Saturday, March 24, 2012

Jaki Byard in Twelves
The Absolute Unique Genius of Jaki Byard

I have been listening intently to Jaki Byard's two albums he made on April 15, 1965, at Lennie's on the Turnpike in West Peabody, Massachusetts. Incredible musical events that thanks to Don Schlitten were recorded. The piano at Lennie's was built for Jaki. And Jaki's boldly Jaki throughout these two albums, the Live originally released on Prestige (my LP came to me direct from Prestige slightly warped, which never bothered me) and The Last From Lennie's (Live Volume 2) pulled out of the Prestige vaults by Fantasy (they took over Prestige) and issued on a CD in 2000. Jaki's philosophy on playing the piano had to do with learning every jazz style that existed from Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll on down through the striders and Monk and Budo, doing a duet album with Earl "Fatha" Hines and an album with Ran Blake--and Jaki had all those styles inside his magnificent mind.

I remember when I got that first Live LP. I remember when the first notes of "Twelve" came tumbling out of my stereo's speakers. I remember how I was glued to those speakers. I mean, I'd never heard anything like "Twelve." I've still got it in my head now as I type this, especially Jaki's part, Jaki's riffs and stabbings and punctuations behind and in front of Joe Farrell and George Tucker and Alan Dawson. As I first heard it, I imagined this Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike as a small room, tight, compact, holding the sounds solidly in. Lennie's had opened in the 1950s featuring local talent first, like organist Joe Bucco and trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and his big band. In fact, the first time I ever heard of Jaki was on a Capital recording called Boston Blow-Up, a Stan Kenton Presents album that headlined the great baritonist Serge Chaloff featured with Herb Pomeroy's small band, with Herb on trumpet; Boots Mussulli on alto; Ray Santisi on piano; Everett Evans on bass; and Jimmy Zitano on drums. And, no, Jaki wasn't on the album but his tune "Diane's Melody," a one minute and 38 second piece, was. The first time I met Jaki was at the Top of the Gate in New York City. It was Jaki and a trio and my wife and I sat at the table just across from Jaki at the piano. On the break, I went up to him, met him, and then told him how I'd first come across him via "Diane's Melody" and he gave out with a wonderful smile and said, "Yes, I wrote that for my daughter...and that's right, Herb did that on that album...and you remember it." And when he came back after that break, he played it for me.
Life is so fast and short at the same time. It's hard to believe Jaki's even gone, but that he's been gone this long now, in February of 1999, the victim of a wild gunshot, a gunshot that came from seemingly out of nowhere, though it was precise enough to come through Jaki's apartment window and hit him in that magnificent head as he lay sleeping. A murder that was never solved. A murder that took Jaki away from those of us who heard him as one of the truly unique pianists in jazz...but in music as well.