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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Big Band Horsepower: Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Fuel-injected and testosterone-drenched are not descriptions usually associated with big band music. Enter Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson. These prominent big bands of the late-60s and 70s throw convention and easy listening out the window. Each band had a fearless leader who was a virtuoso on his respective instrument.

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Big Swing Face, 1967

Buddy Rich, known the world over as the best drummer of all time, heads up his band from the rear with fireworks and showmanship. On several live sessions you can hear Rich shouting orders like a gunnery sergeant. He was notoriously hard on his players and it paid off in spades — leaving behind numerous recordings, most on the Pacific Jazz label, teaming with hard-driving, turn-on-a-dime tracks. Rich usually supplied a mix of compositions, both contemporary and jazz standards, on his albums. Some tracks dipped in to the WWI-era swing bag. However, it’s Rich’s contemporary tracks that really offer his band’s full pyrotechnic potential. A favorite of mine is the album Big Swing Face from 1967 on Pacific Jazz. On this release we can hear some true modern gems like “Mexicali Nose” and “Willowcrest”. The band roars in focused unison while Rich lays down superhuman drum solos. On 1969’s Keep The Customer Satisfied Rich pays tribute to the score from the film Midnight Cowboy with a lengthy medley that just about brings down the house. To have seen this band live would have been an opportunity to witness perfection.

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M.F. Horn 3, 1973

Maynard Ferguson, oppositely, lead from the front on both trumpet and trombone. He was best known for his “stratospheric” playing on trumpet having had the ability to hit a triple C in his trademark upper register. Ferguson was also known to dance on stage — achieving his usual euphoria by his band’s infectious swing. By 1970 he honed his players into a contemporary sound machine with the uncanny ability to play anything and everything. He sometimes covered pop themes such as the title track from 1974’s Chameleon or “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” on 1977’s Conquistador without reservation. He made the “Theme from Shaft” on 1972’s M.F. Horn Two swing like nobody’s business. Some of his staples have aged very well including the moody “Eli’s Comin'” and the 10-minute epic “Macarthur Park” both from the excellent 1970 release M.F. Horn. Ferguson proved to be a genius at arranging — making familiar tunes wholly original and relevant. If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

Next time you need a soundtrack to a formula one grand prix or a jumpstart to your day try spinning some Rich or Ferguson — seat belts are optional.

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The Curious Case of Baby Face

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Roosevelt Willette, aka “Baby Face”, was somewhat of a mystery man. Even his birthplace is disputed — it might have been Little Rock or possibly New Orleans. One thing is for certain, however, his appearance on the jazz scene couldn’t have been more serendipitous. In the late 50s he met soon-to-be labelmates, Lou Donaldson and Grant Green, in New York after a move from Chicago. Donaldson, acting as unofficial scout for Blue Note Records, was a catalyst in signing both Willette and Green to the label. Willette’s soulful touch on the Hammond B3 reflected his gospel background and would later become a high-water mark, if not a significant footnote, in Blue Note’s storied past.

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Face To Face, 1961

Armed with a big, bluesy sound and brimming with raw emotion, Willette would go on to lead his own groups on two outings in 1961 — both excellent sessions: Face to Face and Stop and Listen. Each group featured Grant Green on guitar and Ben Dixon on drums. Willette’s first session, Face to Face, added the earthy, southern swagger of Fred Jackson on tenor — duck calls, squawks and all.

By the time of his debut as a leader Willette had an original sound pinned down — easily giving similar units such as Smith/Burrell and Turrentine/Scott a run for their money. Although it was early in the recording careers of each member, his group played like weathered professionals — effortlessly belting out greasy, gospel-tinged lines in flawless Blue Note fashion. Even Willette’s sideman contributions on Lou Donaldson’s Here ‘Tis and Grant Green’s Grant’s First Stand are standout examples of Soul Jazz at its finest. There was no doubting it, the man had the golden touch. It was a crying shame he didn’t get to record more for the label. With regular creative partners such as Grant Green, Lou Donaldson and Ben Dixon, Willette could have gone on to record several more albums in the same vein, perhaps even exploring larger group settings or varied instrumentation. Instead, he mysteriously left Blue Note and resurfaced a few years later on the Argo label cutting two more sessions as leader in 1964 — neither hitting the heights of his earlier efforts.

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Here ‘Tis, 1961

After Argo, Willette left recording altogether and made his way back to the live jazz scene in Chicago where he played from 1966 till his untimely death in 1971. How on Earth could such a natural talent fade away into utter obscurity? Willette’s chops were, arguably, on par with the likes of Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. And yet, he wholly owned an original and identifiable sound — something quite difficult to achieve in a climate dominated by the innovators of his instrument of choice. Was there a falling out with his collaborators or label chiefs? Or did he pose a threat to more established artists on the roster? Unanswered questions and a handful of excellent tracks are all that’s left of “Baby Face” Willette’s checkered and mysterious recording career.

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1958 Album of the Year: Porgy and Bess

By Justin Scoville, Guest Contributor

Wow, I have had a tough time with this one. Although 1959 was certainly a watershed year for Jazz, 1958 wasn’t too shabby either. A Great Day in Harlem, the famous photo taken by Art Kane, was captured in 1958. (And yes, this photo is hanging in my living room). Many pivotal albums were released in 1958, including these personal favorites:

  • Deeds, Not Words Max Roach’s innovative piano-less group that featured Ray Draper on tuba and a stunning, 20 year old Booker Little on trumpet. My mom bought this for me when I was a teenager and that was the start of my fascination with Booker.
  • Somethin’ Else Miles Davis’, er, Cannonball Adderley’s sublime Blue Note album which offers the definitive, most swinging-est versions of “Autumn Leaves” and “Love For Sale”.
  • Moanin’ If you had to choose one Jazz Messenger’s album that encapsulated all of Art Blakey’s mission as a musician, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.
  • Cool Struttin’ Man, Sonny Clark swung hard. Love that guy. He was out of the Bud Powell school with a lighter touch and infused his solos with blues and wit.
  • Looking Ahead One of Cecil Taylor’s first forays into the New Thing.
  • Milestones An absolute classic. Trane, Miles, and Cannonball as a front line… Wow. The title track foreshadows Modal Miles.
  • Everybody Digs Bill Evans: Keepnews Collection Recorded in 1958 but released in early 1959, this album saw Evans conceptualizing his modal approach in the hypnotic Peace Piece.

Anyways, my choice for 1958 is Porgy & Bess, Miles Davis’s second of three collaborations with Gil Evans in a large ensemble setting. (I’m cheating on this one… Porgy and Bess was actually released in 1959 but recorded in 1958. The field for 1959 is too crowded).

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Miles Davis at the Porgy & Bess sessions, 1958

Miles Ahead (1957) augmented the Birth of the Cool’s nonet into a full-blown big band, allowing Miles to pontificate against an obtuse instrumental backdrop. 

Sketches of Spain (1960) was, at the time of its release, a radical departure from jazz convention and stirred up controversy about what was and wasn’t jazz.

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Miles Ahead, 1957

Porgy and Bess falls in the middle of Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain chronologically and musically. Gershwin’s conglomeration of the American Folk tradition and European Classical harmony made a perfect musical playground for Evans. His complex yet melodic voicings, brought to life by a top-notch group, laid the foundation for Miles to advance his pioneering style away from Bebop and into the Unknown. Evans also captures the drama of the opera in his adaptation, along with Miles as the lead soloist. Both Evans and Davis were fascinated with the nascent modal innovations of George Russell, and although Milestones captured some of what was to come in Kind of Blue, I feel like Porgy and Bess is the first full realization of the modal approach in Jazz.

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Porgy And Bess, 1959

“Buzzard Song”, “Summertime”, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are clear historical favorites from this album. For me, from a strictly musical standpoint, “Gone” and “Prayer” are the standout tracks. “Gone” opens with ragged but spirited ensemble passages sandwiched between brilliant drum fills from Philly Joe Jones. The centerpiece of the song is Miles blowing chorus after chorus over a minor mode with Philly Joe and Paul Chambers. The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man. Prayer builds from a mournful blues statement from Miles into a wailing climax. (I always love how Cannonball plays during the crescendo; his levels are so high he must have freaked out the recording engineers). Prayer is a radical departure from the Head-Solo-Head structure of most jazz songs from then and now, with the ensemble building organically together with Miles’s melodic improvisations.

The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man.

Porgy and Bess is a beautiful masterpiece and a lasting monument to Gil and Miles, whose musical partnership would span several decades, not to mention genres, of Jazz.

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Justin Scoville is a Denver-based trumpeter and jazz blogger.


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Jazz and the Hunt

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Never say never, or so I quickly learned one humid, summer afternoon at a used book store in southwest Houston.

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Something In The Wind, 1969

I seldom get the opportunity to thumb through used record bins these days, so stumbling upon a collector’s item would almost seem out of the question. Defying all odds, I discovered something priceless — a worn-out LP copy of a 1969 The Winter Consort release, Something In The Wind. I know what you’re thinking — a dime a dozen. Well, this one was different. It was priced at only a dollar, hiding between tattered releases by Wendy (Walter) Carlos and Tony Orlando in a neglected clearance bin. Right off I was drawn to the thought-provoking photo of Paul Winter on the cover, proudly standing in a forest, dwarfed by a giant, emerald canopy — not unlike something out of the Jethro Tull catalog. Turning it over I noticed some scribbling on the back cover. I immediately jumped to conclusions, wondering why people are so careless with their LPs. Upon closer inspection I noticed it was a collection of autographs, each band member having signed their name and some including their respective instrument. Included in this group was the remarkable sitarist, and long-deceased, Collin Walcott. The wheels in my head were spinning out of control. How did this end up here of all places and in my hands? I felt as if I just found the Holy Grail tucked away in a dumpster behind a Taco Bell. And the kicker—all this for a dollar? That’s all I needed, off I went. I think I may have skipped to the register to purchase this small piece of jazz memorabilia.

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Something In The Wind, 1969. Autographed back cover.

It was priced at only a dollar, hiding between tattered releases by Wendy (Walter) Carlos and Tony Orlando in a neglected clearance bin.

Driving home with my treasure stowed safely out of harm’s way, I wondered how many more gems might still be out there — wasting away in written-off clearance bins or dusty attics. There’s no telling, but one thing’s for certain — you don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of laying your mitts on one without getting out there and looking under some rocks. Happy hunting!

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Big John Patton’s “Understanding” Misunderstood

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

I usually use AllMusic.com as a litmus test for unfamiliar recordings. I’m glad I went with my gut when I found a 1995 Blue Note re-issue of Big John Patton’s Understanding at a local, used book store. If I had gone with the AllMusic critic’s opinion I would have avoided it like the plague and tossed it aside. For the uninitiated, Patton is an organist who came to prominence on the Blue Note label in the early-60s. He was known for his economical, modern approach and inspired, bluesy solos. One of the few organists of the era to dodge the Jimmy Smith comparison.

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Understanding, 1968

After outputting a handful of releases with label regulars Grant Green and Lou Donaldson he ventured off into some uncharted territory. The 1968 release Understanding is not truly a dramatic departure but it does house some free playing by saxophonist Harold Alexander and that is what AllMusic took issue with. It’s stated to somehow interrupt the groove and comes across as disjointed and out of place. Perhaps to the untrained ear, or to a listener not familiar with or accustomed to the unorthodox sounds of Pharaoh Sanders or the other artists from the Impulse! New Thing stable. Alexander’s playing is by no means that of Peter Brotzman or a young Gato Barbieri. To these ears, it comes off as more to do with exuberance, where the spirit of the session takes the helm. Understanding still defaults to a soul jazz category and it’s easy to dismiss free (or freer) playing in this arena, but one listen to this vibrant interplay and you’ll fall into the groove and won’t want to leave. Patton is at the top of his game and his bandmates push him to his swinging limit. The trio is rounded off by Hugh Walker on drums who gives his all — keeping a steady, turbulent backbeat under the soulful wailing laid down by Patton and Alexander. This is music to drive to, you’ll want to be moving and moving quickly.

Patton is at the top of his game and his bandmates push him to his swinging limit.

Right from the opener “Ding Dong” you know exactly where you stand – this is some heavy-duty soul and these players aren’t about to let up. That’s what’s so enticing about this particular release, the raw sounds of Alexander’s sax really churns the already boiling pot. Each player builds on one another adding more fuel to the fire, keeping things interesting. This certainly isn’t the Soul Jazz recordings of previous years — dare I say — in some ways it’s even better. Patton proves he’s not afraid to go out on a limb with a loose canon like Alexander. The addition of Walker on drums is a great move, his style adds some necessary backbone to help ground a free range player like Alexander. Patton is spot on, as usual, with soloing and his signature basslines. It’s Patton’s buoyant, almost hypnotic, bass that really adds a sense of forward motion to each track. His lines are deceptively simple, undulating deep down under Walker’s rock-steady drumming — the album’s blood and guts.

This certainly isn’t the Soul Jazz recordings of previous years — dare I say — in some ways it’s even better.

It’s now time to go out and seek this holy grail of groove. And when you do, you’ll want to turn up your hi-fi and tune out the naysayers.

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