By Devon Wendell
I’ve had this deep, lifelong obsession with the trumpet. I’ve written about some of the greatest musicians to ever pick up the instrument like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, and Wild Bill Davison, to name a few. I’d trade my right foot and all of my guitars to blow like these cats.
There’s this cool arrogant swagger that many trumpet players possess that an anti-social jazz geek from Brooklyn like myself could adopt very easily to mask all insecurities. Learning the chops is a different story. I tried to play the trumpet twice and couldn’t get a single note out of the damned thing which made me respect the musicians who could truly swing their asses off on the instrument even more.
Donald Byrd was always one the most technically articulate and clever trumpeters to emerge from the hard-bop era. Byrd played and recorded with just about all of the heavy rollers of the ‘50s and ‘60s including Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Griffin, Gigi Gryce, Hank Mobley, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Phil Woods, and Herbie Hancock.
One of Byrd’s many crowing achievements for Blue Note Records as a leader is Byrd In Hand recorded on May 31st, 1959; featuring Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone, Pepper Adams, baritone sax, Walter Davis Jr., piano, Sam Jones, bass, and Art Taylor on drums.
There’s something gloriously nasty about this album. Most of the players had already worked together prior to this session date. Adams and Byrd began collaborating together the previous year and continued to do so until 1961, and they always sounded incredible together. Byrd, Adams, Jones, and Taylor were part of Monk’s beautiful big band on the Riverside classic The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall recorded in February of 1959.
Byrd In Hand is just wicked. The album opens with a loose rendition of “Witchcraft.” During this era, great soloists would often take the most trite and banal standards and use the chord changes as a platform to blow the most incredible shit over, and this is a prime example of this. There’s a lot of tongue in cheek humor in this reading of “Witchcraft.” Adams and Rouse are in top form. Rouse would join Monk’s band that year and remain a key member until Monk’s semi- retirement a decade later.
Rouse had already made records with Fats Navarro, Benny Carter, Sonny Clark, Art Farmer, Bennie Green and Clifford Brown. This project features some of his most inspired playing. And there’s no baritone player in history quite like Pepper Adams. His level of consistent brilliance burns throughout this recording.
Byrd’s original “Here I Am” is one of my favorite hard-bop compositions of that era. It’s built on a minor key blues progression with some clever, modal-esque twists and turns. Walter Davis Jr. plays in a style that is almost pure gospel-blues with a very personal touch that is quite different than the approach of Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons, whose basis was deeply grounded in the blues and gospel; the influences that would help define the foundations of hard-bop piano.
“Devil Whip” “Bronze Dance” (written by Walter Davis Jr.), and “Clarion Calls” are insanely burning. Donald Byrd’s solos are so frenetic, imaginative, and thematic that you may find yourself playing them over and over in total amazement. Adams and Rouse are swinging at such a high level that it’ll make you flinch in delight. Art Taylor’s polyrhythmic and gentle swinging approach to the drums on these pieces are further proof of why he was one the greatest drummers of all time and is still influencing drummers today, long after his death. Sam Jones’ bass lines are right in the pocket, locking in the groove of each composition.
The final cut entitled “The Injuns” may not have the most politically correct title and the overly obvious attempt to create a cliché Native American sound might sound a tad tacky within the first few bars but Byrd and the band make this number cook in spite of all of that. Byrd, Rouse, and Adams are virtuosic and wonderfully unpredictable; making every line they play unforgettable.
Byrd In Hand showcases Donald Byrd at his best during his legendary bop days with a magnificent band made up of some of the greatest musicians in jazz history. The relaxed, funky chemistry between the players is just relentless. Do not miss out on this Blue Note classic. Get it now!
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