Rarely in today’s global music marketplace does an artist successfully combine staggering talent with equally superlative success. There are those who manage one or the other, but only a select few achieve both. Guitarist Charlie Byrd was one such individual, though admittedly the playing field back during his prime was much more populous with publicly lauded and brilliantly accomplished musicians. His back-story reads like a string of serendipitous twists of good fortune and included fateful meetings with guitar icons Django Reinhardt and Andres Segovia.
Byrd hit the big time with the superior abilities to back it up. The Riverside brass recognized a probable cash cow when they saw one and set about supplanting him in every conceivable sort of commercial surrounding from “with Voices” dates to strings-heavy sessions covering the trendiest examples of popular song. Byrd played along and in the process built up a loyal fan base that continues to this day, critics be damned.
This new reissue revives one of Byrd’s solo ventures recorded in 1965, relatively late in his Riverside tenure. It was a format to which he was ideally suited and his acoustic strings sing sweetly across the eleven chosen tracks. Byrd’s fretwork is flawless throughout and ironically that’s a big part of the problem. He can play each and every one of these tunes in his sleep, but rather than take daring chances with the arrangements he opts instead to render them in relatively rote readings. His caution might be the product of producer pressure, but perfection can easily become a catalyst for boredom. It’s a complaint often voiced by critics of Byrd’s numerous albums.
Standards like “Am I Blue” and “Mood Indigo” drift by in a breezy succession of filigree strums and gilded chords, but just like a tranquil summer wind, they’re difficult to bottle and savor. A downcast version of “House of the Rising Sun,” injected with classical Spanish tinges, offers one of the rare instances of sourness and unrepentant blues. “Blue Mobile” also hints at less flowery regions of inquiry through staccato arpeggios that supply clever thematic uncertainty. Both pieces are welcome watermarks in an otherwise overly cordial recital.
Adding to the disc’s general disposability are the lengths of the pieces, the longest clocking in at just less than four minutes. Each seems custom tailored for jukebox play and their individual brevity doesn’t allow much in the way of extended improvisation. Byrd resorts mostly to running through the conventional melodies and adding the occasional flourish or detour here and there. As such, the program goes by swiftly, but leaves little in the way of lasting creative residue. Taken in a single sitting it’s a pleasant affair, beautifully played and recorded, but lacking the punch or bite that would’ve set it apart from a simple audience-friendly lark.