Donald Byrd’s Transitional Period

By Carl Glatzel, Editor
Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

In the wake of jazz great Donald Byrd’s passing, there has been a revived interest in his critically-acclaimed Hard Bop period as well as his later involvement with funk and disco. There is a time between years 1969 and 1972 that is oftentimes overlooked — I like to call this Byrd’s transitional period. It was during these explorative years that electric instruments as well as a much more relaxed compositional style were introduced.

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Fancy Free, 1970

Byrd’s 1970 release, Fancy Free, offers a larger ensemble than previous recordings including key creative partner Duke Pearson on electric piano. Some call this abrupt end to hard bop stylings a knee-jerk reaction to the sparks that came from Miles Davis’ release In a Silent Way just a few months prior. Although not earth shattering as Davis’ effort, Fancy Free marks a significant change in direction for the hard bop trumpeter. The title track itself proved to be a favorite cover to such contemporaries as Elvin Jones and Grant Green, both on the Blue Note label.

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Electric Byrd, 1970

Davis’ 1970 release, Bitches Brew, opened a Pandora’s Box with regard to shifting the jazz paradigm and the dawn of jazz fusion. This powerful influence was felt in Byrd’s 1970 release Electric Byrd. Here we find Byrd in full experimental mode complete with post production studio effects. The material leaned to a floating, cerebral compositional style with less focus on groove and backbeat. Decidedly a brave outing by an even larger band consisting of 11 members. Davis sideman, Airto Moreira, keeps a tight bond to the Dark Prince as he lays down complex percussion over Brazilian themes. Collaborator Duke Pearson is back on electric piano adding to a very stylized and dreamy soundscape. Reedmen Frank Foster and Lew Tabackin are also in tow. After much free-form improvisation and Davis leanings we do get a taste of plain funk with final track “The Dude”. It shores up the album as if to put listeners at ease after the storm of pioneering uncertainty.

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Kofi, 1971

Along comes 1971 and Byrd releases yet another stellar session, Kofi. Regulars, Tabackin and Foster are heard here along with legendary bassist Ron Carter and percussionist Airto Moreira. The title tune nears 8 minutes and is a burner, it easily earns its Blue Note Rare Groove monicker. The rest of the album covers more adventurous territory. Most tracks hark back to the heady sound of Electric Byrd with its use of space and percussion supplied by magician Airto. Heavy electric piano dominates arrangements with Byrd’s airy trumpet gliding on top like a hawk riding a thermal. The album ends on Foster’s composition “The Loud Minority” which rings like a dark interval from the Buddy Rich Big Band songbook.

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Ethiopian Knights, 1972

Many critics will end Byrd’s transitional sessions here but I like to include the excellent 1972 release Ethiopian Knights. On this album we find Byrd delving into a dark jazz-laden funk. This is not the vocal-tinged upbeat funk of Black Byrd and definitely not the polarizing disco from down the road. This recording still owes indebtedness to Miles Davis and his experiments with funk elements at the time. There are still lengthy solos here along with a lot of electric bass and a barrage of drums. With only three tracks this album blows away many straight-up funk contemporaries with its hard-driving beats and surgical precision. All three Byrd-penned pieces are more singularly focused than their free-wheeling predecessors. Two long tracks, “The Emperor” and “The Little Rasti”, sandwich the 3-1/2 minute “Jamie” — an interlude piece which offers to cleanse the palette in between double helpings of multilayered funk.

After sitting back with these four excellent outings one can appreciate Byrd’s intent to experiment and reach. He still maintains a firm footing in hard bop interplay and virtuosity, added is his uncanny ability to mix electronics and funk elements to great effect. With so many artists indebted to him for his creative genius, pioneering spirit and focus on education Donald Byrd will be sorely missed.

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