May 8, 2013

Piano Magic

Jaki Byard and Tommy Flanagan

Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard

By Armand Lewis


usic may be the universal language, but jazz is a conversation — a conversation between the musicians as well as with the audience. A special subset of these musical conversations would be dual performances on one instrument, in which two musicians both playing the same type of instruments explore and improvise over a composition together.

This type of musical dialogue has roots going back to the beginnings of jazz and can be heard in many classic recordings including the drum “battles” of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and the tenor saxophone encounters of Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin. Even the entire orchestras of Duke Ellington and Count Basie made an album together.

But this idea was not confined to the recording studio. Jazz clubs would often present musicians in dual performances. With this in mind, Keystone Korner owner Todd Barkan brought two piano giants together in 1982 for their only known encounter.

Detroit native Tommy Flanagan was initially known as the consummate accompanist, supporting the likes of Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell and Coleman Hawkins. He can also be heard on John Coltrane’s classic album Giant Steps. Starting in the early 1960s, Flanagan would spend a large portion of his career as Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist. By the mid 1970s, he would end his tenure with Ella to embark on a successful career leading his own trios, resulting in many recordings that are considered among the best of their time.

The Magic of 2

Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard – The Magic of 2

Jaki Byard’s playing encom-passed the entire history of jazz piano. Equally adept at any style from stride to funk, Rahsaan Roland Kirk once called him “the emperor of creative jazz piano.” Starting his career with Earl Bostic in the late 1940s, Byard would go on to play with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Kirk as well as recording multiple albums under his own name. Later, Byard would teach at the New England Conservatory.

The result of the meeting of these two giants is The Magic of Two — Live at Keystone Korner (Resonance HCD-2013); a truly magical evening of musical interplay that takes the listener from the swing of Duke Ellington to the bebop of Charlie Parker.

Being modernists at heart, it’s not surprising that they start off with Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple.” Clearly enjoying the tune, the two sneak in multiple musical quotes and references that attentive listeners will get a laugh out of (Byard can even be heard playing some Fats Waller behind the main melody).
Duke Ellington was a big influence on both pianists and it shows in their swinging rendition of “Satin Doll.” The warmth and easy swing with which the two playfully trade solos and support shows just how much they enjoyed the tune.

In addition to the five tracks played together, each pianist gets three numbers of their own, which are interspersed between the dual performances. Flanagan opts for all Billy Strayhorn compositions (“Something to Live For,” “All Day Long” and “Chelsea Bridge”) while Byard chooses Stevie Wonder’s “Send One Your Love,” Jules Styne’s “Sunday” and Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe.”

Finishing out the set, Flanagan and Byard play Miles Davis’ “The Theme.” Known mostly as a closing fanfare for club perfor-mances in the 1950s, here listeners get the entire composition, with the two pianos creating enough sound for an entire group. “The Theme” and Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight” are probably the highpoints of the set, though each track is a virtuoso performance that listeners will return to multiple times.

The CD comes with extensive liner notes and unique photos taken during the performance itself. There is also a deluxe vinyl 2 LP set, which includes a small folio of post cards of photos from the show. In either format, the magic of Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard makes for a spellbinding conversation.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be contacted at



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