This isn’t some grand insight but what I find remarkable about the career of the late Donald Byrd was his ability to span so many different phases of jazz. For a cat who started in the bebop era, he bridged from there into post-bop, dabbled a bit in free, became one of the giants of the soul jazz era, and then became a massive force during the heyday of fusion. The vast majority of artists – of any genre – have trouble transitioning between even micro-changes in musical styles.1 Donald Byrd stayed relevant for at least 20 years. That’s as impressive a feat as I’ve seen by any artist above or below the platinum line.
The following playlist is absolutely not meant to be comprehensive. There’s dozens of songs I could have included but opted not to, either because they seemed so obvious to replay them would be redundant or, more to the point: they weren’t my favorites. But even this modest sampling gives you the idea of the astonishing range of Byrd’s musical genius.
Donald Byrd: Low Life
From Fuego (Blue Note, 1959)
I could have started with a song far earlier in Byrd’s career but my point here is to establish his bop/post-bop certifiers with a spry, swinging tune that reminds me of Bobby Timmons best work.
Byrd + gospel choir = sublime. And cinematic, no? Couldn’t you imagine this in some spaghetti western where our hero walks atop a sand dune, the sun setting at his back? Have I been watching too many Leone films?
Also: best cover ever.
The best known song off this album is probably the cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” but thanks to US3, I can’t really bear to listen to it much. I do like this cover of “House of the Rising Sun” though. No only does it draw from the same choral backing that we heard on A New Perspective but you can begin to hear the hints of the coming soul-jazz movement. It’s the small, subtle things in the rhythm that you’ll hear even more so on…
And here we are. It’s not upside your dome funky but clearly, it’s working in that vein, especially with the hard hammer of Cedar Walton’s piano. But heck, let’s take it a step further and let the drummer get some.
The first thing that strikes you is that Duke Pearson is tickling the Rhodes on here, apparently the first time Byrd allowed an electric piano to roll in. Combine that with the more aggressive breakbeats by drummer Joe Chambers and “Weasil” belongs firmly in the soul-jazz era that’s since been enshrined through comps like Blue Break Beats and Jazz Dance Classics.
To me, Ethiopian Knights represents the deepest Byrd got into this era of the soul-jazz sound before moving more towards proto-disco fusion style. Nearly 18 minutes long, nothing “little” about this.
With this album, Byrd minted a smash and established himself as one of the masterminds of a sound that blended jazz, soul, funk and disco. Black Byrd was, in many ways, a total blueprint for the next five years, not just of Byrd’s career, but the direction of jazz and R&B as a whole. For me, I definitely hear some What’s Going On? elements at play but the sheer smoothness of the track also hints at what you’d hear with yacht rock by the late 1970s. It’s all right here.
By the way, I’m going to skip over Street Lady even though it was an important/successful album, yada yada. The only thing I want to say is that the title track is an interesting “throwback” to Byrd’s sound from about five years before. It’s like a retro-hard-bop tune.
The Mizell brothers era of Byrd’s career is perhaps his best known to most hip-hop fans given the sheer number of samples that emerged from it. Anyone up on my site should already have “Wind Parade” in heavy rotation but this is one case where I can’t not include it in here. Any song that helps power one of the greatest remixes in hip-hop history deserves that much.
At some point in the early 1970s Byrd landed a production deal with Fantasy Records and from that, he assembled a group of former Howard University students and they became the Blackbyrds. By the mid 1970s, though Byrd was still recording on his own, he was arguably experiencing more success in producing other groups, especially the Blackbyrds who had a string of hits I’m sure all of you are familiar. “Rock Creek Park” remains a constant staple for any good disco set but I threw in “Mysterious Vibes” here because 1) I like the name and 2) it’s groovy.
The 3 Pieces were a short-lived group from the D.C. area that Byrd also produced, albeit not to anywhere near the same success as the Blackbyrds. Pity since the album yielded at least two strong cuts: the jazz dance track above as well as the more mid-tempo crossover track, “Backed Up Against the Wall.”
This seems as good a place to close out: the dark, moody, melancholy groove of “Wilford’s Gone” from the soundtrack of Cornbread, Earl and Me. Yet another gem shaped by the hand of Donald Byrd.
- Case in point: the year in hip-hop in 1992. ↩