Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State
Jaki Byard – Giant Steps
Jaki Byard – Bess You Is My Woman/It Ain’t Necessarily So
Jaki Byard – Hi-Fly
Jaki Byard – Here to Hear
Jaki Byard’s style on piano is as diverse as his background. First hitting the scene in Maynard Ferguson’s band, his equal interests in the tradition of stride piano and his desire to create things new and different created a situation where he and the organization outgrew each other. Before making these debut records on Prestige New Jazz, Byard added several wind instruments to his arsenal to make himself more marketable amongst band leaders, but his unique abilities on piano made it inevitable that he would eventually make his own series of excellent, forward-thinking recordings. This was most likely enhanced by his time spent with Charles Mingus, into whose lap Byard fell when he left Ferguson.
While he is an influence on (and was a teacher to) several noteworthy modern pianists, including Jason Moran and Fred Hersch, his recordings as a leader have been quietly put aside while records like Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, Outward Bound (fellow Mingus alumnus Eric Dolphy), Fuscia Swing Song (Sam Rivers) and Rip, Rig and Panic (Rahsaan Roland Kirk) serve as the scaffolding of Byard’s legacy. Hearing the pianist in these dynamic trios gives you a nice panoramic view of everything Byard had to offer without anyone else blocking your sightline.
Each of these records features Byard and bassist Ron Carter, and while a choice of drummer would not necessarily steer the trajectory of every piano trio record, there’s a distinct difference between the program of music on each LP. The first includes Roy Haynes, whose rock solid time helps more of Byard’s stride devices to surface. Any research you do on Byard’s affinity for piano stylings form the 1930s and 40s will include some mention of his ability to use these techniques equally for humor or for dramatics. The “gallop” effect transforms the band’s take on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” normally a hard-blowing tour de force, into a breezy romp. That is not to say that you can’t hear any reverence in Byard’s approach to the music of others. Coltrane, George Gershwin, Randy Weston, James P. Johnson, George Shearing, Thelonious Monk – a kitchen sink variety of composers are all given the same earnest effort here and on Hi-Fly. The combination of “Bess You Is My Woman Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is given a reading that is simultaneously in honor of the originals and yet 100% Byard in nature. How someone who is so eclectic in his preferences and his nature can then put out such a unique product is beyond me. He has been quoted saying, “I like everything I do. Everything that I document, I like it. I like what’s been played, and I like what’s going to be played.”
The other trio, this time with Pete La Roca behind the kit, sticks more to Byard’s freer tendencies, resulting in many moody moments. A song like “Here to Hear” is particularly thick with atmosphere, giving the pianist plenty of room to stretch out. At its most hectic moments, La Roca pierces the air with his ride cymbal and not much else, offering moments of feathery support. Given Byard’s lesser known status, it is fitting that this LP opens with a fellow pianist who may be less known as a musician than his most famous tune. Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly” has been recorded by quite a few other musicians, and it’s jangly nature suits Byard perfectly.
Right in these two examples you have the great things and the most unfortunate things about collecting old jazz LPs. Both acquired at record fairs, Here’s Jaki is obviously a little worse for wear when comparing the recordings that I made. When you’re in the moment of trying to determine how a record will play when there are people breathing down your neck trying to get a glimpse of the crate where you’re digging, sometimes you underestimate – but in reality the visual aspects of an LP can only tell you so much. That particular record I found at WFMU’s giant record fair in New York City. It was at the first table I visited, and it would have been hard to convince myself it would still be there an hour or so later if I had left it and come back. It still has the charms of listening to an old mono recording, but sometimes I cringe imagining myself trying to explain the virtues of listening past all that crackle and pop. Anything that would come out of my mouth would sound lofty, pretentious, or like plain bullshit. Nevermind that Roy Haynes thwaps his brushes on the snare drum lively enough for you to look up from staring at your iPad, or that Ron Carter’s solo introduction on “Cinco Y Quatro” arrives in your listening room like an old friend slowly sauntering up next to you. Even though Hi-Fly has a little noise as well, certainly not enough to take away from the magic of the recording, I’m sure those who don’t listen to vinyl regularly find themselves distracted. “MP3S DON’T HAVE SURFACE NOISE!” you’ll say. So listen, if the rips I made do not convey just why it is that I need to have an old scratched up piece of plastic, then you need to find your nearest friend with a turntable. To me it always sounds more interesting, or at least it has a nostalgia for the time period when these recordings were made, but with the right LP in the right condition, it can be pure magic. Go give it a try.