The Chris Byars Octet
Lucky Strikes Again: The Chris Byars Octet Plays The Music of Lucky Thompson
One of the most nobel traditions in jazz is the tribute. Paying homage to those who came before is a time honored ritual for keeping an artist’s work alive, as well as galvanizing one’s own sound. But what I like about tenor saxophonist Chris Byars’ approach to tributes is that he chooses his subject so judiciously. For Byars, a tribute is more than a tip of the hat or a handful of covers; it’s an excavation.
Byars' previous release, Blue Lights, was an earnest tribute to the lost and undervalued compositions of Gigi Gryce that dusted off rare gems and looked at them in an entirely new light. With Lucky Strikes Again (a play on the title of an old Lucky Thompson record inspired by the cigarette brand), Byars applies the same methodology, but through an even narrower prism. While the late saxophonist Lucky Thompson is best known for his role in seminal bebop sessions of the late 40s, Byars instead focuses on the small body of work Lucky created in the early 60s, including many compositions that had gone unpublished until now.
Those more familiar with Lucky's work will note the unusual choice of an octet to perform these songs. While the bulk of Lucky's recorded output was within the quartet or quintet setting, thanks to diligent research on Byars' part, it appears that Lucky was indeed experimenting with octets, and this is where Byars and his group draw inspiration. Songs like the catchy “Old Reliable” and the exquisite “Passionately Yours” benefit from splendid arranging, while “Another Whirl” and “TipTop” offer brisk, streamlined bop that wouldn’t sound out of place in a mid-50s West Coast recording by Lennie Niehaus or Victor Feldman. As usual, trombonist John Mosca is a revelation, Scott Wendholt holds the high ground with polish on trumpet and I especially like the nod to Lucky’s recordings with Slam Stewart via bowed bass solos by Ari Roland. Byars’ tone on tenor is actually of a much smoother texture than Lucky’s, but he’s got Lucky’s phrasing down cold and he sounds especially Lucky-like on the lovely ballad “Just One More Chance.”
The highlights for me on Lucky Strikes Again are the songs that pull from Thompson’s sound during his ABC-Paramount years (which can be very hard to obtain). Thompson’s compositions at this time had a quirky quality to them, fragile song structures with offbeat melodies that sound as if they were created for a movie soundtrack or a play. The best examples of this are “Two Steps Out” with its precise stop-time swing and “Notorious Love” which features a bluesy soprano sax work by Byars. I pulled out Lucky's extremely rare Kinfolks Corner record (Rivoli 1966) while reviewing this disc, and the similarity between Lucky's soprano lines and Byars playing on this track is quite startling.
Since Lucky Thompson had such terrible luck throughout his career, Byars deserves big credit for shining a light on Lucky's composing talents. It’s certainly a side of Lucky Thompson that had not been addressed before. Perhaps with a little luck, Byars’ treatment of these songs will help attract more artists and listeners to Lucky's work. Until then, consider yourself lucky to enjoy this excellent release.
Chris Byars: Press
On the occasion of his second Steeplechase outing Chris Byars cannily continues in a musical rich vein tapped on his first. Gigi Gryce counts as a current healthy obsession of the saxophonist and three of the composers’ pieces grace the program. Another of Byars abiding interests concerns the work and legacy of vibraphonist Teddy Charles, a relatively recent recruit to his circle of collaborators thanks to a long-overdue return to active playing. Charles guests on just three pieces, but his presence is invaluable to the proceedings, particularly the closing title centerpiece. Byars’ father James, on oboe and English horn, is the other guest, overlapping with Charles on just one track.
Byars acumen as an arranger is apparent from the open reading of George Wallington’s “Festival”. After a brisk unison theme and solos by the horns Schatz switches to brushes for Roland’s sawdust-generating bowed solo as Byars and Mosca sketch skeletal distillations of the theme in descending counterpoint. Back on sticks for a closing break, Schatz kicks up the momentum and carries the piece out. Gryce’s “Straight Ahead” and “Lost Love” follow in short succession with the hard-swinging “Minority” arriving later. Roland digs into the blues of the first with audible relish, his tone plush and spongy against the sliding shimmy beat from Schatz. Charles works the cracks after a horn-handled head arrangement, inserting pedal swells and floating clusters and adding his own spectral moan on top. Mosca’s the star on the second, his smoothly enunciated solo riding a loping rhythm of brushes and bobbing bass.
Two more pieces draw from Byars’ series inspired by a Himalayan Art exhibition and the focus of an earlier album for Smalls. After an expansive vertical opening “Himalayan Sunrise” flips perspectives into lush horizontal landscape for intimate overlapping horn lines, Byars’ warm tenor annexing the most space. “Indra” finds Schatz trading kit for kanjira, a resonating tabla-like hand drum. “Nature Boy” time travels back to Charles’ classic Fifties rendering of the tune in the company of Miles and Mingus and is practically overflowing with cerulean atmospherics thanks to his luminous malletry and free-floating coda.
The title track balances bold ambition and grand execution within the accommodating suite-like span of a third of an hour. Built on a suspect Charlie Parker axiom that all jazz is built on the changes to “I Got Rhythm”, “Cherokee” and the blues, the piece nonetheless forms a durable Gestalt on the strengths of participant contributions. Charles nods at the late great Walt Dickerson in his texture-rich and spatially-conscious contributions and with the ensemble at full sextet strength it’s easily the finest outing of the set. By plumbing rather than plundering the past Byars ensures that it will quite some time before he or his colleagues run dry of creative tributaries to tap.
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From the New York Sun:
Now entering its third year of Friday recitals, Harlem in the Himalayas began with Mr. Schoenberg's introduction of Chris Byars, after which the lights went out and a series of slides was projected on a screen behind the band. The new work was titled "Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition of Himalayan Art," but the first sound we heard was an impromptu recording of a random bunch of men singing in a Russian or Balkan dialect.
The quartet then played a boppish arrangement of that melody, before we journeyed, musically, ever further east. Next stop was a jazz treatment of an Arabian folk theme, after which the group, joined by Mr. Byars's father, James, on oboe, played a longer, Middle-East-inspired (and recently unearthed) work by the late jazz composer Gigi Gryce entitled "Al-Ghashiyah."
The rest of the show consisted of five pieces inspired by Tibetan artwork, none of which employed minor seconds or any of the traditional devices used by jazz composers to depict an Asian mood, except that each began with a tinkling bell. One piece did have the drummer, Stefan Schatz, playing a tabla, although, since the lights were out, it was hard to see exactly what he was doing.
This music, too, was highly bass-based: In addition to Mr. Byars on four different reeds, Mr. Schatz on drums, and John Mosca on trombone, the bassist Ari Roland spent a lot of time playing arco; apparently, the use of the bow gives the instrument more of a harmonic presence, necessary to compensate for the lack of a piano.
Mr. Byars is in the pantheon of the contemporary breed of composer-bandleaders. His music is highly original and thoroughly eclectic yet solidly within the jazz mainstream: One piece used fast-moving sustained notes in a manner reminiscent of "Cherokee" (a different kind of Indian art), another suggested a swing-era dance number (in the vein of "It Don't Mean a Thing"), and another was based on the standard 12-bar blues form. At its best, Mr. Byars's music is at once challenging and accessible. When Mr. Byars's father joins the group, the saxophone-oboe-trombone frontline is like nothing heard in jazz before.
Mr. Byars himself is impressive on all of his horns, particularly the dry, meaty timbre of his soprano sax, which, thankfully, recalled the late Steve Lacy more than it did the Celtic, New Agey way that the soprano is generally played these days.
Interestingly, because the lights were off, I tended to notice it less whenever he was switching horns. That was on the plus side for the lack of lighting; on the reverse, this being the end of a long day, once, and only once, I dozed off and dreamed that I was W.C. Fields, shooting sheep in the high Himalayas.
From NPR's Fresh Air:
Chris Byars on alto sax with trombonist John Mosca, on Byars's new CD with the ungainly Mussorgskian title, "Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition of Himalayan Art." I don't detect more than hints at music from Tibet or Nepal that I've heard, nor catch any parallels between the compositions and the masks and paintings in the album's photo gallery. But this music stands fine on its own. For starters, Byars has written a handful of jumping beboppy tunes.
[a 49 second clip of "Arhat" is heard]
Stefan Schatz on drums, with Chris Byars on tenor sax. He also plays a bit of soprano, and flute.) Byars is a student of overlooked aspects of 1950s and 60s jazz, like the music of tenor player Lucky Thompson. The foursome here sounds informed by the pianoless quartets, pastel harmonies
and woodwind colors of 1950s cool jazz-not least when the leader's dad James Byars adds oboe or English horn.
[21 seconds of Tonpa Shenrab played here]
Adding oboe gives the band three winds, but it can sound like four when Ari Roland picks up his bow to sing on the bass. He'll often solo using the bow too. He gets a good jazz sound with it: not too sweet-or scrapey.
[34 seconds of "Buddha Shakyamuni"]
Chris Byars's "Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition of Himalayan Art" is on
Smalls Records, as in the feisty Greenwich Village nightclub Smalls. In the '90s that basement joint was a second home, finishing school and research lab for Byars, bassist Ari Roland and other night owls. The club's partisans talk as if it was the only place in New York where bebop-oriented players
could develop their music-an overstatement. But the club helped nurture many accomplished players now active in New York. Chris Byars's disc is a good example of the kind of swinging, quirky, finely crafted music that has helped Smalls leave a big mark.
Referencing Gigi Gryce’s alto sax and Lucky Thompson’s tenor, Byars finds new niches in bebop, picking up ’50s threads that got pummeled by hard bop, discarded by the avant-garde, then buried under whatever passes for post-bop these days. Much as bebop developed underground in places like Minton’s where musicians played for each other, the same dynamic developed at Smalls in the ’90s, connecting a new generation to unreconstructed veterans like Frank Hewitt and on to the foundations of modern jazz. Tapping into the process, Byars sounds fresh even while working in such a well-worn form.
From Jazz Times "Undertones":
Last heard leading an octet, Chris Byars pares down to a foursome for this hard-swinging bop date, an irresistible disc featuring material honed over nine years at New York's Smalls nightclub. Byars' playing is buoyantly lyrical, rendered with keen precision and verve. There's a touch of Monk in his compositions, and Sacha Perry's skipping piano brings it to the fore in tunes like the effervescent "Milton." Bassist Ari Roland contributes vigorous bowed solos, and Andy Watson sounds downright jubilant on the drums.
From the May 2007 issue of Coda Magazine:
The Chris Byars Octet
Like many of the best releases on Smalls, "Night Owls" features decidedly modern but not avant-garde music. Listeners who remember the excellent 2004
release "Made in New York" by the quintet called Across 7 Street (SRCD-0002) will recognize this Octet as a related group. Leader/tenorman Byars, trombonist John Mosca and pianist Sacha Perry are holdovers and the musical concerns and aims are similar. Of course the bigger group allows for denser writing, a fact that is exploited in various ways, from the revved-up cool approach heard on "The Way You Look Tonight" or "Conception" to the complex subtleties of Byars' own "The Inevitable." As these titles indicate, the book includes pop standards, jazz classics and newly composed pieces by band members. Notable among the latter is Perry's "In Da Funhouse," a ringer in the Hope-ful vein we have come to expect from this fine young musician. The title track, by bassist Neal Miner, is also impressive, as are the contributions from Byars and Trumpeter Richie Vitale.
Special praise is due to Byars, not only for heading up this fine, swinging outfit but also for his considerable skills as a soloist. It's hard to label a player like this, who seems to have absorbed both the cool and hard-bop approaches and come out singing his own song. Whatever we might call it,
Byars has learned the thing they can't teach in the schools; he sounds like himself and not like everybody else. In fact, everyone involved does a great job on a record that has been hard to keep out of the player, and they all
deserve credit: those who haven't already been mentioned are Gary Pribek, alto & flute, Mark Lopeman, baritone sax, and Andy Watson, drums.
From DownBeat Magazine May 2007:
Chris Byars / Photos in Black, White and Gray
Chris Byars puts a premium on absorbing jazz history but never lets his sense of tradition get in the way of attaining a modern sound. Rather than using his working octet for this date, the saxophonist led a quartet through eight original compositions, all of which end up sounding timeless. Byars is impressive on alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones, and his empathy for underappreciated soloists like Lucky Thompson and Gigi Gryce reveals a harmonic sophistication and a unique sense of time. The rhythm section is flexible, with pianist Sacha Perry, bassist Ari Roland and drummer Andy Watson providing a crisp, swinging foundation.
On "Milton," Perry's piano solo is Thelonious Monk-inspired, and Roland's work with the bow is energetic without being excessive. Watson drives the band with a light economic touch, and Byars' own solos are as logical as they are passionate. The tunes are around six or seven minutes long each, providing plenty of room for the band to stretch out.
-- Mitch Myers
From March 2007 All About Jazz NY, print edition:
Photos in Black, White and Gray
Saxophonist Chris Byars has made a name for himself as one of the many neobop musicians who perform on a regular basis at Smalls, while also appearing on a number of CDs (either as a sideman or leader) issued by the Smalls label. He has played since the age of 7 and earned a Masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music at the age of 20. For his third date as a leader, Byars is joined by several of the label's regulars, including pianist Sacha Perry, bassist Ari Roland and drummer Andy Watson.
A talented player, Byars is clearly finding his own voice on each of his three instruments (alto, tenor and soprano sax) and his program of originals is well-paced with a fair amount of variety. He shows a bit of playfulness in "Aquarian Epoch", while the brisk samba "Manhattan Valley" is another obvious highlight. Byars' robust tenor is on display in the pulsating pianoless setting of "A.T." (dedicated to the late drummer Art Taylor). He then switches to soprano sax for the enticing ballad "Safe at Home". Perry, who studied with Barry Harris, is a solid bop pianist who pushes the leader with his driving accompaniment. Roland provides firm foundation, his arco bass technique inviting comparison to recorded Paul Chambers. Watson is a refreshingly restrained drummer who effortlessly keeps a strong beat, though he is no slouch when he takes the opportunity to solo in "A.T."
From JazzTimes Jan/Feb 2007 issue:
Sketches from a Bassist's Album
Three of the four members of this quartet—bassist Ari Roland, tenor saxophonist Chris Byars and pianist Sacha Perry—are among the most accomplished, genuinely innovative and consistently exciting young players in jazz on their respective instruments. Their music is easily misunderstood as bop. It is actually the great language of bop subtly yet profoundly transformed, reconfigured, revitalized and made relevant to our most uncertain present moment.
Ari Roland writes strange, slanted melodies with counterintuitive harmonies. Their dry lyricism lingers in the mind. Like bop, there is tension in Roland’s music, but unlike bop, it never resolves where or how you expect. He almost always solos arco, and performances here like “Mensch Blues” demonstrate his articulate fluidity. He also keeps exceptional, powerful time, and can run you over with sheer speed on occasional pizzicato blowouts like “Swamp Thing Goes to the Indy 500.”
Chris Byars’ sound on tenor is so light and supple that it is possible to miss the sophistication of his ideas and the elegant, finished complexity of his designs. Sacha Perry, too, is a player who sounds mainstream until you perceive the off-center, slightly jagged edges of his sweet chords.
Most good jazz recordings are either inspired or well-executed. Only a few are both. Sketches From a Bassist’s Album is one.