Saturday, September 13, 2008

Little Blue Byrd: Part 1

The editorial staff at Jazzprofiles has long been a great fan of the efforts of Kenny Mathieson to chronicle stylistic developments in post World War II Jazz. He began his narrative with Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz 1945-1965 [1999].

The following chapter is contained in the second work in the series: Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954 -1965 [2002]. Both books are published in Edinburgh by Canongate Press Ltd.

While certainly not as trend setting as the work of Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown or Miles Davis, over the years spanned by Mr. Mathieson’s second book, a number of enjoyable recordings were produced that featured the work of the journeyman trumpeters discussed in this piece.

Mr. Mathieson’s overview of the work of Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell and Booker Little is a comprehensive remembrance of their music. And it will also provide those readers who are new to their work with a helpful retrospective of it. The chapter will be presented on Jazzprofiles in three parts.
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Donald Byrd won his biggest following long after the hard bop era, when he formed The Blackbyrds and capitalized on the jazz-funk fusion movement of the 1970s. Two decades before, however, he had emerged as one of the most prolific of the new young hard bop players emerging in the mid-1950s. He cut his first recording sessions as a leader in 1955, and already sounded like the finished article, although he would go on to find a more individual sound beyond his early Clifford Brown influence as the decade progressed. The ensuing two years brought him a plethora of sideman dates, and he appeared in that role on over fifty albums in that period.

The qualities which made him such an automatic first call are clear from the outset. He had a solid musical education, was a good reader, and had excellent technical command of his instrument. He had thoroughly assimilated the musical implications of the bop idiom, and while his playing was never really innovative or strikingly original, he was able to deliver consistently fluent, imaginative and well-rounded improvisations within that idiom. His reliability (and the not entirely coincidental fact that he was not a drug user) also counted in his favors, and he was unlikely to upstage the leader with too generous a flow of spectacular original ideas or virtuosity.

In short, he was the ideal sideman, especially for a pick-up style of session, and these qualities quickly brought him recognition, and regular visits to the studio. In the process, he forged an impeccable hard bop pedigree with most of the major leaders of the time, including Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, as well as the less readily classified Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.

Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd 11 was born in Detroit on 9 December, 1932. His father, a Methodist minister and amateur musician, named him after Toussaint L'Ouverture, the freed slave who became a revolutionary leader in Haiti in the late 18th century (the same revolutionary period commemorated by Charles Mingus in his 'Haitian Fight Song'), and Byrd retained a passionate interest in the broader field of Afro-American history, anthropology and culture. He earned several academic honors, including a Bachelor in Music degree from Wayne State University in 1954, an MA from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Ph.D. from the Columbia University School of Education in 1971, and developed a deserved reputation as a scholar and teacher of Afro-American music.

Back in the autumn of 1955, though, he was a hot young trumpet star in the making, freshly arrived in New York from the jazz hot spot of Detroit. He made his mark immediately. He had already recorded a live date for Transition in August, 1955, alongside another young Detroit hopeful, Yusef Lateef, who comes across as the more advanced player (these sides were later acquired and reissued by Delmark). He made his studio debut as a leader for Savoy in September, with saxophonist Frank Foster, a session which has appeared under various titles, including Long Green and Byrd Lore.
He cut sides for Prestige in 1956, including the unusual Two Trumpets date with Art Farmer and one of his most regular collaborators of the period, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Byrd had worked with McLean in the trumpeter's first important gig in New York with pianist George Wallington's band in 1955, and he also appeared on the saxophonist's sessions like New Soil and Jackie's Bag for Blue Note.
Byrd also recorded for Savoy again in 1957 on Star Eyes, with the seldom recorded alto saxophonist John Jenkins, a Chicagoan who made a brief but positive contribution to hard bop before disappearing from the jazz scene (although Jenkins was seldom heard from after the mid-'60s, the vibes player Joe Locke told me that he was sure he had come across him busking in New York in the mid-'90s).
Byrd's principal associations of the late 1950s, though, came in two groups: the Jazz Lab Quintet he co-led with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, and the bands he shared with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. The Jazz Lab Quintet was formed in 1957 to explore a more structured approach to hard bop than was generally evident in the blowing session dates of the day. They made several albums, the best known of which are on the Riverside and Columbia labels, provided the trumpeter with one of his most productive settings. In order to avoid undue repetition, I have discussed their work together in the Gigi Gryce section of this book (see Chapter 15; their recordings are also listed there), and will concentrate here on the second of these associations, with Pepper Adams.
The baritone saxophonist was born in Highland Park, Michigan, on 8 October, 1930, and raised in Rochester, New York. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Detroit, where he broke into the local jazz scene in the late '40s, working with saxophonists Lucky Thomson and Wardell Gray, among others. Adams began playing clarinet and tenor saxophone before adopting the bigger horn, inspired by the example of Duke Ellington's great baritone specialist, Harry Carney. Adams was only twelve when he first met Carney, but said later that his adoption of the instrument several years later was more down to having an unexpected opportunity to acquire one cheaply.

A stint in the army took him away from the jazz scene from 1951-3 (Byrd was in another branch of the service at the same time), but he resumed his activities on his return. Inevitably, Byrd was one of the local musicians with whom he worked, and the two formed a close alliance. It was a natural step to get together in a band in New York, which they duly did when Adams returned to the city after a spell on the west coast in 1958, a residence which inevitably created mistaken expectations that he would sound like Gerry Mulligan, a perception encouraged by the release of his debut solo album with the distinctly west coast-sounding title of The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams on Savoy in 1957.
Byrd's crisp, richly brassy, increasingly lyrical trumpet work and the fleet, sinewy, driving approach which Adams had developed on baritone were combined with their notably complementary approach to phrasing and rhythmic placement to form a highly effective front line, either with the two horns or an additional alto or tenor saxophone. They gigged and recorded together under one or the other's nominal leadership as well as in tandem, and are heard on records like Adams's classic live date 10 to 4 at The Five Spot, recorded on 5 April, 1958 for Riverside; Motor City Scene (aka Stardust), an all-Detroit date for Bethlehem in 1960; and a 1961 date for Warwick Records, Out of This World, in which Herbie Hancock made his recording debut. The core of their collaboration, however, is contained in the series of recordings they made for Blue Note between 1958 and 1961, both live and in the studio (the latter were collected by Mosaic Records in The Complete Blue Note Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Studio Sessions in 2000, which also includes a later date from 1967, belatedly issued in 1981 as The Creeper).

Their studio work in the earlier period yielded five albums. The first two, Off To The Races from 21 December, 1958 and Byrd In Hand, recorded on 31 May, 1959, both featured sextets (as did the 1967 date), with the trumpet-baritone combination augmented by Jackie McLean's searching alto and Charlie Rouse's tenor respectively. Bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor played on both albums, while Wynton Kelly was the pianist on the earlier date, and Walter Davis, Jr. filled that chair on Byrd In Hand (Byrd returned the favor in August on the pianist's excellent Davis Cup, a Blue Note album which was his only date as a leader until a flurry of activity in his last decade, starting in 1977).

Chant, recorded on 17 April, 1961, but not released until much later; The Cat Walk, laid down two weeks later, on 2 May, 1961; and Royal Flush, from 21 September, 1961, were all quintet dates, and gave early recording breaks to the respective pianists, Herbie Hancock on Chant (with bassist Doug Watkins, another old Detroit buddy of Byrd's, and drummer Terri Robinson) and Royal Flush, and Duke Pearson on The Cat Walk. While a good pianist, Pearson's real strength lay in composing and arranging, and he contributed several tunes to the band's repertoire (Byrd later played on one of the pianist's best albums as a leader, Wahoo, released on Blue Note in 1964).

While they were working very much within the constraints of the hard bop idiom rather than pushing the envelope, these remain consistently strong and engaging records, full of vibrant playing, clever but unobtrusive arranging touches, and well-chosen tunes, many written by Byrd himself. If Byrd In Hand and The Cat Walk are the pick of the bunch, there is excellent material to be found on all of them, and a dip into any of them will give a powerful impression of the group's music.
Some listeners may prefer the extra immediacy and atmosphere of the live club gig captured on At The Half Note Café, recorded on 11 November, 1960, and issued under Byrd's name (Blue Note issued the LPs in two separate volumes, but these were eventually combined on a double CD, with extra material). Both Byrd and Adams were in fine blowing form on that occasion, with a rhythm section of Duke Pearson, Lymon Jackson and Lex Humphries, and the music surges off the bandstand in sparkling fashion, although Humphries is a little four-square on drums - listen to the same group with Philly Joe Jones on The Cat Walk for an instructive illustration of just how much lift a really great drummer can add.
By the end of 1961, the leaders had broken up the band to pursue their own projects, and they reunited only for The Creeper date in 1967, with alto saxophonist Sonny Red, an old school mate of Byrd's from Detroit (his real name was Sylvester Kyner) who featured on several of the trumpeter's albums in the mid-'60s, and Chick Corea on piano. Adams went off to work with Lionel Hampton and then Thad Jones, while Byrd concentrated more fully on his own activities as a leader. He had already cut two sessions for Blue Note without his baritone partner: the rather lackluster Fuego, recorded in October, 1959, with Jackie McLean on board, and Byrd in Flight (a title that seemed inevitable at some point), made in two sessions in January and July, 1960, with either McLean on alto or Hank Mobley on tenor.

He always had a sharp ear for the commercial aspects of his music, one which would come to fruition in the 1970s, but his willingness to feed the public's appetite for funk and groove tunes is already apparent. Herbie Hancock has recalled the trumpeter advising him to fill half of his debut album with crowd-pleasing funk or pop tunes, and show off his chops on the rest (his response was to come up with one of the most successful of all soul jazz tunes, 'Watermelon Man').

Although most of his work was done for Blue Note in this period, Byrd also recorded occasionally for other labels. A two-volume live recording of a Paris concert in 1958, Byrd In Paris, with the Belgian flautist and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar, is one such record, while another, recorded in January, 1962, and released as Groovin' With Nat on Black Lion, saw him form a two trumpet front line with Johnny Coles, who also played with Gil Evans and Charles Mingus, among others, but made relatively few records as a leader (he is heard to advantage on his sole Blue Note date from 1963, Little Johnny C.) Although not as well known as Byrd's many Blue Note issues, both of these records are worth hearing.

Byrd had developed steadily throughout the late 1950s, both as a player and as a composer. Royal Flush featured the Blue Note debut of Butch Warren and Billy Higgins, a rhythm team that became a staple of Alfred Lion's stable in the early '60s, and departures like the modal scales used on 'Jorgie's' and the mobile drum pulse on 'Shangri-La' gave hints of the more experimental approach which Byrd adopted on his next session for the label, Free Form, recorded on 11 December, 1961. The original LP opened in classic hard bop fashion with the gospel beat of 'Pentecostal Feelin", and worked through three more original compositions by the trumpeter, including the subtly inflected 'Nai Nai', and Hancock's exotic ballad, 'Night Flower' (the CD release added the pianist's 'Three Wishes').
The most intriguing departure from the conventions of hard bop came in Byrd's 'Free Form', in which they extended some of the harmonic and rhythmic directions explored on Royal Flush. The tune uses a scale (based on a serial tone row) and a free pulse as a flexible framework for experiment. Byrd described the process in the sleeve note in these terms: 'We move in and out of that basic framework.... The tune has no direct relation to the tempo. I mean that nobody played in the tempo Billy maintains, and we didn't even use it to bring in the melody. Billy's work is just there as a percussive factor, but it's not present as a mark of the time. There is no time in the usual sense, so far as the soloists are concerned.' Even if the trumpeter occasionally sounds as if he is struggling to assimilate his style within the context of Wayne Shorter's oblique probings, Hancock's adventurous open chord voicings, and the flexibility of Warren and Higgins, Free Form remains one of his finest albums, although not everyone would agree, starting with the Penguin Guide. Perhaps with rather more justification, they do not think much of its successor, either, but A New Perspective broke fresh ground for Byrd in its combination of a vocal chorus of eight singers (directed by Coleridge Perkinson, who had arranged the choir on Max Roach's It's Time the previous year) and a septet which featured Hank Mobley and guitarist Kenny Burrell as well as Hancock, with arrangements by Duke Pearson.
The album was recorded on 12 January, 1963 (Byrd had spent much of the intervening time studying composition in Paris), and earned the trumpeter a minor hit with its best known track, 'Christo Redentor'. It drew on a long-standing strain of gospel-derived music in Byrd's work, but in a populist form which foreshadowed the crossover directions he would follow in an even more overtly commercial idiom in the 1970s. He repeated the experiment with less success on I'm Trying To Get Home in December, 1964 (he had made a rather nondescript album for Verve, Up With Donald Byrd, between these Blue Note dates), and recorded several more hard bop oriented sessions for Alfred Lion in the mid-'60s, released on albums like Mustang, Blackjack Slow Drag, and The Creeper (all featuring altoman Sonny Red).

The introduction of modal and even freer elements in his albums of the early- 1960s demonstrated his awareness of the new directions running through jazz, and that tension is equally evident in the music on these albums. By the time of the late-1960s sessions issued on Fancy Free, Kofi and Electric Byrd, he was moving in the direction of a more overt jazz-funk and rhythm and blues feel which would make him a star in the 1970s, a breakthrough which finally arrived with the formation of The Blackbyrds and the release of Black Byrd in 1972. It became Blue Note's biggest selling album, and took the trumpeter away from hard bop altogether, into an often forgettable fusion vein which took in smooth pop, disco, and an early entry into jazz-meets-hip hop with rapper Guru and saxophonist Courtney Pine in Jazzmatazz.

He did return to the bop idiom in the late 1980s, following a serious stroke, and recorded several albums for Orrin Keepnews's Landmark label. Getting Down To Business, recorded in 1989 with Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, and an excellent rhythm section, is the best of these, but that is mainly down to his collaborators. His own playing is disappointingly diffuse, and no match for the prime hard bop he laid down in his peak decade from 1955.

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