Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd Donald Byrd
Groovin For Nat
(1201 Music – 1962-2000)
by John Barrett

Almost from the moment Donald Byrd got to New York, he was regarded as something special: right away he was recording with Coltrane and leading the Jazz Lab group. When this session was cut in ’62, he was studying at the Manhattan School of Music – famous, but not yet a superstar. The band was young and featured a second trumpet, the upcoming Johnny Coles. This format is rare but not for Byrd, who made an album with Art Farmer in 1956.

Together, the horns are low-key; when each is alone, the steam begins to rise. Donald is aggressive – and loud! – on “Hush”; Coles has a thinner tone and a lusty trill. The honors go to Duke Pearson, with his splashy piano – he’d later write “Cristo Redentor”, which Byrd would record in 1964. You’ll smile at the beginning of “Child’s Play”; it’s a toy-soldier march, all pomp and precision. After a chorus they’re off to the races, chasing fast and bopping hard. Donald is great: his solo is one long phrase full of intricate logical twists. (Johnny tries the same thing, but is somewhat tentative.) “Angel Eyes” sounds like a recital, full of classical grandeur. (Listen for Bob Cranshaw: he has a bow, and traces the steps of Pearson’s left hand.) The notes cascade, descending from a cloud – you could say it sounds like heaven.

You won’t call this a great album, but it’s certainly worth hearing. In some places the horns are uncertain, as if they just learned the tune – and that is likely. “Sudel” makes good use of the chords from “I Remember April”, with the men exchanging mini-solos. Byrd is first, and softer than his earlier efforts: he flutters a four-note riff, with variations … and then he goes up high. Duke’s notes are carefully chosen, and Coles is breezy, a sound full of hope. It’s better on “Friday’s Child”: Johnny is the lone trumpet, and he negotiates the ballad in soft, comfortable steps. The cymbals swirl for “Out of This World” (Cranshaw plays a “Manteca”-type rhythm) before Pearson steps in: a waltz for the theme, slow blues for the solos. I can’t explain why it works, but it does. In jazz, that’s the important thing.

As they often are, the bonus tracks are a mixed bag. The horns are smoother on the alternate “Hush”, and the solos stronger – if not for some clunky piano at the end, this would be the better version. On “Child’s Play” the ensembles are cautious and way too soft – they gain precision but lose a great deal of spirit. Take 4 of “Sudel” is weak on the opening … but when the solos come, watch out! Byrd is direct, clear-tones, and punchy – Pearson is lyrical, and Johnny is strong, if a bit rusty. The horns leave calmly, and that’s how we remember the album: a relaxed afternoon spent among friends.