Donald Byrd RIP

The man with the liquid horn passed away earlier this week, we now learn. I’ll leave deeper analysis to the specialists and merely note that I’ve always gotten immense enjoyment out of his recordings, from his early bop period to his seminal fusion material, on his own and with the Blackbyrds. His playing was consistently light and energetic, celebratory even. Check the hook — and his soloing! — on “Ghana” from 1960, above. (Hank Mobley’s muscular tenor sax is magnificent too, a perfect counterpoint).

Naturally, the entry point for me was hip hop: Gang Starr, Public Enemy, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Black Moon, and on, with Guru and Jazzmatazz providing the reveal.

But soon, his own material took over, not the least on his fusion material for which he seemed eminently suited. His partnership with the Mizell brothers ensured resulted in a number of albums of that hit an almost impeccable equilibrium between genres otherwise hard to synthesize. Their ear for the sly hook, delicious groove, the funky break was unfailing for a while there. “Wind Parade” from 1975 is a prime example, with Byrd’s breezy playing conveying ebullience, even when reaching for the ethereal.

He of course branched out even further with The Blackbyrds, the soul-jazz combo formed of a number of his students at Howard University. Although similarly festive in their approach, they hit haunting notes with 1975′s “Wilford’s Gone”, on which Byrd himself delivers the goosbumps on his trumpet. A fitting note of goodbye.

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