Stepping into tomorrow: Donald Byrd (1932-2013) remembered

By , Feb 8 2013

Music fans the world over were saddened by the news yesterday that Donald Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, better known simply as Donald Byrd, had departed the earth.

A legendary trumpet player, Byrd was among the most influential and prolific jazzmen to ever walk the planet, up there with the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock as a crucial lynchpin in the development of the artform. His enduring popularity is in part due to the diversity and continual evolution of his sound, which took in funk, jazz, disco, gospel, and soul over the decades. His rich, lyrical tone had a unique tendency to cut through the numerous sessions he appeared on, and his playing style was accessible and melodic, moving his listeners to an extent that challenges the common perception of jazz as an uninviting, oblique or challenging genre. There is also a unique intertextuality to Byrd’s oeuvre – his music is synonymous with his hometown of Detroit, and has been covered, reworked and recycled by many Detroit artists over the years, as well as being looped and sampled in numerous hip-hop classics.

Byrd was among the most influential and prolific jazzmen to ever walk the planet, up there with the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock.

He began his career in the 1950s as a sideman for the likes of Kenny Clarke, Hank Jones and Cannonball Adderley, but arguably first received acclaim as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, an incendiary, energetic band whose lightning-fast hard bop style would later become one of the blueprints for London’s jazz dance scene. First signing to pioneering Blue Note records as a bandleader in 1959, he recorded a series of 24 albums for the label, over a 17-year period, that trace his development through hard bop, cool jazz, and later funk and disco. Check out his cover of Duke Pearson’s ‘Cristo Redentor’ below, off his 1963 album A New Perspective, unusual in that it fuses the contemporary sound of hard bop with the soulful sound of a gospel choir, and also bears a remarkably “bling” album cover that would have a lasting impact on the visual language of hip-hop.

The period of Byrd’s work that bears the richest legacy amongst contemporary producers is his collaborative albums with the Mizell brothers – Larry, and Fonce, who created their own production company, Sky High Productions, in the 70s. The story of the Mizell brothers is beguiling in itself, and well worth investigating – essentially Larry had worked on the Apollo space program for NASA, and was fascinated by the potential that new-fangled synthesiser and studio technology could bring to the worlds of jazz and soul. Over a series of albums, namely Black Byrd, Street Lady, Stepping Into Tomorrow, Places And Spaces and Caricatures, Donald and the Mizells developed a fresh new hybrid of funky syncopation, rock drum patterns, soulful changes, vocal harmonies and rich synthesiser leads that went on to form the bedrock of the so-called “jazz-funk” genre. Truthfully the sonic detail and rich texture of these records defy the pastiche that jazz-funk later became – have a listen to three highlights selected from these ground breaking albums below – ‘Wind Parade’, ‘Dominoes’, and ‘Think Twice’, which some readers will undoubtedly recognise from endless hip-hop re-interpretations. From start to finish, each Byrd and Mizell collaborative album is a delight, with barely a duff track to be heard.

Byrd’s work had impact on modern dancefloors in other directions too – it wasn’t just his own records, but those of the groups he founded and mentored. There are two seminal spin-off acts related to him – the first was The Blackbyrds, who are the group behind the seminal b-boy break anthem ‘Rockcreek Park’, a track tailor-made for hazy summer days, chillin’ under a shady tree with a glass of that popular drink, lemonade (it was then and it still is!).

Another enduringly popular spin-off album was Love Byrd, by Donald Byrd and the 125th Street NYC Band. Produced by another sadly departed legend, the mighty Isaac Hayes, Love Byrd is one of the funkiest in the discography, performed by a big band that, rather like The Blackbyrds, was comprised of students Donald was mentoring. Check out the Larry Levan classic ‘Love Has Come Around’ below, a track that has been rinsed to death, but still sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded, and never fails to drive the disco into a frenzy.

Admittedly we’ve glossed over several decades of his deeper, more traditional jazz output in this brief primer, in an effort to highlight where his relevance and influence on contemporary music lies – it must be said, there isn’t a single bad Byrd album on Blue Note, all are worthy of your ear-time, it’s an enormously varied world of classic, innovative and beautiful jazz music to discover. With wider context in mind, below are a series of Byrd reinterpretations – cover versions of ‘Think Twice’ by fellow Detroit natives Jay Dilla and Carl Craig, Madlib’s lush re-interpretation of ‘Stepping Into Tomorrow’, remixed directly off the master tapes, and Main Source’s ‘Looking At The Front Door’, which also loops up a fragment of ‘Think Twice’ to great effect. Rest in peace Donald Byrd, and thanks for all the music sir, the legend lives on.



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