Charlie Byrd: Byrd Song (2003)
Eclectic is an adjective easily applied to Charlie Byrd. Over the course of his career the guitarist shaped a reputation as a genre-hopping virtuoso who crossed over into Latin, classical, country and popular music camps, while retaining his abiding affection for jazz. His preference for acoustic over-amplified strings also set him apart from his peers. Certain myopic critics saw his versatility as a symptom of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none syndrome. Byrd responded to his skeptics with album after album replete with exemplary technical skill. His choice of material, on the other hand, wasn’t always so ironclad.
Capitalizing on the then popular tactic of joining instrumental music with choral voices (see Les Baxter, Herb Alpert and their ilk for other examples), this 1965 recording weds Byrd’s working trio with wordless vocals. Depending on listener tastes the experiment can either sound like a mood music mutation gone awry, a provocative fusion of surprisingly consonant elements, or perhaps more diplomatically, something in between. To these ears, the lilting, often-syrupy sung harmonies are largely a distraction.
Byrd’s crisp acoustic picking, the solid pulsing counterpoint of Betts’ upright bass and Reichenbach’s sensitive brush work are all far more interesting on their own. Fortunately the voices do not intrude on every track and pieces like the intriguingly arranged “Who Will Buy?” strike sparks on purely instrumental terms. Byrd begins with a contemplative prelude where his fingers parse out ringing note clusters that would make his former mentor Segovia proud. The trio then dives into a hard-swinging race of twining rhythmic lines that sounds more like Django on amphetamines. It’s an electrifying transition and one that stands in stark contrast to the cloying croons that stymie pieces like “The Night We Called it a Day.”
Byrd keeps the majority of songs under four minutes and the individual brevity allows for a welcome diversity in the program. The bluesy lope of “Wildcat” sounds like an outtake as from a Peter Sellers Pink Panther production, but any built up intrigue soon evaporates as the voices return for a breezy sashay through the bossa nova changes of Jobim’s “Felicidade.” Byrd starts from scratch again on “Action Painting,” sculpting a solo stitched with scintillating classical overtones and spiced with a dash of New Orleans rhythm.
The gilded reading of “My Favorite Things” works from a similar tapestry of disparate threads. Betts’s agile bass strums are as responsible as Byrd’s nimble articulations for the track’s artistic success. The spectral coven of voices returns for the two closing numbers, vying with the trio for supremacy and in the process miring the works. Very much a time capsule of its era, this date still contains enough pleasurable music to make it worth recommending.
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Track Listing: I Left My Heart in San Francisco/ Who Will Buy?/ The Night We Called it a Day/ Wild Cat/ Felicidade/ Action Painting/ This Can
Personnel: Charlie Byrd- guitar; Keter Betts- bass; Bill Reichenbach- drums; anonymous voices. Recorded 1965.