I missed pianist Jaki Byard’s centennial by a few days (oh, life) but have been thinking a lot about his legacy and the influence it has had on me and beyond. While comfortable in both experimental and conventional jazz settings, his organic capacity to meld the two (and the worlds between) was particularly groundbreaking. Sometimes this would manifest from one tune to another, sometimes from one moment to another within the same tune, and sometimes all coming together at once. This made him difficult to categorize, and as tends to be the case, one could say it hindered his public profile and led to him generally being underrepresented in the literal and figurative history books. It’s not surprising that he is often found as a collaborator with other creatively restless folks, including many cited below as well as folks whose wonderful albums I couldn’t find room for on this list, including Eric Kloss, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Sam Rivers, and Ricky Ford.

My own exposure to his music began as a teenager when I caught a disarmingly eclectic solo performance of his, followed by a friend loaning me a copy of Eric Dolphy’s Outward Bound record. Looking back at my subsequent exposure to his music over the ensuing handful of years, I realize how in addition to studying specific musical devices he employed, I took particular inspiration from the matter-of-factness with which seemingly disparate musical approaches coalesced. Indeed, they coalesced so organically that I felt as though I was being invited to question whether those approaches actually were disparate (spoiler alert: no, except maybe in the eyes of folks with a more rigid sense of what’s acceptable).

This list was particularly challenging to put together, partly because there’s a lot of music to choose from, partly because some is out of print, and especially because it’s a bit brain-melting trying to figure out how to represent the breadth of his music, given the different ways that manifests. So here is a range of personal favorites, presented in chronological order, which will hopefully serve as a jumping-off point for some of you reading this.

1 ) “Jaki’s Blues Next” from Blues for Smoke (1960)

If I only had three minutes to demonstrate the notion of stylistic versatility for a pianist, I would play this performance from the solo piano session that comprised Jaki’s first album as a leader. Ragtime-infused stride alternates with avant-gardisms that would not be out of place coming from Cecil Taylor, the pianist who for many represents the next step in the lineage of Boston-based experimental pianists. This could sound incoherent, but it all fits perfectly in Jaki’s hands.

2 ) “Ode to Charlie Parker” from Far Cry by Eric Dolphy (1960)

Of the many Byard collaborators who integrated straight-ahead and experimental sounds, this quintet represents a who’s who, with woodwind multi-instrumentalist and visionary Dolphy (subsequently a bandmate in several Mingus ensembles) joined by Booker Little on trumpet, Ron Carter on bass, and drummer Roy Haynes. This ballad (if it can be categorized that neatly) is, alongside “Mrs. Parker of K.C.,” one of two Byard-penned, Bird-related tunes on the album.

3 ) “A Lunar Tune” from The Freedom Book by Booker Ervin (1963)

This face-melting track and the album it comes from document two vitally important relationships. One is with the great saxophonist and fellow Mingus alum Booker Ervin, whose muscular and varied approach to the jazz language complemented Jaki’s wonderfully. The other is with the bass/drum tandem of Richard Davis and fellow Bostonian Alan Dawson; the three appear on at least ten albums together, also including numbers 6 and 7 on this list. Honorable mention to “Aluminum Baby” from Booker’s out-of-print (but findable) recording Heavy!!, my favorite of the numerous lovely recordings of that Byard composition.

4 ) “Praying with Eric” (aka “Meditations on Integration” or “Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters”) from Charles Mingus’ Town Hall Concert 1964 by Charles Mingus (1964)

Mingus had to be represented here, of course, and the question then became whether to focus on my favorite Mingus track on which Jaki is a participant or my favorite Jaki performance on a Mingus track. This tour de force with Mingus’ groundbreaking mid-60s sextet (with Dolphy, Dannie Richmond, Johnny Coles, and Clifford Jordan) will do on both levels, and Jaki is remarkably inventive on this epic, moving performance that is at times tender and at times raucous. If you’ve got some time on your hands, I certainly encourage you to check out the other versions of this tune that the sextet (and in some cases quintet, once Coles suddenly fell ill) recorded live that year.

5 ) “Slippery Hippery Flippery” from Rip Rig and Panic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1965)

I’m not sure that “bonkers” is a particularly substantive musicological terms, but it’s the best I can come up with to characterize the ebullient energy that pervades this song, taking it into more places than one could reasonably expect from a five-minute track. Though not credited as such, I’m pretty sure Jaki is throwing some melodica in during the rubato introduction, and then once the tempo enters, it’s off to the races for Jaki and Rahsaan (another vital collaborator and another exemplar of inside/outside playing), pushed hard by the swinging tandem of Richard Davis and Elvin Jones. I could have easily picked something from the also-highly-recommended Jaki Byard Experience record.

6 ) “Cat’s Cradle Conference Rag” from Jaki Byard with Strings (1968)

This was my one exception to the “focus on things that are in-print” edict, as this is my favorite Jaki Byard record, period. His “string” section is comprised of Ray Nance on violin, George Benson on guitar, and Ron Carter on plucked bass. The whole record is remarkable (and remarkably underappreciated) and this track in particular features wonderful solos, innovative group improvisation, and some gnarly and beautiful ensemble passages.

7 ) “Willow Weep for Me” from Musique du Bois by Phil Woods (1974)

Usually interpreted as a ballad, Phil and rhythm section turn this one into a harmonically adventurous, up-tempo jazz waltz, such that if you tuned in after the melody statement you might not know this was an old Tin Pan Alley chestnut. And one on which Jaki is on fire at that – on parts of this album you hear him demonstrating his straight-ahead prowess alongside the bebop master leading the band, but here Phil lets them draw him into more modern territory.

8 ) “Ballad to Louise” from Family Man (1978)

I felt the need to include one example of Byard playing saxophone (!) – my first exposure to that was in the concert mentioned above, and then his mid-60s romp on the standard “Just You, Just Me.” Here he plays a tender ballad composed for his wife, accompanied by bassist Major Holley and percussionist Warren Smith, fulfilling the duty of the “Alan Dawson chair” in switching on a track from drums to vibraphone.

9 ) “Up Jumps One (Dedicated to Count Basie)” from Phantasies II by Jaki Byard and the Apollo Stompers (1988)

Jaki’s Apollo Stompers are a big part of his story, as is his devotion to jazz traditions, and this tribute tune from his pen demonstrates both quite capably. The horn parts are slick, the piano interjections work perfectly, and the whole thing is underpinned wonderfully by the stalwart rhythm section that buoyed him for the last decade and a half of his career, bassist Ralph Hamperian and drummer Richard Allen (joined here by guitarist Peter Leitch).

10 ) “July in Paris” from July in Paris (1998)

Jaki’s last session as a leader, recorded live less than a year prior to his untimely demise, shows him at full strength. He is accompanied once again by Ralph Hamperian and Richard Allen and the album is full of the power and variety we associate with him. I chose this track because it brings us right back to the blues, the sound and spirit of which underpin so much of his work in both obvious and subtle ways.

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