2:44pm

Fri August 8, 2014
Music Reviews

Jaki Byard, A Post-Bebop Pianist Who Was A Master Of Stride Piano

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD SONG)

JAKI BYARD: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the "Late Late Show." I'm going into my act. This is my last set. So we don't know is going to happen.

BIANCULLI: In the 1960s, jazz pianist Jaki Byard played in the bands of Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Booker Ervin. Then he began making solo and small band records under his own name.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, Byard had a rare ability to sound both archaic and ahead of his time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jaki Byard, turning Dave Brubeck's sprightly tune "In Your Own Sweet Way" into something heavy as a Russian novel. It's from Byard's album "The Late Show," a set of previously unheard solo music from San Francisco's Keystone Korner in 1979. Byard was always a kidder at the keyboard. He'd take a familiar tune, turn it inside out, or goose it 'til it jumped.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD SONG, "SWEET GEORGIA BROWN")

WHITEHEAD: Jaki Byard, having his way with "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Byard was more than a musical comedian; he was a throwback to early jazz piano professors like James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion Smith, who took pride in their erudition and formidable technique, who could make any material their own and have fun doing it. Those old-timers were masters of stride piano; the post-ragtime style where a player's left hand ping-pongs up and down the keyboard. Byard was the rare post-bebop pianist, well-versed in stride style.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD SONG)

WHITEHEAD: You can hear little of crazy cat Earl Hines in Jaki Byard's timing and suspenseful dropouts. Playing stride piano was no gimmick for Byard. He was part of the arsenal of techniques and styles on call, whenever he sat at the keys. A modernist who valued the innovations of any age, Byard could play new and old ideas at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Jaki Byard had developed his pan-historical approach by 1960. No one called it postmodern jazz then, but his deadpan juxtaposition and diverse styles and song fragments helped point the way. There's some old-school showbiz shtick in there too, with roots in the musical travelogues that 19th century theater bands were playing.

Byard's "European Episode" moves like a brisk bus tour, shunting you from an English country garden to old Vienna. Sometimes it sounds like he can barely keep up with the pace.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD SONG, "EUROPEAN EPISODE")

WHITEHEAD: I'm not partial to live albums that leave in the stage announcements, but Jaki Byard's are funnier than most; part of his whole nutty professor act. We get a few little tastes.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD ALBUM)

BYARD: As I said, I don't have to do this for a living because I have two chinchillas in heat. And that affords me a nice little living.

WHITEHEAD: These days, many jazz pianists demonstrate familiarity with multiple styles - stride piano included - partly that's because some of them studied with Jaki Byard.

Maybe because he was 30 years ahead of his time, Byard hasn't quite gotten his due. But he left a batch of fine albums behind for smart fans to rediscover, starting with his fab trio debut, "Here's Jaki," from 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD SONG, "VIRTUOSITY")

WHITEHEAD: No current pianist I've heard makes "Virtuosity" sound quite so gleefully lighthearted.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD SONG, "VIRTUOSITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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