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Late Night Piano

Late Night Piano: Jaki Byard

by Seth Colter Walls

Late Night Piano: Jaki Byard

About this playlist

What's better company than piano music in the after-work hours? We say nothing, and so we're giving you a series covering key piano innovators, which you can follow here.

This week, we're looking at performances and compositions by Jaki Byard, a killer soloist and bandleader in his own right, as well as a sideman for the likes of Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. His style is the very embodiment of the phrase "run the gamut," since he incorporated everything from early jazz rhythms (see "New Orleans Strut") to bop, as well as percussive, avant-garde pounding in his playing. Often, as in the fierce "Jaki's Blues Next," he toggled back and forth between the traditions inside the same song.

His 1960 album for the Candid label, Blues for Smoke, is the most satisfying shot of solo Byard -- and so we've taken several cuts for our mix (including the smoky, bluesy title track). And, from The Jaki Byard Experience, we've got the soul-jazz number "Shine On Me," as well as "Memories of You" and Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare" -- all of them recorded by a Byard band that included Rahsaan Roland Kirk (a player every bit as stylistically flexible as the pianist).

And yes, we've included some of his prime work with Mingus, too. Check Byard's solo feature (it comes in the seventh minute) in the the bassist's sarcastic Civil Rights-era protest piece "Fables of Faubus," recorded live at Cornell University in 1964. In the space of seconds, Byard quotes "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and a darkly humorous lick from Chopin's "Death March," before moving ahead with the main tune. (It's one of my favorite solos of all time.)

Whether he was reinterpreting the works of past piano greats (as on his James P. Johnson-quoting "Excerpts from 'Yamecraw'") or writing original tunes for an Eric Dolphy session -- like "Mrs. Parker of K.C. (Bird's Mother)" -- Byard's music is a distinct pleasure to encounter. So click play on our mix, and look us up again for some more late-night piano.

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