Trumpeter Donald Byrd first came to New York from Detroit in 1955, when he was 22. While studying for a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, Byrd played in pianist George Wallington’s quintet at the Cafe Bohemia. The group featured alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and recorded an album live there. In the late 1950s, Byrd recorded five hard-bop albums with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce before signing with Blue Note in 1958. The label wisely paired Byrd with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams for a series of high-energy albums, most notably Off to the Races and Byrd in Hand. [Photo of Donald Byrd above in October 1959 by Francis Wolff]
Byrd’s next album after Byrd in Hand was Fuego, recorded in October 1959. Byrd used a Besson MEHA pocket cornet and was joined by McLean (as), Duke Pearson (p), Doug Watkins (b) and Lex Humphries (d)—a sensational group. All of the songs on the album were by Byrd and all are exquisite. I’m not sure why Byrd chose to use the pocket cornet, but it added a sound that was slightly more urgent in tone.
The music here has a funk-Latin feel, with a savory hard-bop energy and bluesy mood. McLean’s muscular drive and yearning wails are perfect against Byrd’s fleshy lines and bending trumpet notes. McLean is in top form, akin to his blowing on Freddie Redd’s Music From ‘The Connection,’ recorded the following year in 1960. This comparison is particularly apt on Byrd’s Lament, Low Life and Bup a Loup. Byrd, meanwhile, comes into his own here with sensitivity and grace. [Photo above of Jackie McLean by Francis Wolff]
All of Byrd’s songs on Fuego are complex, which means the group was given ample rehearsal time by producer and Blue Note owner Alfred Lion. What’s more, the rhythm section behind Byrd and McLean was terrific. Duke Pearson’s lyrical, percussive piano sweetens Byrd and McLean neatly, while Watkins on bass and Humphries on drums work together like best friends. This is a perfect, must-own album. [Photo above of Duke Pearson]
Given all of the trumpet greats in the late 1950s and ’60s—including Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie, Blue Mitchell, Idrees Sulieman and Howard McGhee to name just a handful—Byrd’s star seems to be fading now. There aren’t many tribute albums these days, and his name comes up less frequently in conversation. Which is a shame. Byrd was a terrific, soulful player and an extraordinarily gifted composer. He also had a terrific fusion career starting in the late 1960s that lasted throughout the ’70s. More on that phase in a later post. [Photo above of Doug Watkins by Francis Wolff]
Donald Byrd died in 2013.
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Donald Byrd’s Fuego here. It’s also at Spotify.
JazzWax clip: Here’s Lament. Note how the rhythm section creates a beautiful texture behind Byrd’s trumpet and McLean’s alto sax…
A special thanks to Jeff Helgesen.