Album review

Donald Byrd – ‘Live: Cookin’ with Blue Note at Montreux’ (rec. 1973)

Donald Byrd – Live: Cookin’ with Blue Note at Montreux

(Blue Note 4599839. Album review by Adam Sieff)

More buried treasure courtesy of Blue Note. Hot on the heels of November’s Elvin Jones 1967 set Revival: Live at Pookies Pub comes a live 1973 Montreux Festival performance from Donald Byrd released today – on what would have been the great trumpeter’s 90th birthday, 9 December.

Following the extraordinary commercial success of the Larry Mizell produced Black Byrd album, Byrd and fellow Blue Note artists Alphonse Mouzon, Bobbi Humphrey, Bobby Hutcherson, Marlena Shaw and Ronnie Foster were flown over to Switzerland in July 1973 for a label showcase at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival. All the artists’ sets at the Maison des Congrès on 5th July were recorded, and with the exception of Mouzon and Byrd’s, were duly released with similar artwork and logo under the Cookinwith Blue Note at Montreux series.

As Byrd had just finished recording the Street Lady album the month before (which was about to be released that Summer) there may not have been room in the schedule for a live album. Or perhaps, the music was considered too raw for his new radio audience and was set aside. Whatever the reason, many years later Michael Cuscuna had mentioned to Don Was that the tapes had been mixed for release by Bob Belden in 1999 before being sidelined once again. It’s thanks to Gilles Peterson’s enquiries after Byrd’s passing in 2013 that the original 2” 16-track master tapes were duly found in the Blue Note vaults. For all we know there are Mouzon tapes lurking down there too.

Four of the five songs performed that day make it to the album, and only one of those, Larry Mizell’s Black Byrd, had been previously recorded by Byrd, although there’s a version of Kwame on the Live At The Jazz Workshop radio recording from September of that year. The other tracks are Stevie Wonder’s You’ve Got It Bad Girl, and the two originals The East and Poco-Mania. The music was recorded by the legendary Chris SnoopyPennycate, mixed by Qmillion (Robert Glasper’s last four albums) and mastered by Kevin Gray. The sound is wonderful, capturing all the excitement and grit.

The core band members are Byrd’s young Howard University students, pianist Kevin Toney, saxophonist Allan Barnes, guitarist Barney Perry and drummer Keith Killgo, who were soon to find success as The Blackbyrds with Walking In Rhythm and Happy Music. Also present are three heavyweights, bassist Henry ‘The Skipper’ Franklin, percussionist and conga player Ray Armando and saxophonist Nathan Davis. Plus the Mizell brothers, trumpeter Fonce (another ex-Byrd student) and producer/songwriter Larry on synthesisers.

The playing by everyone is exhilarating, the feel is loose (in the tightest possible way) with its deep grooves, fiery horns, squelchy synths, wah wah guitars, rippling Fender Rhodes and sing-a-long chants (‘listen to the horn!’). Byrd’s tone is clear and strong and the way his horn skips over the churning funk is mesmerising, no hard bopper ever felt more at home in their new surroundings. Kwame and The East are both terrific and the ridiculously fast and furious Poco-Mania just manages to stay on the tracks, while Black Byrd with its echoes of Miles’ On The Corner retains all the magic of the original studio version but with the added exuberance of a live performance.

Jazz Funk may have had its haters in the jazz police half a century ago, but thanks to Donald Byrd, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and others it’s been an important part of the canon ever since. This album is a great big slice of it.

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Buy Live: Cookin’ with Blue Note at Montreux

Release date is today 9 December 2022

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