The jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd apparently caused something of a minor uproar among jazz fans when, in the late 60s and early 70s, he became interested in incorporating electric instruments – guitars and keyboards – and funk into his compositions. (In the 60s, people seemed to enjoy getting periodically upset about the use of electric instruments). Byrd was excited by the albums of Miles Davis, who had started to insert elements from rock and funk into works like 1970’s Bitches Brew, so Byrd set out to create some funky jazz of his own. In 1972, he recorded Black Byrd, one of the best-selling albums ever released by his label at the time, Blue Note.
Black Byrd could have been named something like Waterfall. Almost every one of its seven tracks features, at some point, a cascading horn line, and these bubbly, descending runs appear again and again. The first shows up about a minute and a half into the opening song, “Flight Time.” The waterfall effect begins in earnest a few minutes later: the bass climbs funkily upwards, but then the horn section sweeps in and washes it back to where it started. Determined, or damned like some jazzy Sisyphus stuck forever pushing a boulder, the bass player starts again, only to be swallowed once more by the cascade of brass. Although this type of horn motif is used throughout the album, it is most effective initially, when the horns appear to vie with the bass for something the listener can only sense through its absence.
Compared to another jazz-funk fusion release from 1972, Miles Davis’ On The Corner, Byrd is much more straightforward. Whereas On The Corner is often noted for being “one of the worst selling albums in Davis’ catalog,” Black Byrd climbed the R&B charts (and even made some headway on the pop charts). It did so by working around explicit funk riffs and structures. Someone occasionally does some singing, and most of the songs are six minutes or less. The title track runs a guitar through a wah-wah pedal with a ferocity that would make Shaft envious. “Slop Jar Blues” starts with synthetic funk chords, and despite its title, the lyrics are lazy, almost inviting — “sitting on a slop jar, and I’m singing those slop jar blues.” Black Byrd has an easy appeal.
But at times, Black Byrd falls into a grey area between jazz and funk. This can be treacherous territory where the repetition of funk loses its urgency in the looser, more nebulous structures of jazz, and the spontaneous nature of jazz doesn’t assert itself fully, failing to inject freshness into the material. Davis’ On The Corner, for better or worse, never falls into this trap: the trumpet and guitar squeak, wail, and scratch; the sound is raucous, wild, and intermittently grating; it refuses to let the listener get comfortable. Byrd’s attempt to harness the more immediate accessibility of funk sometimes brings him perilously close to becoming smooth background music.