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Light under a bushel

Donald Byrd's great trumpet solos are drowned by wishy washy rock and pop sounds

The Best of Donald Byrd
Milestone, Rs 100

Blue Note, one of the great recording labels in jazz, has been bringing happiness to fans for over half a century. It continued to do so despite coming under the umbrella of the giant Capitol Records, which, as part of the EMI group, was represented in India by HMV. EMI, Capitol and consequently Blue Note are now represented by Milestone.

It's only just recently that I've noticed Milestone on the jazz shelves. Why I missed it might become clear from a couple of reviews, for these are names I couldn't pass up but came out feeling dissatisfied with. Perhaps other names were mediocre enough for me to have not even heard of.

About a decade ago when HMV became an RPG company it went on a publishing or republishing spree, and played a large part in my jazz education with a series of absolutely marvellous Blue Note albums. Its The Best of... series, with names such as Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Art Blakey was a central part of that edutainment (to use a horrible word!) experience.

This Donald Byrd album from that series is the first really disappointing Blue Note issue I've had the misfortune to pick up. Byrd was a brilliant trumpeter who worked with such greats as Rollins, but at some point of his life decided to branch out into not so much jazz-rock fusion as jazz-pop fusion. The pop feeling comes through particularly strongly on this album in the wishy-washy vocal chorus found on at least half the tracks. There is some rock influence in the form of drums on some tracks and electronic gimmickry on the guitar in some others.

The real mystery about the motivation behind all this is that when Byrd's trumpet solos, its brilliance -- almost pure hard bop -- shines through, even when pushed into the background by the vocal chorus. This irritating feature is unique to Byrd, for that pioneer trumpeter of jazz-rock, Miles Davis, never let his trumpet solos be upstaged by anything, let alone wishy-washy vocals. Not only Byrd but some other good (anonymous) jazz instrumentation, including solos, from piano, soprano sax, flute and electric organ, suffers under the weight of rock and pop.


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