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Reviews/Pop; 2 Saxophonists' Idiomatic Way With a Band
By PETER WATROUS
Published: July 2, 1988
Clarence (C) Sharpe and Billy Harper, two unjustly overlooked saxophonists, came to the
Knitting Factory on Tuesday night as part of its jazz festival and performed wonderfully.
Mr. Sharpe, an occasional street musician, has taken from the tender, lyrical side of
Charlie Parker's legacy to infuse his concert with kindness. He's a be-bop archivist, a
musician who has taken the complex rhythmic and harmonic rules of the idiom, and using
his tissue-thin, broad tone, made them his own.
Leading a band that included Burt Eckoff on piano, Harold Dotson on bass and Leroy Williams
on drums, he worked his way through standards - ''This Time the Dream's on You,''
''Leave My Heart Alone'' - and a few originals.
On ''Embraceable You,'' he dipped in and out of Mr. Parker's original solo and found his
most passionate solo of the night. Playing quietly - he has the sort of demeanor that silences
a whole room - he would spin off a curt flurry of notes, march into double time, then, leaving
a phrase unfinished, dart off on a new rhythmic tangent.
Mr. Sharpe plays with an odd, elusive intonation, placing him as a sort of missing link
between Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. Mr. Harper, the tenor saxophonist, is a blunt,
straightforward soloist. Mr. Harper's writing and arranging, concise and varied, sound like
the music the Blue Note record label produced in the early- to mid-1960's, in which oceanic
modal harmonies mixed with more traditional song forms.
Mr. Harper fronts a tough band, including Francesca Tanksley on piano, Eddie Henderson on
trumpet, Clarence Seay on bass and Newman Baker on drums. Together, they kicked up some noise -
at times the bandstand was as animated as a tree caught in a wind storm. Throughout,
Mr. Harper hurled dry, silvery lines that blurred individual notes, putting them to service
as part of a greater whole.
SoundStage! Vinyl Word - Found on Vinyl: Like Minds, Jacintha and Lee Morgan (12/2004)
|The Daily Jazz: Archie Shepp - For Losers
The Complete Blue Note Lee Morgan Fifties Sessions
Frank Hewitt at All About Jazz
Jazz Prospecting (CG #15, Part 9) - Tom Hull
Smalls Records -- Across 7 Street / Made in New York
CD Baby: THE CHRIS BYARS OCTET: Night Owls|
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
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.
We’re especially fortunate to be presenting the paintings of Michael Marisi
Ornstein through Smalls Records. His vivid and engaging works are available
through www.monkeylanguage.com and are worthy of attention. The producer would
like to offer special thanks to Janet McKinley, Jeff Brown, Tom Currier and
Marcy Granata. A very special thanks to Skip Bolen for his tireless
contributions in art direction.
An octet churns, sizzles, ruminates, carries on conversations with itself,
sings, jokes, soothes, glides, tells stories, pays homage, whispers, entertains,
cajoles, reinvents, celebrates, and stops on a dime. What will the next tune
bring? Who will be featured, or teamed up? Is it a tune from 1930, 1956, or
three hours ago? Eight musicians, each holding a different instrument, provide a
supple backdrop, waiting for their moment. A corner is turned, the music looks
to you and it’s magic time…
Acknowledgements: To Luke Kaven, for his talent, foresight, and integrity. To
Ari Roland, Sacha Perry, and John Mosca, for two decades of great times on and
off the bandstand. To John Purcell, Helen Jordan, Andy Laverne, David Berger,
and Barry Harris, for being gifted and patient instructors. To Frank McCourt,
for telling me “stick with the music, kid.” To Mitchell Borden, for keeping
Smalls running against all odds. To my family, for their unhesitating love,
support, interest, time and effort. To Phil Schaap, for the birthday and
memorial marathon broadcasts, and of course “Bird Flight.” And to all the jazz
radio professionals for spreading the music far and wide.
Clarence (C) Sharpe Dead at 53; Played Jazz on Saxophone
By JON PARELES
Published: January 30, 1990
LEAD: Clarence (C) Sharpe, an alto saxophonist who exemplified the jazz underground, died on
Sunday at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
He was 53 years old.
Mr. Sharpe underwent surgery for throat cancer last spring, but he recovered enough to perform
at the club Zanzibar in Manhattan. In June, he performed in France on a concert bill with
Jackie McLean and Phil Woods.
Mr. Sharpe's distinctive approach was described by Peter Watrous, a critic for The New York
Times, as ''the missing link between Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman.'' His phrasing and
sense of harmony were rooted in be-bop, while his unconventional, highly personal intonation
presaged free jazz.
The Start of His Career
Mr. Sharpe was born in St. Louis and grew up in Philadelphia, where he worked with leading
musicians, including the pianist McCoy Tyner, the bassist Jimmy Garrison and the drummer
Philly Joe Jones. During the flowering of hard-bop in New York City at the turn of the 1960's,
he appeared as a sideman on an early album by the trumpeter Lee Morgan, and in 1969, he
performed as part of a big band on Archie Shepp's album ''For Losers.''
But Mr. Sharpe did not establish his own career, and for many years he performed as a street
musician in New York, at jam sessions and as a sideman. From the late 60's to the present,
he taught improvisation at the University of the Streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
He is survived by his mother, Louise Sharpe; a sister, Desiree Crafton; two brothers,
Perry Lawrence Sharpe and Lonnie Boyd Sharpe, all of Philadelphia; his wife, the former
China Lynn Perrault, and two sons.