Two Shades of Piano

The glossy promotional hype surrounding the Boston Globe Jazz Festival has all but ignored the Festival's "Tribute to Bird, Coltrane

The glossy promotional hype surrounding the Boston Globe Jazz Festival has all but ignored the Festival's "Tribute to Bird, Coltrane and Mingus" concert this evening at Emmanuel Church. The program features pianistbandleader Jaki Byard, who must by this time be accustomed to such oversights. Byard's regular Wednesday night gig at Michael's with his Apollo Stompers band is one of Boston's best-kept secrets, and that's a shame--the Stompers are a young, growing group whose enthusiasm, tempered by Byard's experience and humor, makes their performances stimulating and very entertaining.

Jazz musicians of Byard's generation found a variety of ways to cope with the lean years of the late '60s and the rampant commercialism of the '70s music scene. A very few were lucky enough to retain some following without compromising their musical ideals. Many were forced to resort to a) "crossing over" to the lucrative popular music field; b) giving up on music and starving as recluses; or c) simply dying young. Jaki Byard represents a growing number of jazz figures who have averted both personal and artistic disaster by "taking it easy" and weathering this hyper decade as music educators and occasional low-key local performers.

A professional musician for 40 of his fifty-odd years, Byard's background is a panorama of jazz experiences, all at a high level. He was part of the heyday of the big bands of Herb Pomeroy and Maynard Ferguson (this was Maynard's hot '50s group, not the bubblegum combo he leads today.) Byard left the Ferguson band to spend five years working in an entirely different context--the celebrated Jazz Workshop led by bassist Charles Mingus. After leaving Mingus. Byard spent several years working as a solo pianist and, significantly, filling in on piano for the Ellington band when the Duke's failing health occasionally kept him from performing.

Over the yars, Byard has recorded with such diverse talents as Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, George Benson, Joe Farrell, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But in this decade, Jaki is content with what he calls "semi-retirement"; a weekly schedule that includes teaching at both the New England Conservatory and the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, as well as commuting to rehearse and perform with Apollo Stompers bands in both New York and Boston.

Jaki Byard doesn't like the pressure of travel and extensive touring, and he doesn't enjoy the hassle of bargaining with record companies, so his work rarely receives the recognition that it deserves. It's sad that our culture doesn't offer more alternatives for musicians like Byard, but at least he has been able to eke some sort of livelihood out of noncommercial music. Tonight or any Wednesday you'll find it refreshing to hear a player who places musical integrity before the numerous advantages of "selling out" to the system.

Speaking of selling out, Herbie Hancock is coming to town this weekend with his "All-Star Funk Unit", also a part of the Globe Festival. We can all have fun sticking up our noses at disco, funk, and other repetitive mood music, but when musicians of Hancock's caliber choose this route it forces some serious questions. Hancock is a terrific jazz musician who rose through the tradition and then (many would say) abandoned it to form the Headhunters, a prototypical jazz-funk fusion group. The Headhunters brought Hancock mass appeal of a kind never before experienced by a jazz-associated musician, but he also took the brunt of a great backlash of criticism from the jazz community which was directed against musicians who deserted the more serious music that they had played so well.

Hancock responded to his critics by bringing together the V.S.O.P. Quintet, basically a reformation of a ground-breaking Miles Davis group minus Miles, at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival. The Quintet played the kind of dense, improvisational music that Miles had been experimenting with in the late '60s, and their performance was so well received that the Quintet recorded two live albums and went on a major concert tour in 1977. Their reunion was highly-touted and very well attended, and the musicians were praised for revitalizing exciting and difficult musical forms.

Then Hancock joined fellow crossover artist Chick Corea for a series of duet piano concerts, which reconfirmed both players as skilled and important improvisationsts. Both the Quintet and the piano tour served to generate among fusion fans an interest in mainstream jazz, and both were commercially successful. But both projects seem to have been dropped, and Herbie Hancock is back on the road with his funk band.

Hancock answers his detractors by claiming that all musical forms have validity, and I am inclined to agree. It's still hard, though, to reconcile his fusion performances with his brilliant, and sensitive jazz style. On recent albums he plays simplistic music on a barrage of electronic instruments. He sings through a vocal synthesizer. His infrequent piano spots are usually mixed down so far as to be barely audible. His band is topnotch--it includes accomplished jazz players like Bennie Maupin and Alphonse Mouzon--but the high level of players like Bennie Maupin and Alphonse Mouzon--but the high level of hypnotic repetition. The band is worth hearing; Hancock was a vanguard in the field of instrumental funk, and he continues to play it better than anyone else. It's a shame that a jazz festival can't be a forum for these exciting musicians to play jazz.