label, Euphonic, a catalog that Delmark has been reissuing over the past year. The Campbell collection, Joplin’s Disciple, includes about 20 numbers and fragments—most of them under two minutes, previously unissued, and presented in master and alternate versions. The sound is primitive, but the raw spunk of the playing is amplified by spoken comments, Campbell’s homage to Joplin, and Joplin’s piano roll of “Maple Leaf Rag,” pumped by Campbell. Is he any good? Yes and no. His chops are limited, he makes mistakes, his rhythms are as pumped up and automated as a pianola in overdrive. His “Maple Leaf Rag,” for example, is almost as studied as Joplin’s roll, though he makes the key melody sing as few interpreters do. In short, he sounds like nobody else. If the sedate Joplin promoted in the 1970s by Joshua Rifkin and Marvin Hamlisch put you in a coma, consider Campbell’s ur-rock and roll approach an antidote.

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The album illustrates two theories. In This Is Ragtime, Waldo describes ragtime as an “expression of the mechanical age . . . its haunting quality [arising] from the juxtaposition of the older, lively Negro folk tunes within a hollow, metronomic framework.” If you can accept a metronome that rushes, Campbell is QED. In Rags and Ragtime, pianists and historians David A. Jasen and Trebor Jay Tichenor put forth a case for the folk rag, a generic kind of ragtime based not on specific scores but on a pool of melodies and rhythms mixed and matched at the performer’s will; Campbell is cited as one of the first proponents. The new CD has many examples, though the piece they consider his masterpiece, “Chestnut Street in the ’90s,” is the only Campbell recording not included, presumably because it never appeared on Euphonic.

The pianist enters like a moose on “Essay in Ragtime.” Had Brun encountered any tuned pianos in his Midwestern travels, his left hand would have undone them. The force is so startling that you may not notice the modest embellishments or blues strain inserted at the trio. Campbell likes to combine two formats—the traditional 16-bar (or 8 + 8) ragtime strain and the 12-bar blues—and sometimes he doesn’t seem to know which way he’s headed until he gets there. Whenever he opts for the blues, it’s either a variation on “Frankie and Johnny” or “Frankie and Johnny.” For the rag of that name, he begins with blues choruses, switches to a 16-bar B strain, and then alternates the two, rushing the blues sections. “Lulu White” reverses the process, beginning with a 16-bar strain, played twice, followed by an F&J variation, then alternating them. On the second take of “Frankie and Johnny,” he gets lost in the third chorus, as the left hand goes one way and the right another until he settles on the blues; he cuts the last chorus short by about seven beats.

That may sound like a mistake, but with Campbell you can’t be sure. On “Campbell Cakewalk,” which he seems to be making up on the spot, he begins with a 28-bar strain: 8 + 12—though the 12 is not a blues— + 8. The B strain (touch of “Who’s Sorry Now?”) is 16 and so is the C (touch of “Twelfth Street Rag”). About seven bars into the D strain, he suddenly turns the rhythm around, gaining two beats (or losing six) in the process and continuing with the new rhythm for another seven, thereby ending up with a strain of 14 and a half bars. If you think that, too, must be a mistake, consider “Barber Shop Rag,” which hints at “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Muskrat Ramble” before arriving at a C strain that loses two beats in the 10th bar, ending up with an episode of 15 and a half bars. It also sounds like a mistake, except there are two takes and it comes out that way every time.

Sometimes, as on “Ginger Snap Rag,” he winds himself up into a state of near euphoria, but more often he gives sway to a blustery contrariness, as in three distinct takes of “Twelfth Street Rag,” the first ending with a phrasing of the melody that unmistakably presages the theme from The Third Man, the second accentuating the counterpoint between melody and bassline, and the third additionally embellishing accents. For sheer asymmetrical pulsing jollity, nothing beats “Rendezvous,” which begins with a five-bar intro, followed by blues choruses and a 16-bar strain that in its second and final incarnation winds up 17 and a half bars, as though he were about to extend the last eight into a blues but thought better of it.

On the B strain of “Rendezvous,” Campbell flashes a treble gliss, recalling a segment from “Lily Rag,” the best-known rag by Charles Thompson, who Campbell says on his album was “the best of all of ’em.” Recordings culled from two parties Thompson played shortly before his death in 1964 were released last year as Neglected Professor, one of Delmark’s first Euphonic releases. If Campbell’s life was transformed by Joplin, Thompson’s was turned upside down by James P. Johnson, the Broadway composer and piano god whom he had met between 1912 and 1917, when Johnson was first getting started. The encounter encouraged Thompson to expand the ragtime idiom to include a wider range of rhythmic attacks, including boogie-woogie and stride. He recorded little and few people heard him outside of St. Louis, where he operated a club. Thompson lacked Johnson’s inventiveness, virtuosity, and spirit, but he had enough technique to evolve his own intimidatingly flashy style. Except for a couple of ponderous standards (“How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Tennessee Waltz”), the Delmark disc is an impressive showcase for a pianist who replaces Campbell’s brute force with razzle-dazzle syncopations and flourishes—he employs Johnson’s Charleston beat on “Dicty’s on 7th Avenue.” Thompson, who became legendary for besting Tom Turpin in a much celebrated contest, could play and write rings around Campbell (“Lily Rag” is a peach). But he was also more conventional and there are passages when his technique can’t hide the windup aspect of a mechanical music. Through Thompson’s polish and Campbell’s primitivism, however, we can experience part of the foundation from which jazz and swing arose, and credit the rowdy world of card sharps and wild women who paid the bills.

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Jaki Byard, 1922­1999

Lea was two months old the first time we took her to a concert—
Jaki Byard’s 1989 recital at Weill Hall. He sat at the piano and played a 10-note discord. She whimpered, looked distressed. But he followed instantly with a lambent stride passage. She raised her head and smiled, then fell into an hour’s sleep. I knew the feeling. Jaki never put me to sleep, but he always made me smile and frequently knocked me out. Listening to him was like turning on a tap in which all the strains of modern piano, from James P. Johnson to
Cecil Taylor, flowed in one luscious rush. Yet having described the most obvious aspect of his playing, I feel obliged to backpedal from the old saw that his music stood for no more than a promethean eclecticism. The result was his own and unmistakable, by turns hard, percussive, witty, sentimental, sardonic, whimsical, subversive, ebullient, anguished. Like Sonny Rollins, he could fake you out— making you think, for example, that those corny arpeggios were a joke, so that you didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or grateful at the emotions he extracted from them.

Jaki died February 11, at 76, of a gunshot wound, in his home in Hollis, Queens, and rumors abound— an intruder, someone personally close, suicide. I can’t believe the last, though he was hit hard by the death a few years back of his wife, Louise, his devoted and amusingly acerbic companion of some four decades. He left two daughters, Denise and Diane, whose names and occasional singing are known to admirers of his compositions and recordings; a son, Gerald; and a passel of grandsons and great-grandsons. He also left an enormous number of students past and present, both institutional
— eight years at the New England Conservatory of Music, four at the Hart School of Music, three a lecturer at Harvard, among other affiliations— and private, including Marty Ehrlich, D.D. Jackson, and a young musical therapist named Vanessa Kaster, who came to learn improvisation and said last week, “Every particle of him was music. Sometimes the lessons would last three hours. His clock wasn’t set to real time, only to music.”

I studied with him in 1974, when he was part of the faculty at Martin Williams’s critics colloquium at the Smithsonian; but I’d been studying his music long before that. In the mid ’60s, he was one of the pianists who regularly played the Village Gate mezzanine. If you were short on cash, you could sit at the bar and nurse a beer through several sets and no one bothered you. I loved trying to follow his stream-of-
consciousness forays, medleys of songs and techniques— never dull, never indifferent. He was a master of stride, r&b, ballads, and free improvisation, a great Garner, Tatum, and Hines player; these were not affectations, but integral to what he knew and believed about piano. When Vanessa asked him about stride, he said it was no big deal, that you could find it in classical music, that it was all part of the piano repertoire. Still, what I liked best was what I came to think of as Jaki’s core style, a driven bebop linearity that ranged over the whole keyboard with a fierce purposefulness, every note struck like a hammer. He could make a piano roar. But as soon as you thought you knew the song, he turned the corner and you were in another country.

One night at the Gate, a little juiced-up Billy Eckstine wannabe who sang as “Junior Parker” and had no fixed address, just an oversized overcoat, walked in and asked to sing. Jaki shrugged, and soon Junior was there every night, arriving in the middle of the set to wail “Getting To Know You” in an impossibly slow, cellolike arrangement. Jaki included him and it on his next album, the irresistible Freedom Together!, after which Junior disappeared. On a college break, I went to the Gate to find Jaki no longer in residence, and asked if he was playing anywhere. “Oh, Jaki’s at the 82 Club,” someone said, giving me directions to the East Village. When I finally found the joint I was greeted by a midget transvestite who said he’d never heard of Jaki Byard but I was certainly welcome; I stomped out, annoyed at the joke played on me. Years
later, I told Jaki. He said, “Man, you should’ve come in. Those were nice people. Actually, that was one of my better gigs.”

Which was probably true. He was briefly in the rotation at the Village Vanguard, but after 1970 I mostly heard him in restaurants or one-shot concerts— among them, encounters with David Murray, Greg Osby, and Archie Shepp. In later years, he was inconsistent, sometimes noodling in introspective meditation, waiting— Rollins-like— for the muse to jump-start him. He looked increasingly like a bemused bear, his hair a straightened thatch sprouting around his head, his face round and line-free, his expression quizzical. He loved big bands more than anything— he had come up with Herb Pomeroy in Boston (despite more than three decades in Queens, he
never lost a scintilla of his accent), toured the country as pianist and arranger with Maynard Ferguson, worked closely with Charles Mingus (he arranged much of the 1964 Monterey concert), and occasionally subbed for an ailing Duke Ellington. Incredibly for a guy who struggled to get trio work, he organized a big band, the
Apollo Stompers— named, he was quick to point out, for the Greek god, not the theater. His final recording, made last spring and as yet unreleased, was his third with the orchestra.

Jaki will be best remembered, however, for the astonishing recordings he cut between 1961 and 1972, mostly for Prestige, though he insisted his personal favorite was a solo date for Futura in Paris (1971, never released here); and for piloting Richard Davis and Alan Dawson in one of the greatest rhythm sections ever assembled. If he never acquired a commensurate following, he was long a critical favorite and he had a loyal and imaginative producer in Don Schlitten, who assembled that rhythm section in 1963, for the first of the Booker Ervin “Book” LPs. Like Armstrong’s Hot 5 or Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, it existed only in the studio, but over the next decade it proved a telling alternative to HerbieRonTony, a combustible, cohesive, swinging unit that never tempered the individuals involved— you couldn’t believe what was going on in that cauldron.

Most of the albums are out of print, some for more than 15 years. But they’ve been
slowly returning, one by one, and they merit reassessment. Jaki was the kind of musician who played “Giant Steps” slow (Here’s Jaki) and “Lush Life” fast (Out Front). On Hi-Fly, he disguises the title tune with a full-bore rhythmic buildup and makes James P. Johnson’s “Yamekraw” sound modern. He was also an exceptionally deep and versatile blues player, as you can glean by comparing “Searchlight,” “Out Front,” and “Freedom Together.” The untuned piano at a place called Lennie’s on the Turnpike inspired him (as did saxophonist Joe Farrell) to one bashing climax after another on the two volumes of Live! (a third volume was never released). For the full Byard effect, however, you must follow him into the twilight zone of Freedom Together! (Schlitten has always liked exclamation points); On the Spot! (the title track is brutal hard bop while “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is r&b); the dazzling Jaki Byard Experience (with Rahsaan, a friskier companion to Kirk’s own Rip, Rig, and Panic); and the staggering Sunshine of My Soul, where his assimilation of Taylor is given free rein on “Sunshine” and “Trendsition Zildjian,” his fluent Tatum chops sweep through “Chandra,” and his own bopping proclivities erupt on “Diane’s Melody.” Jaki Byard With Strings! has “Cat’s Cradle Conference Rag,” in which the leader plays “Take the A Train,” Ray Nance plays “Jersey Bounce,” George Benson plays “Darktown Strutters Ball,” Richard Davis plays “Intermission Riff,” Ron Carter plays “Desafinado,” and Alan Dawson plays “Ring Dem Bells”— at the same time. A few complicated arrangements notwithstanding, that album is mostly an upbeat jam. His most resonant work is to be found on the lavishly varied recitals, Solo Piano, There’ll Be Some Changes Made, Duet! (an ardent collaboration with Earl Hines), To Them— To Us, At Maybeck. Perhaps, someday, even the Futura album he loved will cross the Atlantic. Jaki gave up waiting long ago; me, never.