Sunday, June 20, 2010

Two sides of a valuable coin: Classicism and innovation in mid-20th Century jazz Pt. 1- Don Byas- A NIGHT IN TUNISIA (Black Lion)

Don Byas is essentially the original expat horn man, and his decision to blow off racist USA in 1946 for the more attractive territory of Europe still affects his standing as one of the major swing to bop blowers. He deserves mention in the same breath as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster, forming a holy quartet of forward thinking tenors that helped to subtly modernize jazz in the big-band era while influencing the post-WWII revolution of Parker/Gillespie/Gordon/Navarro/etc in the bargain, but sadly his name persists in being spoken of only in serious jazz terms. Compounding this neglect is the fact that Byas didn’t start recording as a leader until two years before skipping to The Continent, while his post-Euro period slowly became focused more on live performance at the expense of a studio legacy. Some of those club dates were taped, however. Black Lion’s A NIGHT IN TUNISIA was captured at the Montmartre in Copenhagen Denmark early in 1963, and it shows how his playing continued to be spirited and inventive long past any sort of real or imagined shelf life. Byas commanded a lush, insistent, gruff tone that was equally suited for ballads and faster tempos, and this meant he could hold down a long night on the bandstand as the sole horn, playing with advanced, dynamic versatility. “I’ll Remember April” will dispel any doubts over Byas’ lasting prowess on the sax, with its spirited and somewhat agitated soloing proving that his ears had remained open to the sounds of the period. This up-to-date quality is only amplified on a slower number like “Lover Man”, where the raw force of his improvising breathes life into standard material in a manner roughly equivalent to a tack often employed by John Coltrane during the same era, though that’s not to infer any explicitly avant-garde qualities on the playing. On the other hand, while Byas’ sound is straight-ahead, it’s also directly linked to the booming lung-power of Peter Brötzmann, particularly the German free-master’s fairly recent work in small groups, and this connection speaks directly to the elder’s lasting relevance and vitality while providing yet another example of the relationship between tradition and experimentation in jazz history. The seemingly unending avenues and alleyways of that history get sharpened at least a small bit by hearing this sax giant simply pour it on from the bandstand with a crack team of Nordic support: pianist Bent Axen first crossed my consciousness by playing on the Prestige label’s three posthumous volumes of Eric Dolphy’s IN EUROPE, and he really shines here, particularly on “Yesterdays”, his assertive playing essentially anchoring the proceedings while Byas goes on some extended and very choice solo flights. Drummer William Schiopffe might lack the finesse of Max Roach or Kenny Clarke, but this deficiency is easily compensated for with poise, energy and communicative skill, and he excels at faster tempos, throwing off sparks mildly reminiscent of both Elvin Jones and Pete LaRoca. Bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen is the true Euro-veteran in Byas’ band, however. His credits from the ‘60s alone are massive, with two of my favorites from that long list being Roland Kirk’s KIRK IN COPENHAGEN and Dexter Gordon’s ONE FLIGHT UP. He really excelled at the expressive support that so many travelling masters deserved and often didn’t receive, so it’s no wonder the guy’s discography spans into the hundreds. And it was live dates such as this one that helped secure NHØP’s (as he’s often referred) reputation, with a sizeable portion of his recorded work deriving from bandstands and festival stages. There’s a great moment on this disc’s “Lady Bird” where Byas drops out and Axen navigates through a very fine solo with Schiopffe and the bassist swinging into a masterful groove beneath him, and when Byas jumps back in to instigate the tune’s climax there is a palpable sense of everyday, workmanlike brilliance. Just another night/There will be no other nights like this. The song choices here form a fine geography and it’s likely the peaks and valleys of their presentation are a non-tampered with slice of vérité, just one inspired live set from this quartet captured on tape and sent to the pressing plant for immortalization. The disc culminates with a fiery and loose knockabout on Dizzy Gillespie’s titular warhorse, and if you’re a Byas newbie I guess this release is as good a point of entry as any. There are a couple of indispensible collections in the Gitanes/Universal JAZZ IN PARIS series, LAURA and EN CE TEMPS-LÀ, both documenting his early European recordings, and certainly his ‘30s-‘40s stuff is substantially more than necessary; the work with Count Basie’s band (which really put him on the radar, “Harvard Jam Blues” especially), the ’41 jam session MIDNIGHT AT MINTON’S (a key moment in the bop chronology, featuring early work from Monk and Kenny Clark) and the SAVOY JAM PARTY comp in particular (try and find the 2LP original, not the shitty CD reissue that’s seven tracks light and shrinks the liner notes down so small you’ll need a high-powered monocle to read ‘em). What makes A NIGHT IN TUNISIA an acceptable introduction to the man, in addition to the high musical quality described above, lies in how it flouts the oft-heard and truly bogus textbook wisdom that by 1961 pre-bop artists like Byas were, with a few exceptions (Duke and Coleman Hawkins, most notably), past their prime. The booming bigness of NIGHT might temporarily throw a cover of surface datedness over the earlier recordings (nearly all of which were touched by commercial constraints of the period such as song length and sound quality), but the inherent goodness of the older stuff will swipe off that cloak of quaintness tout de suite. Anybody interested in the transition of jazz from lively pop/dance/social music into the vital and interactive modernism of bop and beyond really needs to spend some quality time with Don Byas. He trod over Europe like Gulliver did Lilliput, and the hugeness of his playing still shatters any attempts to place it under glass.

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