Donald Byrd - trumpet; Allan Curtis Brown - tenor, soprano saxophones, flute; Kevin Toney - keyboards; Barney Perry - guitar; Joe Hall - bass; Pericles "Perk" Jacobs, Jr. - percussion; Keith Killgo - drums
Like his Chicago protégé, Herbie Hancock, hard bop trumpeter Donald Byrd turned to so-called crossover music in 1973 as a means of reaching a wider audience. His first experiment in that new direction, Black Byrd, was a headlong dive into R&B-flavored jazz that became a popular phenomenon during the summer of '73. The trumpeter had similar success the following year with Street Lady, which also embraced danceable, strictly-in-the-pocket funk (and which was quickly branded a sell-out offering by jazz elitists while selling in unprecedented numbers for the Blue Note label).
Byrds' commercial triumph in this new crossover direction led him sponsor a group of young musicians from Howard University in Washington DC, which he dubbed the Blackbyrds. For his appearance at the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival in New York City, Byrd showcased his young protégés in a rousing set of funk-oriented originals from their self-titled debut released earlier in '74. They come out of the gate charging hard on the percolating "Blackbyrds' Theme," which would appear on their second album, Flying Start, released in November of '74. They next settle into the trumpeter's grooving title track from his breakthrough album, Black Byrd, which includes a catchy vocal hook and some melodic flute work by saxophonist Allan Curtis Brown. Following the urgently funky "Reggins," a tenor sax showcase for Brown from The Blackbyrds, they change up the mood with the lovely ballad "Summer Love" (from their debut album) which has Brown playing some lyrical soprano sax over Kevin Toney's glistening Fender Rhodes electric piano accompaniment.
The Blackbyrds return to their energetic brand of melodic funk on the urgent throwdown "Spaced Out" (from Flying Start) then jam on "Funky Junkie" (from The Blackbyrds) while Byrd introduces the band members. The 'jazziest' and most adventurous piece here is "Fancy Free," which includes a lengthy and daring keyboard accordion solo from Toney and a blazing, highly accomplished guitar solo by Barney Perry. They close out their Carnegie Hall set with Byrds' funky "Do It, Fluid," a collegiate anthem which carries the repeated refrain, "I like to party, I like to party." Brown wails on tenor sax on this good-time finale. The Blackbyrds' set served as a perfect opener for Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters on this July 2nd night. They truly warmed up the house with their invigorating brand of funk
Formed in 1973 in Washington, D.C., The Blackbyrds came out of Howard University's music department, where trumpeter Donald Byrd was on staff. The band would release a consecutive string of successful recordings on the Fantasy label through the '70s, including 1983's self-titled debut, 1974's Flying Start, 1975's City Life, 1976's Unfinished Business and 1977's Action.
The Blackbyrds' mentor, Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II, was born on December 9, 1932 in Detroit. Considered one of the finest hard bop trumpeters of the post-Clifford Brown era, he recorded prolifically as a leader and sideman from the mid-'50s and into the mid-'60s, most often for Blue Note. In the early '70s, with the help of brothers Larry and Fonce Mizell from Blue Note, Byrd reinvented himself as a commercially viable artist by incorporating tight, funky grooves, and a smooth, accessible veneer. It was a far cry from his roots—playing with Lionel Hampton after high school, work in New York bop pianist George Wallington during the mid '50s, later playing in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, filling a chair once held by his idol, Clifford Brown. Byrd left the Jazz Messengers in 1956 and joined Max Roach's group. He subsequently worked with such renowned artists as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Red Garland while also forming the Jazz Lab Quintet with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce in 1957.
In 1958, Byrd signed with Blue Note, debuting with Off to the Races. He followed up with a string of superb hard bop releases, including 1959's Byrd in Hand, 1960's At the Half Note Cafe, Vols. 1-2 (1960), 1961's The Cat Walk and Free Form, which introduced the young pianist Herbie Hancock. He cut a couple of fine soul-jazz albums in the mid '60s—Mustang! and Blackjack--before turning his attention to teaching jazz at various institutions, including Rutgers, New York University, Brooklyn College and Howard University. Following the electric muse in the wake of Miles Davis' ground-breaking Bitches Brew, Byrd began dealing in funk-based crossover jazz in the mid '70s, wooing a younger audience with 1973's Black Byrd and 1974's Street Lady.
The trumpeter would eventually return to his hard bop roots in the '80s and '90s, though his participation in rapper Guru's Jazzmatazz project in 1993 anticipated the hip-hop-jazz movement to come. His classic '70s albums have become popular sources for sampling by DJs all over the world. (Milkowski)