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Night Owls

Artist: Chris Byars
Chris Byars - Night Owls CD
Label: Smalls
Regular Price: $12.95
On Sale For: $6.48 
Year: 2006
Format: CD

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A large ensemble is different animal from a small group, with a very different niche. And the challenges to survival are formidable. A well-orchestrated large ensemble requires talented musicians with specialized skills, a great effort to develop a book of arrangements, and an enormous investment in time for rehearsing and internalizing them. A band that size is pushing against the margins of economic feasibility. To support an octet, you have to come up with engagements that, all else being equal, pay at least twice as much as a quartet. But having twice as many musicians does not cause twice as many patrons to come to the club or buy the record. For small club and indie label owners, the cost of paying twice the number of musicians has to be somehow justified by the returns. For musicians, the pressure is to accept low pay at the outset, with scant hope of more.

The advantage goes to the band that is able to develop itself into a permanent institution where work is steady. There is some incentive for musicians to accept lowered pay per gig in favor of an ongoing job. But it is not simple to get eight or more top-notch musicians to be available on the same night at all, regardless of the pay. Many musicians will have other regular small group engagements that are well attended and pay well. They need an incentive to come and work harder for less money. The solution has been what you might call the off-night gambit. It goes like this. Create a large ensemble feature on a traditionally slow night, like a Monday, when the clubs are usually empty, and when, correspondingly, the most musicians are statistically available. The reduced pay on an off night is reluctantly accepted in consideration of what one hopes will be regular engagements and increased opportunities. The small club, which cannot afford to multiply its losses on a slow night, is betting that the novelty and excitement of the large ensemble will attract customers.

But there is an additional challenge for the emerging band. There are already several mature large ensembles in town, and that means that many of the top talents are already tied up, and correspondingly, many clubs are already booked on those nights. To get a new ensemble off the ground, it may be necessary to start by performing not on the slowest night of the week, but on a busier night of the week when musicians are that much more likely to be working elsewhere for decent pay, and when better-known acts tend to predominate in the established clubs. Meeting up with the challenges of a large ensemble requires more than a group of talented musicians. It requires an inspired leader, one with talent and dedication ' one especially who is capable of earning the respect of the members of the band and inspiring them to commit themselves to the project. This is where Chris Byars comes into the picture.

Chris Byars was born in New York on November 2nd, 1970 to a family of talented musicians and artists. From ages 7-14, the prodigious young Byars performed regularly with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera in a singing career that spanned over a thousand performances. From ages 8-11, he studied in George Balanchine's School of American Ballet and danced in the New York City Ballet. He starred in Balanchine's acclaimed (The New York Times, May 25th, 1981) production of Ravel's The Spellbound Child (L'Enfant et les Sortileges) on National Public Television. He attended Stuyvesant High School, a magnet school in the New York City school system for accelerated achievers. After graduating high school early at age 16, Byars ended up at the Manhattan School of Music where he hurtled headlong through the curriculum, completing the requirements for a Masters degree at age 20! Along with like-minded cohorts Ari Roland and Sacha Perry, he made his way to the inner circles of the NY jazz scene, studying for a time with Barry Harris, and encountering artists like Clarence 'C' Sharpe, Frank Hewitt, Dave Glasser, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Leo Mitchell, John Marshall, and Charles Davis. Following the tragic passing of C Sharpe in 1990, Byars and Roland formed a band as a tribute to Sharpe, called Across 7 Street, which in its best-known form included trombonist John Mosca, pianist Sacha Perry, and the late Jimmy Lovelace on drums.

With the arrival of Smalls in 1994, Byars and Across 7 Street began a historic nine-year weekly run as the Sunday night featured group. In the context of this band, the prolific composer-arranger wrote sixty or so challenging compositions of his own, and developed hundreds of arrangements, including originals from the band, and a vast array of Jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards. Frequent travel by Ari Roland to Europe starting in the year 1999 created the need for a substitute for Across 7 Street on Sunday nights. Out of the urge to eat, and a measure of guts and ambition, the Chris Byars Octet was invented.

The octet retained the remaining members of A7S ' Mosca, Perry, and Lovelace ' and brought in solid and swinging bassist Neal Miner to replace Ari Roland. John Mosca, himself the musical director of the Grammy-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and a veteran of the ancestral Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, is a master section player and brilliant soloist. Mosca is joined here by two longtime VJO bandmates, the hard-driving Gary Pribek on alto, and high-energy trumpeter Richie Vitale. Multitalented Mark Lopeman is known all over the scene, and his strong baritone cements the band's foundation. Byars of course holds down the tenor chair and conducts. Sacha Perry lays down his special brand of hip chords as no one else can. And Andy Watson, successor to the late Jimmy Lovelace, drives the band with powerful strokes, crisply rendered, and right in the groove.

From its temporary spot on Sunday night, the octet migrated into the Smalls late night sets. Billed at 2 am, the late night sets were more likely to start around 2:30 am and to go until 4:30 am. Perfectly normal hours for us, the titular denizens of the night; but business was slow, especially on Sundays, bringing not nearly enough to pay the band. But before long, people were coming in to hear it, among them other musicians from around town. This high-energy octet was quite a surprising thing to see and hear in the dead of night. The musical fireworks warmed up that drabbest of dawns, the dreaded Monday Morning. No matter what bleary-eyed listeners were facing in the morning, they left the club with a smile.

Byars took the backbreaking work in stride. He'd pack up eight hundred pages of sheet music, books, foldup stands, along with his saxophone, flute, and clarinet, and haul it a hundred blocks downtown and back. He often forfeited his own pay and sold handmade CDs between sets to try to raise enough to pay the band for the night. Every night brought a bevy of new arrangements. Every singer had his or her own book. Chris had a few specialty books as well. He developed a book of jazz legend Gigi Gryce's compositions, which he presented at Smalls with the octet and then-unknown Nellie McKay in front of the Gryce family, along with Noal Cohen and Mike Fitzgerald, the two authors of the noteworthy Grice biography, Rat Race Blues. Byars even has a book in tribute to Audrey Hepburn, one tune from which ('Let's Kiss and Make Up') is featured here. You have to marvel at the craft. Tadd Dameron was a major influence on Byars, along with Lucky Thompson, Gigi Gryce, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn.

Among the highlights, the title track, Night Owls, carries a lot of the spirit of the band in it. Neal Miner's punchy tune is countered by a tricky through-composed shout chorus for bass and baritone by Chris Byars that is sleek, sinuous, and panther-like. Byars' The Inevitable, and Perry's In Da Funhouse are dark-edged, modernist compositions with extended harmonies that are genuinely suggestive of their titles.

It wouldn't be fair to call this a 'debut' recording for Chris Byars, although technically, it is. He's appeared on the Smalls label to date as co-leader of Across 7 Street's Made in New York (SRCD-2), as co-leader with Sasha Dobson and this octet on The Darkling Thrush (SRCD-5), as sideman in The Frank Hewitt Quintet on Four Hundred Saturdays (SRCD-010), and as sideman on Ari Roland's Sketches From a Bassist's Album (SRCD-12). He was also featured earlier on Jazz Underground: Live At Smalls (Impulse IMPD245). But it would require several more 'debut' records to convey the scope of Byars' talent. This one was overdue. Let's just say we're trying to catch up.
ARTISTS
Sacha Perry (piano)
Chris Byars (tenor sax,flute,clarinet)
John Mosca (trombone)
Andy Watson (drums)
Richie Vitale (trumpet,fluglehorn)
Gary Pribek (alto sax)
Mark Lopeman (baritone sax)
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