Category Archives: Donald Byrd

The Blackbyrds: Ronnie Scott’s 15 February 2017

Although 2017 is not a leap year, here at downwithit we’ve sprung like a feisty feline on the hunt. The great Donald Byrd has led us from The Catwalk to a sellout first night of a residency at Ronnie Scott’s, costing me more of a song than sixpence and featuring The Blackbyrds as the main course.

While working on my consideration of The Catwalk and explaining how I had first started to listen to Donald Byrd when his Best Of compilation was released in 1992, I noticed that his protégés, The Blackbyrds, were playing in London in mid-February. It took seconds to hit the club website and reserve a couple of tickets. A month passed quickly and a night on the town came along to add a bit of sparkle to a late winter’s evening.

There’s always a bit of a gamble involved in going to see bands that have reformed. The Blackbyrds did so in 2012 and feature three original members in the form of powerhouse vocalist and drummer, Keith Killgo, the mighty Joe Hall on six string electric bass and Orville Saunders playing a very funky guitar.

Any misgivings were left behind at the door and a satisfying starter was served up by saxophonist Christian Brewer and his band, Brewer’s Crew. Their lively jazz funk was well received by an appreciative audience out to enjoy themselves.

After a quick rearrangement of the small stage, the main course was delivered by an octet who paved the way with their anthem, Black Byrd, which you can listen to (in the form of the original featuring Donald Byrd) courtesy of Youtube:

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After a great opener, one of my personal favourites, Dominoes, followed. It led onto a delicious smorgasbord of hits including Think Twice, Time is Movin’, the inevitable Walking in Rhythm, Do It Fluid and Happy Music, not forgetting the well-loved Rock Creek Park.

There isn’t a weak link in the current Blackbyrds line-up and it is very much in keeping with Donald Byrd’s legacy as a great and inspirational music educator, that they include young talent. Paul Spires on lead vocal has a unique voice that the smart money says we will hear more of, while the sax and flute duties were delivered without fault by Elijah Balbed, a recent graduate of Washington’s Howard University, where Donald Byrd formed the band in 1973.

As the set progressed, a trickle of members of the audience began to dance and that rapidly turned into a flood as The Blackbyrds infectious and tightly delivered songbook worked its magic. Although this is their first residency there, this will surely not be the last engagement at Ronnie Scott’s for The Blackbyrds.

The gig also offered the opportunity for me to say hello to Carl Hyde, the in-house photographer at Ronnie Scott’s. I have been aware of Carl’s work for some time and you can see a sample of it for yourself on his website.

All in all, another great night at Ronnie’s!

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The Cat Walk: Donald Byrd


Shame on me. I’m surprised to discover that I’ve not written about a session led by the great Donald Byrd here yet. Time to put that right with this set from 1961.

I searched for this recording for several years after I first heard the title track on Gilles Peterson’s shows sometime in the 1990’s. I can remember hunting through the CD racks every time I visited a shop with a sufficiently strong Jazz presence, in the hope that it would be released, before finally obtaining an expensive Japanese import when it came out there in 2000. I suppose I could have sought out a copy on vinyl but that was in pre-EBay days. Never mind, it came my way eventually.

The Cat Walk is an audible treat which melds Donald Byrd’s trumpet, the baritone of regular band mate Art Pepper and the piano, compositional and arranging skills of Duke Pearson.

Byrd’s musical output spanned a lengthy period from the early 1950’s through hard bop and then perhaps most notably, onto jazz funk. Although, most of my listening to Byrd as a leader has centred on his wonderful Best of Donald Byrd which features tracks from his later jazz funk Blue Note albums, it is this classic 1961 outing that we will take a look at here. We will start, without further ado. with the title track playing in the background.

To play, click on or touch the arrow

Say You’re Mine is one of four tunes on this set that Duke Pearson wrote or collaborated on. Donald Byrd opens with the theme and plays a lengthy solo on his muted trumpet before giving way to the rasping woody tones of Adams’ baritone saxophone. Pearson’s short solo is both delicate and delicious.

Duke’s Mixture is infused with the blues and strikes me as a tightly arranged tune rather than being a soloists vehicle. Although Byrd, Adams and Pearson get a chorus each, this is essentially a big band number played by a quintet.

The joint Duke Pearson and Donald Byrd composition Each Time I Think Of You sounds like an old school swing tune, with some great playing including a fluent, unmuted solo from Byrd.

Byrd’s own tune, The Cat Walk was inspired by the slinky, insouciant lope of a Tomcat. It is the very sort of tune that could have formed the soundtrack for a 1960’s modern dance piece and one wonders if it ever came to the attention of Donald Byrd’s namesake, an eminent choreographer. It is perhaps an earlier, second-cousin example of a jazz dance piece pre dating Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, which will probably make some explore further, while others recoil. I like it!

Cute was written by Neal Hefti, himself a trumpeter (although this was overshadowed by his contribution as an arranger for Count Basie). Philly Joe Jones is to the fore on this pacy rendition with Byrd laying down a deft solo before Adams comes in, playing lines on his baritone of a type and fluency we are more accustomed to hearing on the much smaller alto saxophone.

The set closes with Hello Bright Sunflower a final Byrd composition. It is a light and joyful breeze of a tune that, to my ears, is vaguely reminiscent of ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon.’

During the 1970’s and 1980’s a cohort of Jazz purists of a certain type were highly critical of Donald Byrd’s later work and this left his reputation somewhat tarnished in mainstream quarters. A re-read of the late Richard Cook’s Blue Note Records, The Biography suggests that Cook viewed Byrd as one of the lesser talents on the label and his playing is given little praise. He states: ‘Byrd’s problem was that he was nearly always going to come off second-best on a label that had trumpeters of the calibre of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham.’ I’m not going to dwell on this curiously imprecise verdict, since, surely we should appreciate each of these great artists on their own merits without attempting to impose a hierarchy. For the record, I’m confident that I’ll be returning to the later works on these pages in due course.

Mention should also be made of Donald Byrd’s great contribution as a jazz educator. He continued his academic studies throughout his career before submitting his PhD and gaining his Doctorate. Dr Byrd was the first director of a new Jazz Studies course at Howard University (where, in the 1960’s, students were forbidden to play Jazz in the Music Department and were expelled for practising on campus) before teaching in other universities. In addition to his eminence as an academic he also qualified as a pilot and as a lawyer. I’m not sure if Dr Byrd is posing next to his own Jaguar on the sleeve? If I had taken the photo I think I would shot from an angle that placed a little more emphasis on Jaguar’s symbolic ‘leaper’ on the bonnet.

Finally, the original sleeve notes were written by Nat Hentoff who passed away last week. He was responsible for numerous cover commentaries and always seemed to me to have been positive, informative and fair-minded. His Wikipedia entry offers a synopsis of the full life of a remarkable man. RIP Nat.

The band etc.:- Donald Byrd (trumpet); Pepper Adams (baritone sax); Duke Pearson (piano); Laymon Jackson (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums). Recorded 2 May 1961. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey. Produced by: Alfred Lion. Sleeve Notes: Nat Hentoff. Cover photo: Francis Wolff. Cover Design: Reid Miles. Issued as Blue Note 84075.

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Six Pieces of Silver: Horace Silver

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Why should I bother with this? It’s 57 years old! Quite simply because Horace Silver and a select group of other New York musicians broke the mould. They created a new sound- ‘Hard bop’. Stealing the words of my mate Matt ‘They had something to say!’ Stealing from Gilles Peterson- Talking Loud, Saying Something! Adding my own view- Playing Great, Sounding Ace! And..although the sound is superb, Rudy Van Gelder, recorded this and other classics in his mum and dad’s front room in Hackensack, New Jersey.

The band etc:- Horace Silver (piano); Donald Byrd(trumpet);Hank Mobley (tenor sax); Doug Watkins(bass); Louis Hayes(drums). Recorded 10 November 1956. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey. Sleeve Notes: Leonard Feather. Cover photos: Francis Wolff. Cover Design: Reid Miles. Issued as Blue Note 1539.

The Music:- This great session was recorded some 57 years ago (at the time of writing). I’d like to be able to write that this was one of the first Blue Note sets that I heard and that its excellence paved the way to other things. That wouldn’t be true. I bought it on an RVG series CD last weekend but I haven’t stopped listening to it since although all of the musicians seem like old friends from other outings. I think, in part, I didn’t buy earlier because I was put off by the front cover. This, in my view, is far from Francis Wolff’s best picture or Reid Miles’s most striking example of his adventurous design.

The playing sounds so fresh and the performers so disciplined. There’s no sloppiness here. Remarkably, the average age of the five musicians was a shade under 24 with 28-year-old Horace Silver being the oldest of the bunch by two years. Silver and Art Blakey were part of a tight group of New York based musicians who developed the ‘hard bop’ style of playing, drawing on the blues, gospel and R&B. Horace Silver’s own influences were diverse. Richard Cook writing in ‘Blue Note Records, The Biography’ identified how Silver had ‘…absorbed an unusually wide range of music’. His mother had sung gospel in church, he listened to Latin bands and to blues records from the previous two decades, which Cook notes as surprisingly unusual listening for a young man in the 40’s. He had worked with Stan Getz in 1950 and had befriended Lou Donaldson and Art Blakey soon afterwards.

Cool Eyes is a lively opener with Hank Mobley delivering the first solo and offering up a run that shows he had listened very closely to alto genius, Charlie Parker. Shirl is an engaging ballad with Silver playing in a trio of piano, drums and bass.

Camouflage is a great funky gospel-tinged tune with 3 solos near perfection in under four and a half minutes. Take a listen courtesy of koastone on YouTube

Enchantment closes side one of the original LP with a Latin feel. Of course with the CD format it is not necessary to stop what you are doing to flip the disc and Senor Blues follows immediately. This is the tune that caught the attention of the multitude, as the album’s standout track. It got so much play that it led to Horace Silver putting together a working band to tour the clubs. It was later re-recorded as a 45 rpm single and with a vocal, both of which appear on the RVG CD. rogerjazzfan has uploaded to YouTube for your pleasure.

Virgo dashes along with some space for the young drummer to impress, while the set closes with For Heaven’s Sake. This is a return to the trio format and is the only non Horace Silver penned tune on the album.

Original sleeve notes are of the (Leonard) feathered variety, offering moderate encouragement, biographies and a brief run through the tracks- with little to annoy (but remember, I’ve got my eye on you Mr. Feather!).

You can get hold of this on CD with all the extra tracks for @ £4.00, although the ultimate listen is possibly the Blue Note first pressing, a fabled Lexington as the cognoscenti say. If you want to know more about that please visit the superb http://londonjazzcollector.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/horace-silver-six-pieces-of-silver-1956-lexington/ but please come back here again!

So there you have it. I think this is actually the fifth Horace Silver set currently in my collection, although there may be a couple of old tapes from the 80’s when I used to borrow and record library copies on cassette. I recommend it highly- purchase and enjoy!

As Matt would say:- ‘They had something to say!

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