Piano duets date back to the days when the instrument developed its curves. In fact, I've long wondered whether the piano's undulating casing design was fashioned specifically so two instruments could be spooned for musical dialogue. [Pictured above, from left: Jaki Byard and Tommy Flanagan]
One of the earliest recorded jazz piano duets was a series by stride artist Albert Ammons—who was teamed in the late 1930s with Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. As recording technology improved through the years, there were plenty more—including Bill Evans accompanying himself thanks to overdubbing. In most cases, duets were viewed as summits between two heavyweights—a cutting contest of sorts but also a harmony encounter, since the two had to work together for any pairing to wow listeners.
Back in February 1982, two piano giants, Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard, were booked into San Francisco's Keystone Korner by club manager Todd Barkan. Fortunately the music that night was recorded and has just been released for the first time as The Magic of 2 by Resonance Records—the same label that last year released Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana Avenue and Bill Evans: Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate.
At the time of the Flanagan-Byard club date, the jazz acoustic revival was underway after nearly 15 years of electronics and fusion domination. The clashing jazz styles of these two pianists made for exciting listening—together and independent of each other. Flanagan, of course, was a crafty bebopper and Byard was more of a percussive modernist in the Monk-Mingus mode.
The result was a robust set of artistic head-butting and high-risk exploration. The pianists when playing together roar into realms that make you wonder how they ever were going to resolve their improvisational adventures. And yet they do each time. In other cases they flew along as though in a drag race—coming off the line and going all out to the finish. This music truly is jazz competition at its finest. [Pictured above: Jaki Byard]
There are 11 tracks on the album—six of which are solo efforts by Flanagan and Byard. Flanagan plays alone on Something to Live For, All Day Long and Chelsea Bridge while Byard takes his turns on Sunday, Chuck Mangione's Land of Make Believe and Stevie Wonder's Send One Your Love. The balance—Scrapple From the Apple, Just One of Those Things, Satin Doll, Our Delight and Miles Davis's TheTheme—are duets.
Interestingly, the highlights of the set for me come during the solos—in particular, Byard's [pictured above] highly innovative take on Send One Your Love, which he morphs several times into John Coltrane's Giant Steps. What Byard does to this 1979 Wonder masterpiece (from Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants) is breathtaking. His exploration is so thorough that it left me wishing that he and Flanagan had chosen more songs of the day rather than the old saws.
Nevertheless, there are strokes of genius all along the way—the pianists' double-barreled wood-chopping on Our Delight, the playful genius of The Theme and the engrossing grace of Satin Doll.
As astonishing as the recordings themselves are, the quality of the sound is eye-widening. Like the other Resonance sets, the sonics here are dimensional, crisp and warm—placing Flanagan [pictured above] and Byard squarely in your listening room. What makes all of this even more remarkable is that the source material was cassette tapes.
Hats off to the Resonance restoration team of George Klabin and Fran Gala as well as producers Todd Barkan [pictured above] and Zev Feldman. A second thanks to Barkan for unearthing the tapes and making them available to Resonance with the blessing of the Flanagan and Byard estates.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard: The Magic of 2 (Resonance) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Jaki Byard playing Stevie Wonder's Send One Your Love...