Jazz will not be without humor as long as there is Jaki Byard. In an opening set at the Smithsonian Sunday afternoon that was as full of musical jokes and wry verbal asides as it was indicative of the pianist's command of the entire idiom, Byard dealt with the blues, standard ballads, Charles Mingus, Stevie Wonder and his own discursive compositions.
Thudding crescendos followed lilting rhapsodies, mangled themes were juxtaposed with motifs of haunting beauty, Fats Waller stride begat avalanches of free-form piano.
"Family Suite," played only in part because the entire work "would take me two days," was a collage of chopstick marches, emotion-melting passages, fragments of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," two-fisted boogie and more.
The twin piano set of Hank Jones and John Lewis was less lively at first, probably because massive scores were relied upon for three or four of Lewis' compositions. Once these were out of the way, the two put their heads together for a rumbling "St. Louis Blues," a light and swinging "Willow Weep for Me" and a dazzling run on Charlie Parker's "Conformation."
Byard reappeared for an encore and the three set about "cutting" one another, 20 and, briefly, 30 fingers flying at once.