In his legendary quartet of the early sixties, John Coltrane’s playing was so magnificently prepossessing that he would sometimes relegate all-time greats like drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner to bit parts. A generation of saxophonists grew up idolizing Coltrane and attempting to emulate him, which changed the course of jazz history—and also made for some dreadful, self-indulgent music. At last, though, Trane’s spell over saxophonists has been broken, eroded over the years by the conservatories that produce most of today’s jazz musicians. In contrast to bandstand apprenticeships, which served as higher education in jazz for decades, the best new players are now assiduously trained in the full lineage of jazz history, from the collective improvisation of early jazz to the austere innovations of the modernists. As a result, their style is a good deal gentler and more democratic than the Coltrane generation’s.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the new discs by saxophonists Chris Byars, Ned Goold, Joel Frahm, and Bill McHenry. In one way or another, each of them can be characterized as a revivalist, but there’s much more vitality and originality to their playing than that label suggests. The best and most distinctive among them is McHenry, whose new record is called Roses. A native of Maine, he arrived in New York in 1992 to find a fairly enervated and unwelcoming scene. He did a tour of duty playing for lousy tips in East Village bars but couldn’t gain traction in the more serious local clubs. “I was just weirding out in people’s basements,” McHenry says of his playing then. So he decamped to Barcelona for a year, where he found a more nurturing environment. By the late nineties he had hooked up with guitarist Ben Monder and bassist Reid Anderson (of the Bad Plus), who, along with drummer Paul Motian, now make up his quartet. Their years of playing together have given them that kind of telepathy that turns solos into duos and trios, and then takes entirely unexpected turns. Since his return to New York, McHenry has been ubiquitous, playing in numerous other top bands, including a regular Sunday-night turn in Brooklyn with trumpeter John McNeil in a quartet devoted to obscure numbers by dead composers.
McHenry, Frahm, and Goold all got addicted to jazz in school bands, but Byars was onstage from age 6—performing opera. The son of two Juilliard instructors, Byars was a star in the children’s chorus of both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera. But puberty wrecked that career.
“My voice changed from a pitch-accurate alto to a wobbly, unreliable tenor that couldn’t make the high notes,” he says. “The opera career came to a sudden end while I was on tour in Canada. I blew it, croaking through the Shepherd’s Boy solo in the Third Act of Puccini’s Tosca.”
When he got back home to Morningside Heights, his parents gave him a saxophone and a couple of Charlie Parker records. This new interest was nurtured by neighbor Aaron Bell, who was Duke Ellington’s bassist, and by the author Frank McCourt, who was Byars’s creative-writing teacher at Stuyvesant. “I remember him telling me in his lyrical Irish accent: ‘Don’t worry too much about the writing…Think about the music, that’s where your future is.’”
Byars’s music has a glistening veneer that recalls the 1950s heyday of Times Square. His new disc, Photos in Black, White and Gray, draws on two big influences, tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson and reedman-arranger Gigi Gryce. (Gryce, a leading saxophonist and arranger in the fifties, is himself an interesting story—fed up with the music biz, he abandoned it to develop a top-notch public-school music program in the Bronx.) Byars’s style is respectful and restrained, but has just enough contemporary rhythmic edge to distinguish him from rote preservationists.
Frahm is the smooth traditionalist in this crowd. “I’ve never really made a concerted attempt to be different,” he says. “I’ve just always played the horn the way I like, which is certainly more influenced by traditional bebop players.” At age 13, he switched from classical piano to sax, and when his family moved from Wisconsin to West Hartford, he played in bands with the pianist Brad Mehldau. He came to New York in 1989 and quickly found work in edgy jams with drummer Matt Wilson, and uptown in the bluesier scene at Augie’s (now Smoke). It was uptown that he met singer Jane Monheit before she became a star, and he later joined her band. (He left in 2004.) Female singers take naturally to Frahm—they tend to like the way his deep tenor tone provides a foil to their higher-pitched voices. Frahm’s own records are deferential to a fault, but that’s a problem born of stellar sidemen. Three years ago, he recorded a disc of duets with Mehldau, and this week he releases an album with the all-star rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, and Victor Lewis. At times, Frahm sounds awed by the company he’s keeping. But mostly his warm tone complements the elegant rhythm section.