Donald Byrd’s 1970’s ‘Electric Byrd’ was the trumpet players own reaction to rival Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ and the musical gauntlet it had thrown down. It is also seen by many of the jazz cognoscenti as his last worthwhile jazz effort, before he confidently strode into the funk world and the massive commercial successes that it would bring him.
Byrd of course rose to the challenge he had set himself brilliantly. With just the slightest presence of Miles looming, Byrd occupies the same sound but with his own style setting the agenda for the explorations here. Just four lengthy tracks, all orginals, make up the album, with the undeniable masterpiece ‘Estavanico’ opening. Eleven perfect minutes form a groove that redefines the term fusion, taking in a heady brew of jazz, funk, samba and psychedelia among many others. Atmospheric and simply just brilliant, it’s one of Byrds highest creative and musical peaks, and any even casual fans of Miles’ seventies work should definitely check it out.
‘Essence’ completely changes direction with a languorous and strolling bass line, and some wah-wah guitar just bubbling beneath with barely-contained restraint. More exciting rhythms too propel everything forward and allowing a line of soloists to impress with some highly skilled yet not overdone use of echo technology. ‘Xibaba’ takes us back into a Brazillian flavoured groove and some very catchy rhythms on a variety of exotic percussion, with some perfectly pitched soothing flute. It takes a while to get going, but the eastern sounding trumpet that opens is outstanding, and when it heats up, the complex and swirling sounds that engulf the listener are something really very special.
‘The Dude’ meanwhile lives up to its name with one of the heaviest grooves ever – and, like the rest of the album, deserves much greater exposure than it has received. The group is almost big band in size, with a mix of youngsters and old hands blending seamlessly, and a great jazz and funk hybrid is created that is different enough in sound from Byrd’s contemporaries to make it really stand out.
Often, and mistakenly, generalised as being in the same vein as Byrds later funkier, poppier and lighter output, ‘Electric Byrd’ is still a jazz album at heart and it still sounds like a groundbreaking revelation today. To some it’s his last great jazz album, but whatever you think of his later work, this is both a key part of his recording history and is simply awesome music.