Basketball and Blaxploitation collide courtside in the film Cornbread, Earl and Me a mid-70s urban blockbuster with a soundtrack scored by Donald Byrd, which comprises the first part of this recent Prestige two-fer. Bringing in his band of former pupil protégés The Blackbyrds and backing them with a studio orchestra Byrd set about tailoring music to the cinematic tale of a inner-city basketball star shot down by neighborhood cops. The album falls prey to the usual plight of many soundtracks. Separated from the screen action most of the pieces are just snippets rather than fully fleshed compositions. Drummer Killgo admits in the liners that the amount of written material on hand during the sessions was frequently minimal. An early highlight surfaces in the campy theme song that riffs on swirling soprano sax, fuzz guitar and dribbling bass in a full court press and the hilarious chorus “He’s a man with a plan, got a basketball in his hand, he’s CORNBREAD!”
Other tunes like the heavy funk of “The One-Eye Two Step” and the slick but somber soul of “Wilford’s Gone” also work well on a visceral level, but when Byrd attempts balladic sentimentality as on the “Mother/Son” selections the sounds usually fall flat in a flood of overwrought synth atmospherics and simple horn harmonies. The album’s low point hits on the hopelessly over-orchestrated “Riot” where choral voices, frenetic strings and echo-drenched drums lace in a lattice of florid colors.
By contrast Charles Earland’s charts for the largely forgotten Dynamite Brothers film are more compelling and there are numerous moments where it’s hard to imagine the slippery music sticking the throw-away film. Complimenting his common B-3 focus with a full array of electric ivories Earland heads a 13-piece ensemble through a populous forest of funky grooves, rock-inflected riffs and spaced out sound effects. The opener “Betty’s Theme” builds on a slinky theme via Earland’s multifaceted keyboard console, unison horns and percolating hand percussion. The leader’s solo on electric piano is pure early 70s studio hyperbole flanked by spiraling ARP accents. “Never Ending Melody” incorporates a schmaltzy exoticism wedding Eastern sitar sounds to a syncopated rhythm track. Gleeson adds his own array of synth accoutrements to the mix and the result sometimes belabor the music but by and large the group seizes on a solid, if off-kilter groove. Earland takes the opportunity afforded by Gleeson’s fills to stretch out on soprano saxophone during the album’s centerpiece “Snake” weaving a serpentine psychedelic helix with Hubbard’s flute.
While not offering much in the way of memorable music these two artifacts from the 70s black cinema explosion still offer entertaining listens. The Blackbyrds and Earland may be considered minor footnotes in the history of jazz. But these two soundtrack experiments remain prime stereo fodder for your average retro funk-themed fiesta and are filled with grooves that are for the most part heavy and plentiful.
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Track Listing: Cornbread, Earl and Me: Cornbread/ The One-Eye Two-Step/ Mother/Son Theme/ A Heavy Town/ One-Gun Salute/ The Gym Fight/ Riot/ Soulful Source/ Mother/Son Talk/ At the Carnival/ Candy Store Dilemma/ Wilford
Personnel: The Blackbyrds: Keith Killgo- drums, vocals; Joe Hall- bass; Kevin Toney- keyboards; Barnett Williams- percussion; with Donald Byrd- trumpet, and studio orchestra including: John Guerin- drums; Chuck Rainey- electric bass; Oscar Brashear- trumpet; Bobby Bryant- trumpet; Jerome Richardson- flute, tenor saxophone; Dorothy Ashby- harp. Charles Earland: organ, electric piano, ARP synthesizer, soprano saxophone; Eddie Henderson, Jon Faddis, Victor Paz, Danny Moore- trumpets, flugelhorns; Wayne Andre- trombone; Dave Hubbard- alto flute, soprano & tenor saxophones; Patrick Gleeson- synthesizers; Mark Elf, Cornell Dupree, Keith Loving- guitars; Marvin Bronson- electric bass; Daryll Washington- drums, tympani (right side); Billy Hart- drums (left side); Larry Killian- percussion. Recorded: 1975, Hollywood, CA; November 1973, New York City.