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Donald Byrd: Off To The Races

John Barron By

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Donald Byrd
Off To The Races
Blue Note Records
2006 (1959)



Detroit was producing a lot more than cars in the 1950s: the city was a breeding ground for an impressive number of hard bop giants. Two of the most dynamic instrumentalists to trek eastward from Motown to the Big Apple were trumpeter Donald Byrd and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, leader and featured sideman respectively on Off To The Races.

Off To The Races, Byrd's first recording for Blue Note as a leader and the first in a series of fruitful collaborations between the trumpeter and Adams, is a sympathetic collaboration of musical soul mates. The background they share—cutting their teeth at Detroit's famed Blue Bird Inn in the early 1950s—allows them to play together in perfect simpatico. The addition of alto saxophone giant Jackie McLean creates a competitive atmosphere, albeit a healthy one, reminiscent of an old time cutting session where boundaries of individual prowess are stretched to new limits.

Adams possesses an unstoppable drive. His shoot first, ask questions later approach to the baritone was unmatched at the time. It's not surprising that Adams honed his craft in the concrete laden, industrial jungle of Detroit. His dry tone and hard edged sound is the antithesis to the softer, floating—and more popular—style of Gerry Mulligan. He is at his best on blazing tempos; his dizzying lines on the opening track, "Lover Come Back To Me and the title cut are absolutely breathtaking. Contrasting Adams' straightforward performance is the forward thinking McLean who, while still indebted to Charlie Parker, takes a more thematic approach. He uses his solo space to develop spontaneous motifs with rounded curves and sharp angles. Not a note is wasted.

Byrd, having recently completed a high profile stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, sounds more confident and determined than on earlier sessions; his evolving sound is big and brassy, with a piercing—at times overpowering—crackle. The assertive nature of his solo on "Lover Come Back To Me is a powerful, declamatory statement. He tears through the extended form with the tenacity of a pit bull, and explores the upper register as though he were leading a big band.

As a composer, Byrd shows a capable fist on this album, but is still progressing—he would later study composition with Nadia Boulanger in France. His evocative ballad, "When Your Lover Has Gone, performed as a quartet, is an ideal medium for lyrical expression. The three other Byrd originals are simple and swinging; "Sudwest Funk and "Down Home are slick, greasy blues, and the title track, an aptly named burner, features sizzling solos. Unfortunately, the fiery improvising of a top-notch front line isn't enough to salvage Sonny Rollins' "Paul's Pal. The trite melody and tiresome eight measure form slows the momentum of the session.

The rhythm section is first rate. Drummer Art Taylor displays masterful groove and ingenuity. His ride cymbal is crisp, keeping precision time. His opening solo on the title tune sets up the thoroughbred pace. Dynamic bassist Sam Jones makes up for suspicious intonation by laying down a strong foundation with rhythmic nuances. He solos with bluesy soul on "Down Home. The reliable Wynton Kelly stokes the hard bop flame with his trademark comping and delicate touch.

Off To The Races is available as part of Mosaic Records' The Complete Blue Note Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Studio Sessions (2000). However, this single disc, part of Blue Note's RVG series, holds up well on its own. It's a milestone in Byrd's career and marks the genesis of an underrated, dynamic duo.


Tracks: Lover Come Back To Me; When Your Lover Has Gone; Sudwest Funk; Paul's Pal; Off To The Races; Down Tempo.

Personnel: Donald Byrd: trumpet; Pepper Adams: baritone saxophone; Jackie McLean: alto saxophone; Wynton Kelly: piano; Sam Jones: bass; Art Taylor: drums.

Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Blue Note Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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