At this writing Chris Byars is 37 years old and has been playing jazz for 23 years (unusually, following several years as a child opera singer). Photos in Black, White, and Gray marks his debut as a quartet leader. He’s recorded on two previous Smalls Records releases, Across 7 Street: Made in New York (2004) and Chris Byars Octet: Night Owls (2006). His name may not yet be familiar to a broad jazz audience, but he’s an active pro on the New York jazz scene and not just as a performer, but as a writer and arranger too.
In fact, Byars wrote all the tunes on this record. The overall sound is traditional jazz quartet: straight-ahead bop, a couple of ballads, and one Latin jazz tune. The bop melodies are nice but do not call attention to themselves; the bop tunes sound like the chord changes came first and melodies were added as a convenient introduction to the solo choruses.
"Safe At Home," one of the two ballads, is a notable exception. It opens with Byars beautifully telling a long melodic story on soprano saxophone over brush work by Andy Watson and light comping by Sacha Perry. The melody transitions into an arco bass solo by Ari Roland (a form he seems to prefer for solo work across the record) then Perry takes a few choruses. His piano playing is pretty, with a slight honky-tonk quality, as if he might be playing an upright instead of traditional grand piano.
Byars has an unusual sound that at first listen seems to lack color (perhaps there is more to the title Photos in Black, White, and Gray than just a catchy phrase?). But then it grows on you. It is very clean, narrow and lacks any hard edges; his notes seem almost to slip into each other. At least for this record he clearly preferred the alto saxophone, playing it on all but three of the tunes (two are covered on the tenor, and one on soprano). He also seems to prefer the center and lower registers on his horns, avoiding the thin upper range. The overall effect is certainly pleasant and listenable, but sometimes lacks tonal interest.
The rhythm section on this record features solid musicians and the quartet cooperates well based on years of playing together. Roland's arco bass solos are fascinating, Watson drives and accentuates well, and Perry plays with a nice light touch.During April and May of 2007, Byars is on tour with the Ari Roland quartet on the "Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad Tour," organized by the U.S. State Department. They are bringing American jazz music to Russia and the "Stans" of central Asia: Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. All American jazz fans should feel good about being represented by Byars and his talented fellow musicians.