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Donald Byrd: Fancy Free

Mention the 1970s to jazz fans and many will think of the jazz-rock fusion movement. Bands then that united jazz and the rock guitar and other electric instruments included Tony Williams Lifetime, Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Larry Coryell's Eleventh House and the Mahavishnu Orchestra to name just a few.

[Photo above of Donald Byrd]

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But fusion wasn't the only jazz-hybrid movement emerging in the post-Woodstock '70s. Another jazz genre took its cues from the Stax label under the direction of Al Bell, Sly Stone, James Brown, Kool and the Gang, the Ohio Players and other electric funk artists popular in African-American communities and on black radio. One of several jazz artists who pioneered this soulful electric jazz-funk fusion was Donald Byrd. [Photo above of Rufus Thomas, who recorded for Stax]

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Last time I posted on Byrd, I focused on his album Fuego (1959), a hard-bop masterpiece. During the early and mid-1960s, Byrd's albums for Blue Note moved in the same general direction as many other artists who succeeded by combining R&B, funk and the riff-heavy boogaloo. These artists included Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Grant Green, Herbie Hancock, the Jazz Crusaders and many others.

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But by 1969, Byrd shifted gears once again by integrating electronic instruments and adding a strong drum beat and percussion, which not only helped him transition to a younger African-American audience but also put him in play at parties and club dance floors. Unlike rock fusion, which was popular with sit-down audiences in college dorm rooms and events, Byrd focused more on grooves and beats, accompanying them on his trumpet rather than being driven by them.

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This dynamic period in Byrd's career began in 1969 with the recording of Fancy Free, an album decades ahead of its time. It sounds fresh today, and young artists still sample it. There were only four tracks, two on each side—Byrd's Fancy Free and I Love the Girl, and Mitch Farber's The Uptowner and Charles Hendricks' Weasil.

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The album was recorded over two sessions. The collective personnel was Donald Byrd (tp), Frank Foster (ts), Julian Priester (b), Lew Tabackin and Jerry Dodgion (fl), Duke Pearson (elec-p), Jimmy Ponder (g), Roland Wilson (b), Joe Chambers and Idris Muhammad, (d) and Nat Bettis and John H. Robinson Jr.(perc).

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Fancy Free
is an upbeat but mellow Latin-jazz track showcasing the conga and Dodgion's beautiful flute. I Love the Girl is a precious ballad dominated by Pearson on the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Byrd. The Uptowner is a gorgeous funky boogaloo with Byrd, Foster and Priester. Weasil grooves at roughly the same tempo with the same instrumental line-up but a loud flat snare by Joe Chambers that foreshadows the drum sample 10 years later. Byrd's horn stands out on all tracks, ruminating on the slower songs and heating up on the uptempo groovers.

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Interestingly, a third session was recorded for this album, featuring Byrd (tp), Kenny Rupp (fhr), Al Gibbons (fl), Gary Campbell (ts), Duke Pearson (el-p), Wally Richardson (g), Bob Cranshaw (el-b), Freddie Waits (d), Roland Wilson (cga), and three vocalists. Three songs were recorded—Now Steady (with the horns out), Yano and Congo (an instrumental). It may have been Byrd's call. All three were rejected by Blue Note, most likely because they didn't come together as planned. With the album two songs short, I suspect the four songs they already had in the can were then allowed to run in full rather than be cut down to make room for two others that were out of character with what they had. Thankfully, since the album works perfectly as is.

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Between Fancy Free in 1969 and Words, Sounds, Colors and Shapes in 1983, Byrd's albums grew increasingly fascinating in the electronic jazz-funk space. During this period, Byrd probably hit his commercial peak with Places and Spaces in 1975, which hit #1 on Billboard's jazz alum chart, #6 on the R&B chart and #49 on the pop chart. As a producer, his biggest success was The Blackbyrds' Walking in Rhythm in 1974, featured on the group's Flying Start album. It reached No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100. For those who may have forgotten it: "Walking in rhythm / moving in sound /Humming to the music / trying to move on," etc.

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Yesterday, I had great fun crossing the jazz-funk cosmos listening to all of Byrd's jazz-funk albums on this list:

  • Fancy Free (1969)
  • Electric Byrd (1969–70)
  • Kofi (1969)
  • Ethiopian Knights (1971)
  • Black Byrd (1973)
  • Street Lady (1973)
  • Stepping into Tomorrow (1974)
  • Places and Spaces (1975)
  • Caricatures (1976)
  • Thank You...For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life) (1978)
  • Donald Byrd and 125th Street, N.Y.C. (1979)
  • Love Byrd (1981)
  • Words, Sounds, Colors and Shapes (1983)

All of them are superb, with different grooves and feels. Freddie Hubbard also was pioneering this space around the same time. I'll turn to him soon.

Donald Byrd died in 2013.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Donald Byrd's Fancy Free here.

It's also available on Spoitfy.

JazzWax clip: Here's the title track, with Frank Foster, Julian Priester, Donald Byrd and Jerry Dodgion taking solos...

And here's I Love the Girl, with Duke Pearson and Donald Byrd...

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