|Prestige Reissues : Jaki Byard & Prince Lasha
Though Prestige's reputation thrives for the most part on classics
by big-name artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane,
they've got more than a few outside gems lurking in the dim corners
of their catalog. As they slowly reissue some of these lesser-known
sessions on CD, the label is helping to fill in some serious gaps
in the history of 1960s progressive jazz. These two discs by Prince
Lasha's quintet and Jaki Byard definitely fall into this category—long
sought-after by today's jazz aficionados, their first appearance on
CD is a major jazz event.
Cry! marks the recorded debut of Sonny Simmons, who would move
on to become one of free jazz's key figures later in the decade. The
groups he co-led with Texan expatriate Prince Lasha were modeled on
Trane's short-lived association with Eric Dolphy—the combination
of two forward-thinking, multi-instrumentalist players and composers
and an elastic rhythm section offered a wealth of possibility in the
wake of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz experiments with non-traditional
ensemble settings. While the entire quintet only appears on five of
the session's eight tracks, it's an audacious vibe throughout as Lasha
and Simmons' compositions strike a perfect balance between traditional
and modernist schools of jazz thought. The pieces range in style from
the hip modalism of "Congo Call" and the joyous Afro-Cuban
shades of "Juanita" to swinging freebop tunes like "Bojangles",
"Red's Mood" and "A.Y.", all of which feature
Gary Peacock's bass as a prominent anchor—an especially interesting
fact if you consider that he would be helping Albert Ayler earn his
stripes as Jazz Heretic #1 in less than two years from this session.
The key performance here, however, is the pared-down Simmons/Peacock/Gene
Stone barnburner "Lost Generation". Simmons' unaccompanied
introduction shows the prospects of solo saxophone long before it
was turned into an academic study—playing with a fluid melodicism
that can only be heard to be believed.
Of My Soul is something of an anomaly in Jaki Byard's discography.
Though his earlier work with Mingus, Booker Ervin or his own ensembles
always held a certain ideological sympathy with the more devout free
jazzers of the day, this is the only time he really took up the cause.
Most likely due to the fact that his trio is completed by Ornette
Coleman's bassist and John Coltrane's drummer—David Izenzon
and Elvin Jones—there's a loose freedom to these performances
that isn't witnessed on a Byard record before or after. That's not
to say that the pianist is entirely out of his element; he sounds
equally at home using left-hand arpeggios to compliment Jones' signature
polyrhythms on "Sunshine", moving into early Cecil Taylor
mode for the conclusion of "Chandra", or pitting his considerable
ragtime chops against Jones' rubbery tympani and Izenzon's bow-swipes
in the beautifully peculiar intro and coda to "St. Louis Blues".
It's only "Trendsition Zildjian" that might be considered
a dubious success. The most fully freeblown piece on the record, it's
the only moment where Byard's inexperience as a free player shows—he's
a whirling dervish behind the keyboard to be sure, but the lack of
thematic development becomes slightly tiresome after eleven minutes
have come and gone.
Although their label is really the only thing these two recordings
have in common, their historical importance separates them from
the mundane pack of reissues and repackagings that clog the new
release bins at the record store. Given the amount of classic and
previously unavailable free jazz sessions that have seen the light
of day since the new millennium began, these two discs only help
to further the completion of the music's historical puzzle.