Saturday, 1 March 2014

Review: Donald Byrd - Love Byrd

‘Love Byrd’, or to give it its full title, ‘The Point Where It All Went Downhill For Donald Byrd’. Leaving Blue Note after some twenty years and signing with the Elektra label signalled the end of a very fruitful and successful series of collaborations between trumpeter Byrd and the skilled production team of ‘The Mizell Brothers’. A critically knocked period, with Byrd being branded as a traitor, the trumpeter in actuality had fully and perfectly realized his own vision of being able to play music he enjoyed, whilst also becoming a more accessible and commercially successful artist. His records of course sold by the crate-load too.

The move to Elektra though was the beginning of the wheels coming off. Sounding for the most part horrifically like very dated disco, replete with cheesy handclaps, ‘Love Byrd’ is upsetting for fans of both Byrds hard-bop and funk work. Worse still is the very (very) slick nature of the album. There’s zero grit here and not much in the way of substance, with just a smoothed and sanded-down polish on top of the largely uninteresting arrangements. And who’s to blame for this? None other, rather oddly and surprisingly, than soul and funk main-man Isaac Hayes.

More bizarrely, it’s Hayes, and not Byrd, who dominates the session here. His Hot Buttered Soul quartet handles vocal duties, while he himself plays acoustic and electric piano, as well as vibraphone. Additionally he provides and arranges most of the material too. In fact, there’s not a lot that Byrd does here at all to justify his name being above the album title. For the most part, he simply plays along with some of Hayes arrangements and fills in here-and-there; his few solos are also depressingly short in both length and number. If asked on a blind listening who you thought this recording was by, you’d struggle and pick any number of disco or funk-lite bands of the era before getting even anywhere close.

The up-tempo pieces are uniformly and shockingly weak and flat, adding nothing, and are instantly forgettable. On the flipside, there are some good, if a little too thickly-polished, ballads here. Byrds own ‘I’ll Always Love You’ is one of the strongest moments, and Andrew Walker’s ‘Butterfly’ is simply beautiful and unarguably the albums best. Crucially it’s also one of the few tracks to have Byrd actually do something with his trumpet.

Marking the clear start of a period of mostly lacklustre recordings, Byrds winning funk days are clearly over, and sometime later he would eventually return to hard-bop and in fact record some very worthwhile sessions. This however, though not terrible, remains an oddity in a mostly strong discography, and even Byrd die-hards may want to shun it, featuring as it does almost none of its headlining act. Bland, flavourless and without clear focus, ‘Love Byrd’ is strictly for those who have almost every Donald Byrd album and just simply can’t afford to bear any empty spaces in their otherwise complete collection.


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