There’s a boring conversation about the arbitrariness of categorizing music by release dates. Well yeah, it is arbitrary, but it’s still easy to categorize music this way – easy for example, to generate “Best of Year XXXX” lists and easy to discuss genres this way too (“both mainstream rock and underground rock were in full bloom in 1967”; “it was a dark time for hip-hop in the late-2000s”). But every now and then things get lost in the mix and don’t get released until after the intended date for whatever reason: both Coltrane’s Sound and Sun Shipare vaguely underrated Coltrane albums, probably because of the delay in release. So too is Donald Byrd’s Kofi, taken from Byrd’s vaults that resulted from two sessions in 1969 and 1970 and sat on for two and a half decades. It would’ve made sense to be released around that time because it fits well with what others (especially Miles Davis) were doing at the time, and you could’ve seen Donald Byrd transition to the jazz-funk/jazz-fusion of the early-70s, but oh well – instead, we have a contender for one of the best jazz albums of the 1990s.
The Miles Davis influence is heavier on the second set of songs, recorded in a December 1970 session such that Byrd had ample time to absorb both the starry In a Silent Way and ambiguous Bitches Brew: the electric keyboard backdrop of “Perpetual Love” is indebted to the former, “Elmina” (where Roker goes into assault mode) indebted to the latter, and “The Loud Minority” capitalizing on the funkier section of “It’s About That Time” and looking ahead to Byrd’s funk-based or Herbie Hancock’s own jazz fusion stuff of the early 70s.
But Donald Byrd is no Miles Davis, either in playing or in vision (ie. his solo on “Perpetual Love” is no substitute for “In a Silent Way,” the title track). And while Byrd is no Davis, Duke Pearson isn’t a combined Herbie Hancock-Chick Corea, and Mickey Roker lands somewhere between Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette depending on the situation; Ron Carter is Ron Carter. What I’m getting at, in less convoluted speak, is that the first two tracks – from the first session in 1969 – are better, striking out a territory of their own. “Kofi” has, in order, Lew Tabackin (flute), Frank Foster (saxophone), Donald Byrd (trumpet) and Duke Pearson (electric piano) soloing over the light but insistent groove of Mickey Roker, with added funk by Bob Crenshaw’s electric bass and colour from Pearson’s cadences. Each solo creates a different mood: Tabackin’s weaving sets an exotic tone that you’d expect from the title; Foster explores; Byrd’s is more melodic, more strikingly direct, even when he wavers the notes; Pearson wanders.
The groove becomes faster and slightly thicker on “Fufu” thanks to Ron Carter and the additional intermittent click-clack of, I believe, Airto Moreira making his debut (quotations). In contrast with “Kofi,” both Frank Foster and Donald Byrd are allowed to let loose on their solos – be sure to check out the harmonizing cadence to Tabackin’s intro (at the 2:36 mark), or the brief call-and-response between Byrd and Pearson during Byrd’s solo.