Trumpeter Donald Byrd enjoyed a multi-faceted career that can be divided up into distinctive phases. In the early period, he operated as a trumpeter in the hard bop mode and recorded both as a leader and sideman for Blue Note, introducing the world to a then unknown pianist by the name of Herbie Hancock in 1961. This phase lasted until the late 1960s when Byrd had already begun to experiment with electrified sounds and what has come to be termed jazz fusion. A second period began in 1972 when Byrd recorded a series of seminal albums (four in total) that were produced by the brothers Mizell (Larry and Fonce) and these included the stunning, ‘Blackbyrd’ from 1973 and, arguably strongest of all, ‘Place and Spaces’, a definitive slice of jazz-funk, crammed with anthemic numbers. Crucial to this new pioneering sound was the use of vocals in tandem with more condensed and restricted instrumental soloing and this, along with the commercial success, led Byrd to be charged by jazz purists with ‘selling out’. However, where members of the jazz fraternity lost interest, a whole new and younger audience came on board and were attracted by the combination of emerging funk, soulful vocals and jazz-tinged instrumentation.
Parallel to a musical career, Donald Byrd pursued an academic career as university lecturer in music, having obtained B.A. and M.A. degrees (he even found time later to study for a degree in law) and it was while at Rutgers University that he developed a new group called the Blackbyrds. In his mind was thus born the concept of a younger group to accompany and freshen up his sound (interestingly Miles Davis would, at regular intervals, would do precisely the same thing). This new anthology, while it could never hope to cover Byrd’s entire career, or even just the fusion period, does an excellent job of chronicling the Elektra years which spans the end of disco and the beginning of the 1982, just as jazz was about to come out of the doldrums and be hip again to a new public.
The first album, ‘Thank you for…. funking up my life’, dates from 1978 and included here is the full-length 12″ disco cut that typifies the more left-field side of disco (think War, George Duke, David Bendeth) which readily encompassed jazzier beats,
but in a dancefloor setting. The title track was a reasonable hit at the time, but has been eclipsed, certainly in the UK at least, by the soothing mid-tempo groove with deliciously soulful female vocals of, ‘Loving you’, and this was released as a single at the time and made the lower échelons of the R&B charts in the United States.
A second album surfaced some two years later, simply entitled, ‘Donald Byrd and the 125th St. N.Y.C.’ and featuring a wonderfully evocative picture by the great Ernie Barnes who had equally produced the cover of Marvin Gaye’s stunning, ‘I want you’, album. Byrd was veering more heavily towards compositional songwriting and consequently his trumpet solos became significantly reduced and less frequent. From this recording, the discofied hues of, ‘I love you’, resonated with audiences and it is a superior slice of dancefloor action. However, more reflective of Byrd was the instrumental, ‘Marilyn’, and the mid-tempo number that opened the album in, ‘Pretty baby'(a nod possibly to the film of the same title featuring Brooke Shields).
By album three, change was in the offing and this came in the significant and new influence of the legendary Stax soul singer-songwriter, Isaac Hayes. Accompanying Hayes were the vocal talents of the Hot Buttered Soul Singers. Byrd and Hayes scored a major hit among the jazz-funk community in the UK with the superb, ‘Love has come around’, and here Byrd was able to offer meaty soloing as well as directing the group. In fact, the song was written by long-term Byrd band member and guitarist, William Duckett, and this proved to be Donald Byrd’s biggest hit on the R&B charts, weighing in at number fifteen. Further tasty album cuts included the very Hayes sounding, ‘I feel like loving you today’, and ‘Falling’. This was probably the strongest album of the four. Another single release, the mid-tempo, ‘I love your love’, was a more modest R&B hit.
The final album for Elektra, ‘Words, sounds colors and shapes’, dates from 1982 just as synthesized instrumentation was about to dominate the soul charts. Thankfully, Donald Byrd resisted that potential pitfall and came up with an end of era jazz-funk record, where his trumpet sound was even less prominent than previously. Two choice cuts of this album include, ‘So much in love’ and ‘Forbidden love’. The album did not fare as well as the predecessor, but was still well received in the UK.
As ever with BBR anthologies, excellent pictorial support with album sleeves, labels and photos of Byrd still looking decidedly cool in his attire.