Donald Byrd – Ethiopian Knights / Black Byrd

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Not much to say about this one: two good if overlong grooves sandwiching a well-intending but ultimately unnecessary cover of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major”; “The Emperor” has a really funky bass line and Edward Greene opens “Little Rasti” with a simultaneously lyrical and powerful drum solo. It ticks all the boxes except for the ones I’m looking for, even if I prefer this to On the Corner (because it doesn’t sacrifice jazz for funk) or Crossings (whose songs were less groovy and longer) – two albums from better jazz fusions artists that same year.

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From “Flight Time” alone, Black Byrd’s reputation as Blue Note’s then-best-selling album isn’t merely some sort of tagline to sell the album, it’s a certificate to be proud of. Beginning with the sounds of a plane taking off (Byrd could never resist the power of flight-related puns), the band establish a groove punctuated by a hooky bass interval that keeps the other instruments tethered to the ground (sometimes I can’t help myself either), while a second trumpet plays a catchy descending figure. Starting at the 2:00 mark, Harvey Mason (who might be the best jazz drummer who started his career in the 70s) can’t hold back anymore, coming alive for a few measures at a time while waiting patiently for the groove to shift at the 3:19 mark, the bass becoming a full groove before Roger Glenn and Donald Byrd get a solo each. The song then shifts again, into a section that’s more inspired by Sly & the Family Stone then anything by Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock (two other fusioners who were much more vocal about their Sly love), eventually culminating into the horn-aided climax at the 5:17 mark; overjoyed to be alive, overjoyed to be in-flight.

But after “Flight Time” ends, it becomes clear that said reputation is just the tagline, with only the twitchy guitar fills of “Love’s So Far Away” (a welcome change from the wah-wah guitar of the preceding two tracks) and the heavy bass thump throughout “Mr. Thomas” (thank the Mizell brothers for producing; this is their first album, actually) that are worth hearing. Like Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters released later that same year, this is the case of an extremely commercially viable and commercially successful album at the time that sounds dated forty years later. Except Herbie Hancock’s reliance on then-futuristic synthesizers sounds cheesy while Donald Byrd’s reliance on flutes and vocals sound goofy, but cheesy is better than goofy because you can eat cheese and you can’t eat goof. (Herbie Hancock will soon succumb to the allure of pop vocals, and God help his discography when he does.) The choruses of “Black Byrd” end in a blunder of cut up vocals that sounds like a bad editing job (I was hoping my copy was just scratched but then it happened the second time); the quieter vocals in “Love’s So Far Away” and the first half of “Where Are We Going?” add nothing while the louder vocals in the closer’s second half is at odds with Glenn’s flute. Broadly speaking, this just sounds like a cross of jazz, funk and pop soul that excels at none of those genres in particular.

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5 responses to “Donald Byrd – Ethiopian Knights / Black Byrd

  1. Some great writing here! Also, Canon In D? Really? Hooboy.

    Also gotta ask – are you hearing these on LP? CD? MP3?

    Also, I loved this line: “Except Herbie Hancock’s reliance on then-futuristic synthesizers sounds cheesy while Donald Byrd’s reliance on flutes and vocals sound goofy, but cheesy is better than goofy because you can eat cheese and you can’t eat goof.”

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