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  Donald Byrd

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Click below for a Donald Byrd sample:  

Think Twice


Lansana's Priestess

Love's So Far Away


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Donald Byrd is the father of jazz-funk.  Herbie Hancock may have busted down resistance to the style with the Headhunters, and Roy Ayers deserves credit for his Ubiquity albums, but Byrd beat them to the punch with his pioneering efforts between 1972 - 76. It was a drastic change for someone who'd been recognized as one of the top hard bop trumpeters of his time, and to this day jazz critics tend to be merciless in trashing Street Lady and Black Byrd.

Lost in their accusations of "selling out" is the knowledge that Byrd made a conscious decision to direct his music towards a younger audience, whom he saw gravitating towards Sly Stone and James Brown instead of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.  Remember that in the early 70s the black power movement was in full effect, and the heady, sometimes elitist spirit of jazz was off-putting to many youth, who liked the accessibility and driving rhythm of funk.

So with his formal degrees in music, and a teaching position at Howard University, Byrd set about exploring a fusion between the jazz he loved and the music his students listened to.  The first thing he realized was that he had to surround himself in a different musical environment.  Exit players like Airto and Duke Pearson; enter the Mizell brothers.

Larry and Fonce Mizell will be profiled in a separate entry, but for now, let's just say they were the most important component in crafting Byrd's new sound.   Their arrangements and sense of groove were fundamental in making Byrd the legendary figure he became.  The first LP they worked on was Black Byrd, a musical landmark.  The best-selling Blue Note title for many years, Black Byrd turned heads with its blend of jazzy styling and soul riffs.  Powered be the strong title tune and "Sky High," the album introduced the new Byrd band: Deans Parks or David T. Walker on guitar, Jerry Peters and Freddie Perren on keys, Chuck Rainey on bass, flutist Roger Glenn, drummer Harvey Mason, Fonce on clavinet and trumpet, and Byrd on horn and vocals. This lineup would stay with Byrd until the late 70s.  It's also worth noting that most of these guys had solid r&b credentials, but enough skill to stretch out beyond conventional soul requirements.

The massive success of Black Byrd demanded a quick response, and Street Lady was released the next year.  If anything, Lady was funkier than Black Byrd, incuring the wrath of purists.  The appreciative whoops that greeted the killer groove of "Lansana's Priestess" made the criticism easier to bear.

Around this time, Byrd assemebled the Blackbyrds from students in his classes.  He would preside over their early career as they staked out their own territory on the jazz-funk axis.

From that point on, his records were admittedly less jazz and more funk.  Stepping Into Tomorrow contained the magnificent "Think Twice," featuring Kay Heath on vocals.  It was later be rediscovered as the backing track of Main Source's "Looking At the Front Door."

Then came the highlight of their collaborations: Places and Spaces.  The album did not go platinum like Black Byrd, but it remains many people's favorite Byrd LP.   Every song was expertly crafted and is a required rare groove purchase.

By the time Caricatures came out, Byrd was declaring his act to be a "dance band" with little interest in jazz.  This would be the final session with the Mizells, who were moving on to other things. 

In 1978, Byrd left Blue Note for Elektra, where he delivered more funk but with less fire than before.  Isaac Hayes produced him on "Love Has Come Around," his last notable single.

Byrd has now relaxed into his status as a legend, doing the occasional performance and continuing his drive for education.

Donald Byrd's Deepest Grooves

Black Byrd (Blue Note, 1972)
Shocked everybody, but time has shown his gamble to introduce r&b elements to his music to be a wise move.  Could be the most consistent of Byrd's classic LPs.  "Flight Time" and "Love's So Far Away" continue to stand the test of time.

Street Lady (Blue Note, 1973)
A more confident outing from the Mizells, who were progressing at a rapid rate.

Stepping Into Tomorrow (Blue Note, 1975)
Tends to be the forgotten LP of this period.  In addition to "Think Twice" keep your ears open for the title song and "Design A Nation," with a guest apperance from Gary Bartz.

Places and Spaces (Blue Note, 1975)
One of the tightest fusion albums, and each listen reaffirms its greatness.   Side One may well be the most perfect side in history: "Change (Makes You Want to Hustle)," the dreamy "Wind Parade," and "Dominoes" are lined up back-to-back-to-back for a killer opening half to the album.  Side two isn't bad either, with "You and Music" and the sublime title song.  The only questionable choice is the cover of "Just My Imagination." 

Caricatures (Blue Note, 1976)
Interesting choice for a title.  Perhaps Byrd was acknowledging what the critics thought about his music?  "Return of the King" is probably the best song here. The weakest of the Byrd-Mizell LPs.

Best Of (Blue Note, 1992)
Blue Note finally cashed in on the popularity of Byrd samples by making the originals available on this compilation.

Copyright 2001 B.Graff.  All rights reserved.

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