A fascinating record and a symbol of the adventurousness of the time.
Daryl Easlea 2010-11-15
The Blackbyrds were the grand plan of legendary jazz trumpeter and, at the time, Howard University music master, Donald Byrd. Byrd assembled the very cream of his department’s musicians – including bassist Joe Hall, drummer Keith Killgo, guitarist Barney Perry, saxophonist Allan Barnes and keyboard player Kevin Toney – and put together a band, initially to support him in concert. The outfit were so hot, however, it became obvious that The Blackbyrds had to take on an existence of their own. Using his considerable industry contacts, Byrd got his outfit a deal with Fantasy Records.
Released in 1974, the group’s debut album remains much loved. With its Vincent Van Gogh oil painting (Cornfield with Crows) on the cover and its endorsement by Roberta Flack on the original sleeve, this was clearly a serious work. Byrd drilled The Blackbyrds in classics, blues and jazz. It could have all been a clinical, soulless exercise in bravura performances was it not for the quality of songs herein.
Produced by Byrd and frequent 70s collaborator Larry Mizell, the record opens with laughter and the free-wheeling, down-home vibe carries on throughout. These are no swots simply dumbing down – this groove is as greasy and sincere as any street corner funk act. The opener, Do It, Fluid, all slippery funk and clear anti-drugs messages, pronounces the group’s arrival. Lord Have Mercy has all the hallmarks of a mid-70s workout with its references to the Lord, and a steamy inner-city feel. It is smooth-flowing, jaunty jazz-influenced funk with laid-back grooves. Summer Love clearly had some influence on Stevie Wonder’s production of Lovin’ You for Minnie Riperton, while A Hot Day Today is a smouldering, languid groove.
Although they were to have bigger hits, (namely Rock Creek Park and Walking in Rhythm), The Blackbyrds’ debut was a consistently brilliant display of musicianship, almost as showy as some of the progressive rock albums of the era. Their impact was clear on the later British outfits that listened intently to this polished music. Light of the World and Hi-Tension were to drink down their flowing, optimistic messages and incorporated them in their own UK-centric sound.