Mainstream jazz piano is a weird beast. Most non-jazz listeners can’t tell it apart from cocktail lounge piano. Great practitioners of the art make it seem deceptively easy, but I can attest that it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve attempted to master. To a casual listener, all those rootless chords, flatted ninths, and raised fifths seem to sound alike. But each nuance gives a slightly different message in a song.
This CD is a reconstruction of a live set done in 1982 at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, featuring Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard. Flanagan is best known as the accompanist and musical director for Ella Fitzgerald, but he had a long and distinguished career as a sideman and leader. He played on landmark albums such as John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus. Byard was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist – he also played trumpet and saxophone – known for his breadth of knowledge and facility with multiple styles. He also was a renowned educator, teaching at the New England Conservatory and at the Manhattan School of Music. Unfortunately, both Flanagan and Byard are deceased. Flanagan died in 2001. Byard died of a gunshot wound in 1999 – the case has never been solved.
The CD consists of 11 songs mostly consisting of swing or bebop standards. The set begins with a spirited duet version of Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple”, followed by an up-tempo version of “Just One of Those Things” and “Satin Doll.” Flanagan chooses three Billy Strayhorn tunes to solo on – “Something to Live For,” “All Day Long,” and the dreamy “Chelsea Bridge.” (Strayhorn was a major focus for Flanagan late in his career.) Byard solos on Stevie Wonder’s “Send One Your Love,” Jules Styne’s “Sunday,” and Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe.” The two come back together on Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight” and Miles Davis’ “The Theme.”
In the liner notes, pianist Jason Moran discusses the stylistic differences between the two during “Scrapple from the Apple.”
“I think of Tommy as a legato player, Jaki as a staccato player. Tommy slides through the rhythm, each move well-calculated, while Jaki is trying to up-end the structure all the time. Tommy plays within the steps of the tune, and Jaki plays these large intervals, which are strangely beautiful.”
Flanagan alternates tasteful chords with seemingly effortless single-note runs, done with a flawless sense of space and the song’s dynamics. He’s more likely to outline the primary notes of a chord. Byard tends to play more thematically. As the jazz historian, he likes to channel disparate influences. Byard begins “Send One Your Love” as a ballad – then goes off to the races with an impressionistic frenzy that recalls Cecil Taylor – which then segues into a stride piano version of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”! He also plays Erroll Garner-type rolls on “Sunday.”
Of course, these observations are somewhat generalized. During the set, both players continually vary and adjust their playing styles to the other.
Equally impressive is how Flanagan and Byard can listen to each other and swing together seamlessly, which becomes apparent when they trade 4’s on “Just One of Those Things” and “The Theme.”
The sound quality of the CD is good, which is quite the engineering feat – the CD was remastered from cassette recordings. However, since the equipment at the Keystone did not separate the two pianos into separate channels, one needs to listen carefully to fully hear the differences between the two. Fortunately, the detailed liner notes aid the listener by pointing out the sequence of solos on each song.
I’m a fan of the duet format when it’s done right. It gives both players almost as much freedom to explore as a solo performance, but adds rhythmic drive and interaction to it. (For other examples, check out the Chick Corea / Gary Burton collaborations.) And when the players are as pivotal and accomplished as these two, it’s electric. Tommy Flanagan Jaki Byard: The Magic of 2 – Live at Keystone Korner is a rich, nuanced performance showcasing two piano masters who clearly connect to each other, and to the audience.