Classic Don Byas Sessions 1944-1946 (10 CD Mosaic Box)

Classic Sessions 1944-46 Don Byas Mosaic Records www.mosaicrecords.comWith no slight intended to my family’s generosity, the ultimate Christmas present arrived early, and it came from Mosaic Records. Ten CDs devoted to the work of tenor sax artist Don Byas, ten CDs covering only June 1944 through September 1946, but showcasing a vital moment of transition in the world of jazz. This was a transition being enthusiastically explored by an artist who would then quit the United States in annoyance over his lack of recognition.

Byas was born in Oklahoma in 1913 to parents who played musical instruments. By the time he reached his teens, he was playing clarinet, alto sax, and violin, and at 17 he began performing with local bands and even organized a band under his own name. Three years later he was on the west coast, now playing tenor, where he’d work with Lionel Hampton, Buck Clayton, and Eddie Barefield. That’s also where he met Art Tatum, whose work floored him.

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“Art Tatum really turned me on,” Byas told jazz writer Art Taylor, who collected the interview in a book titled Notes and Tones. “That’s where my style came from…style…I haven’t got any style! I just blow like Art. He didn’t have any style, he just played the piano, and that’s the way I play.”

Given the easy manner in which Byas straddled swing and bebop, he could be termed a musical chameleon—but, as this set proves, he really wasn’t. Those were simply complementary parts of his natural voice. You hear the rhythmically adventurous swing player right from the start, as he solos in “Dance of the Tambourine,” a Hot Lips Page original. Byas follows Page’s vocal with an easygoing chorus (Page, on Mellophone, takes the bridge). But the next session, six weeks later, finds Byas rocketing along in bop mode, as “Riffin’ and Jivin’” throws fast-paced technical challenges at the crew. Trumpeter Charlie Shavers has no problem with this kind of thing, nor does pianist Clyde Hart. And dig Hart’s celeste work on “Free and Easy,” the ballad that follows.

There’s another aspect of Byas’s playing. The man could put over a ballad with the best of them. His 1945 “Laura” has more sexy scoops than a Johnny Hodges solo, and “Danny Boy” couldn’t be more endearing.

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What he’s most remembered for, however, is his incredible virtuosity. Not just as a purveyor of notes, blindingly quickly, but also for his harmonic inventiveness, and you’ll taste that in practically every number. There are 51 sessions spread across these ten CDs, testament to the demand for Byas and his versatility as soloist and sideman.

As Duke Ellington put it, in the 1970 documentary Homecoming, “Don Byas is a very individual artist, absolutely ignores the dictates of any influence that may come from anywhere or anyone else. And this has been going on for years, which is the one thing that commands respect for any artist.”

Although Byas gave great credit to Tatum as an influence, there was an unmistakable Coleman Hawkins inheritance, not so much in sound as in a way of looking at a tune from the outside in, free to re-create it in imaginative ways. Hawk embraced bebop, but Byas surpassed him as a bebop player while still grounded in swing. It may sound like a tug-of-war, but I’m sure this was Byas’s preferred voice. You’ll hear that technical ability throughout these sessions, but you’ll hear it in service to a restless curiosity, digging into familiar tunes (and the not-so-familiar) to see where he can take them. That’s also where the Tatum influence shines.

With so many sessions on tap, we also get to sit in with many of the renowned players on the New York scene during the war years. For example, Byas recorded with Oscar Pettiford in both big-band and sextet setting from the same 1945 date, with Dizzy Gillespie and Trummy Young in the ensembles. And the sextet gives us a “Salt Peanuts” four months before Dizzy recorded it.

Trumpeter Charlie Shavers shows up in six different sessions, while busy Slam Stewart is in ten, generous with his trademark bowing-and-singing. Cozy Cole drums on ten of them, too, sessions varied in size and leadership, but always benefiting from his rock-steady talent. Teddy Wilson shows up once, alongside Red Norvo, part of a lively group that set down the Raymond Scott tribute “Twilight in Teheran.”

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Coleman Hawkins appears as a participant in an ensemble, but gets no solo space in both takes of the single number. Charlie Parker shares ensemble space with Dizzy and an all-star group also including Trummy Young and Clyde Hart, where Trummy’s vocals are a high point, but Bird and Diz trade phrases on “Sorta Kinda” in a way that affirms their otherworldly connection. And on it goes, a Who’s Who parading across this recorded array.

Dizzy wasn’t on the radio date recorded off the air in July or August 1944, but Byas knew his Diz. As they launch into a five-minute “Whispering,” clarinetist Tony Scott sounds the melody while Byas simultaneously plays “Groovin’ High.” Again, before Dizzy recorded it.

That aircheck is part of another, even more amazing aspect to this set. Timme Rosenkrantz was a Danish aristocrat (he was known as “The Baron”) and jazz fan who scrounged a living in Manhattan during World War II. His place became a gathering place for musicians, and one of his favorites was Byas, whom he commercially recorded in 1938 and informally recorded in late 1944 at his West 46th Street apartment. A treasure-trove of Rosenkrantz’s recordings is included here, including a couple of airchecks. What they lack in sound quality they make up for in lengthhis equipment wasn’t bound by the three-and-a-half minutes limit of studio recorders. Which allowed the players to stretch out, and that’s where magic happens.

There’s an eight-minute “Rose Room,” nine minutes of “Don’t Blame Me,” and “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “Body and Soul” both clock in at about twelve minutes apiece. “Sometimes I’m Happy” also runs to nearly eight minutes, and would have been longer if the tune wasn’t interrupted—but it let Byas to showcase alongside Slam Stewart, Vic Dickenson, Gene Sedric, and pianist Jimmy Jones—nice guests to find at the Baron’s.

A Rosenkrantz session from the autumn of 1944 gives us the gift of Thelonius Monk fully articulating his talents. He’d been recorded earlier, but only as a session pianist with minimal solos. Here we get to hear him digging into the numbers, playing with the harmonies, inspiring his fellow performers. He’d already been performing in the clubs with Byas, and the rapport is obvious.

We hear him first in an unidentified number that bears a strong resemblance to “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” with a slightly tentative feel as he tries to support alto-sax man Kirk Bradford. Lucky Thompson, a mere 20 at the time, displays a fully developed ability on tenor that meshes nicely with Byas (a veteran, at this point, of 31), a usually competitive player who in this case keeps things nicely collegial. The subsequent tunes are all first releases of the recordings, and they alone are worth the price of this set: “Crazy Rhythm,” the harmonically challenging (but not for Byas or Monk) “Lullaby in Rhythm,” then truncated (but still lengthy) versions of “I Got Rhythm” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

It’s almost a shame to go from Monk to other pianists, but with the likes of Johnny Guarnieri, Clyde Hart, and Erroll Garner on tap, the pain is brief. Garner rocks out on a “Humoresque” and lays his familiar, deceptively easygoing sound on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” another great Byas ballad.

“You Go to My Head” is still another example of a Byas ballad par excellence, but this one was recorded on September 7, 1946—the very day that he got on that boat to Europe, where he’d spend the rest of his life. Would have achieved a more lasting fame had he stayed? If these recordings had a wider distribution, he well might have.

This set is mastered and presented with the usual Mosaic high standard of craftsmanship. If you’ve encountered any of the Rosenkrantz recordings on YouTube, you’ll appreciate the care that went into presenting them here. Loren Schoenberg’s liner notes are a scholarly wonderland that have the enthusiasm of a kid opening a Christmas present. And that’s where I came in!

Classic Don Byas Sessions 1944-1946
Mosaic Records
www.mosaicrecords.com

B.A. Nilsson is a freelance writer and actor who lives in rural New York. His interest in vintage jazz long predates his marriage to a Paul Whiteman relative, and greatly helped in winning her affections.

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