Donald Byrd was well-versed in the art of reinvention. The trumpeter/bandleader began his career as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while still pursuing his master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Upon graduating from both institutions, Byrd played with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and a host of jazz’s finest leaders. By 1958, he was leading his own quintet. But in the years to come, the sound of music would shift radically. Byrd would change with it. His sound developed on his recordings for labels including Transition, Prestige, and most especially, Blue Note Records. He spent almost two decades on the venerable label before decamping for Elektra in 1978. A new 3-CD anthology from Cherry Red’s Robinsongs imprint, The Jazz Funk Collection, features a selection of Byrd’s recordings – as well as those of his protegees The Blackbyrds – between 1973 and 1982.
Though accomplished in the hard bop idiom, Byrd had been an early adopter of jazz fusion, first employing an electric keyboard on 1970’s Fancy Free and continuing in the wake of Miles Davis’ breakthrough Bitches Brew with his own Electric Byrd. The artist then cemented his role as a pioneer of “acid jazz” thanks to such well-regarded LPs as 1971’s Ethiopian Knights before moving onto jazz-funk with Larry Mizell and his brother, Motown alumnus Fonce Mizell, on 1973’s Black Byrd and Street Lady. These two seminal albums are where Robinsongs’ collection begins, with five tracks showcasing how well Byrd was able to blend pure jazz with a style of funk so accessible it might have scored a television series from the era. Larry Mizell wrote most of the tracks on Black Byrd, while the trumpeter collaborated with Mizell on its successor. On the five albums he made with the Mizell brothers through 1976 (also including Stepping into Tomorrow, Places and Spaces, and Caricatures – all of which are sampled here), Byrd embraced soul and R&B textures.
The Jazz Funk Collection also addresses his work as a producer. In 1974, he and co-producer Larry Mizell spun off a successful R&B vocal unit for Fantasy Records. The Blackbyrds were a group of students from Howard University; the college’s prior alumna had included Roberta Flack, who graciously penned the liner notes for The Blackbyrds’ debut record. Never content to rest on his laurels, musical or otherwise, Byrd – then teaching music at Howard – completed his law degree from the university in 1976. This collection alternates between Byrd solo tracks and those of The Blackbyrds, including their Byrd-penned debut single (“Do It, Fluid,” a top 25 R&B chart entry), the ebullient top ten pop crossover hit “Walking in Rhythm” from sophomore album Flying Start, and subsequent favorites like “Happy Music,” “Rock Creek Park,” “Time Is Movin’,” “Party Land,’ and “Supernatural Feeling.” All of those placed for the group on the Billboard R&B survey. Donald also brought The Blackbyrds on board for the soundtrack to the blaxploitation drama Cornbread, Earl and Me starring Moses Gunn, Tierre Turner, Rosalind Cash, Jamaal Wilkes, and Laurence Fishburne in his film debut. Its title track “Cornbread” is featured here. This compilation doesn’t go beyond The Blackbyrds’ 1977 LP Action, but after a period of inactivity, a version of the group is still active today.
When Byrd joined Elektra in 1978, disco was the order of the day, and he incorporated then-current dancefloor rhythms into his vision of jazz, funk, and soul. (Meanwhile, Blue Note dipped into his back catalogue to premiere unreleased material from his long tenure there.) “Thank You for Funking Up My Life” (arranged by another Motown veteran, Wade Marcus) was the title track of Byrd’s first of four Elektra long-players. After Thank You for F.U.M.L., Byrd formed his 125th Street, N.Y.C. Band. He didn’t take his role in the group lightly, as his solos became less of a focal point and he contented himself with playing as part of a sleek if still funky ensemble.
125th Street, N.Y.C.’s eponymous debut, from 1979, was once again arranged by Marcus and embraced styles from disco to straight-ahead soul balladry. Two years passed before the busy Byrd – still teaching and learning; he would gain his PhD in Music Education from Columbia University in 1982 – released his next Elektra platter.
Love Byrd was a collaborative effort with Stax maestro Isaac Hayes. It proved to be an imaginative and successful pairing: the Hot Buttered Soul leader brought his singular touch as songwriter, producer, arranger-orchestrator, and vocalist, and resulted in Byrd’s biggest R&B hit – the No. 15 “Love Has Come Around,” penned by William Duckett. Byrd and 125th Street’s final Elektra LP, Words, Sounds, Colors and Shapes, continued the Byrd/Hayes partnership. “Sexy Dancer,” a top 40 R&B chart entry, was the artist’s most contemporary production yet; it’s presented here in its 12-inch version. So is the Hayes-written “Star Trippin'” from the same album.
After the 1982 release of Words, Sounds, Colors and Shapes, Byrd returned to academia and took a recording hiatus. He returned late in the decade with Harlem Blues, his first album for Landmark Records. By the time of his death in 2013 at the age of 80, Byrd had taught at colleges including Rutgers, New York University, Queens College, Oberlin College, Cornell University, Delaware State University, and more; he also returned to a more traditional jazz sound in his later years after decades of experimentation. But Robinsongs’ collection ends with Words, Sounds, Colors, and Shapes, as it closed his decade-plus of experimentation to blur the lines between jazz and funk.
The collection is housed in a thick, eight-panel digipak and contains a 16-page booklet. Charles Waring’s essay recounts the history of Byrd and The Blackbyrds, but unfortunately the credits are incomplete as they lack producer information as well as any discographical annotation as to the original source of each track. Oli Hemingway has remastered.
Donald Byrd and The Blackbyrds’ The Jazz Funk Collection is a fine introduction to this period of his long career, though enthusiasts will likely wish to own all of the albums represented. It’s available now in the U.K. and on April 24 in North America. You’ll find order links and the track listing below!
- Lansana’s Priestess
- Black Byrd
- Love’s So Far Away
- Witch Hunt
- Blackbyrds’ Theme – The Blackbyrds
- Do It, Fluid – The Blackbyrds
- Walking in Rhythm – The Blackbyrds
- (Fallin’ Like) Dominoes
- Rock Creek Park – The Blackbyrds
- Change (Makes You Want to Hustle)
- Happy Music – The Blackbyrds
- Stepping into Tomorrow
- Wind Parade
- Flying High – The Blackbyrds
- Hash and Eggs – The Blackbyrds
- Think Twice – Donald Byrd featuring Kay Haith
- Cornbread – The Blackbyrds
- (Fallin’ Like) Dominoes (Live at the Roxy)
- Science Funktion
- Time Is Movin’ – The Blackbyrds
- Dance Band
- Dancing in the Street – Donald Byrd
- Party Land – The Blackbyrds
- Onward ‘Til Morning
- Supernatural Feeling – The Blackbyrds
- Street Games – The Blackbyrds
- Lookin’ Ahead – The Blackbyrds
- Thank You for Funking Up My Life
- Have You Heard the News
- Giving It Up
- Pretty Baby
- I Love You
- Love Has Come Around
- I Feel Like Loving You Today
- I Love Your Love
- Sexy Dancer (12″ Version)
- Star Trippin’ (12″ Version)
- Gut Level – The Blackbyrds
CD 1, Tracks 1 & 4 from Street Lady, Blue Note BN 140, 1973
CD 1, Tracks 2-3, 5 from Black Byrd, Blue Note BN 047, 1973
CD 1, Tracks 6 & 8 from Flying Start, Fantasy F-9472, 1974
CD 1, Track 7 & CD 3, Track 14 from The Blackbyrds, Fantasy F-9444, 1974
CD 1, Tracks 9 & 11 and CD 2, Track 1 from Places and Spaces, Blue Note BN 549, 1975
CD 1, Tracks 10 & 12 and CD 2, Tracks 2-3 from City Life, Fantasy F-9490, 1975
CD 1, Track 13 & CD 2, Track 4 from Stepping into Tomorrow, Blue Note BN 368, 1975
CD 2, Track 5 from Cornbread, Earl and Me: Original Soundtrack, Fantasy F-9483, 1975
CD 2, Track 6 from Blue Note: Live at the Roxy, Blue Note BN 663, 1976
CD 2, Tracks 7, 9-10 & 12 from Caricatures, Blue Note BN 633, 1976
CD 2, Tracks 8 & 11 from Unfinished Business, Fantasy F-9518, 1976
CD 2, Track 13 & CD 2, Tracks 1-2 from Action, Fantasy F-9535, 1977
CD 3, Tracks 3-4 from Thank You…For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life), Elektra LP 6E-114, 1978
CD 3, Tracks 5-7 from Donald Byrd and 125th Street, N.Y.C., Elektra LP 6E-247, 1979
CD 3, Tracks 8-10 from Love Byrd, Elektra LP 6E-531, 1981
CD 3, Track 11 from Elektra 12-inch single 0-67985, 1982
CD 3, Track 12 from Elektra (U.K.) 12-inch single 967962 OT, 1982