CHARLIE BYRD: MR. GUITAR
Charlie Byrd (g) Keter Betts (b) Bertell Knox (drs)
Recorded in New York City; Summer 1960
Blue fro Felix (2:57) (Charlie Byrd)
Gypsy in My Soul (2:54) (Boland-Jaffe)
In a Mellotone (3:13) (Duke Ellington)
Prelude to a kiss (4:43) (Ellington-Gordon-Mills)
Travelin’ On (2:34) (Charlie Byrd)
Play Fiddle, Play (3:35) (Deutsch-Altman-Lawrence)
Funky Flamenco (2:49) (Charlie Byrd)
My One and Only (2:41) (George & Ira Gershwin)
Mama, I’ll Be Home Some Day (3:11) (Charlie Byrd)
How long Has This Been Going On? (3:41) (George & Ira Gershwin)
Who Cares? (2:12) (George & Ira Gershwin)
Lay the lily Low (5:54) (Charlie Byrd)
CHARLIE BYRD is one of the best guitar players in the world, let’s start with that. He is also one of the most versatile guitar players in the world.
He can play a difficult classical piece with grace and understanding, get to the melodic heart of a lovely Gershwin tune, sock over a stomping down home blues with strength and conviction, bring the amazing gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt to mind, and I don’t know what all. Moreover, despite such eclecticism, Byrd is a stylist who somehow always manages to sound like himself, which is perhaps the most extraordinary and most important thing about his work.
Thanks mainly to a handful of jazz records, Byrd has become a national jazz figure although he seldom performs outside of Washington, a city which has not been a center for important jazz activity in many years. And this has not happened – as some have suggested – merely because he is a “different” in that he plays jazz on an unamplified Spanish guitar, finger style (no pick). Charlie Byrd’s reason for fame, and the reason for his appeal to other musicians, notably guitarists, lies not so much in how well.
Of all the records Byrd has made, the one you have in our hand now is easily among his very best, to my mind. For one thing there are no frills here. No special guests. No flutes. No oboes. No bassoons. No singers. No special arrangement. No attempt to do “something else”. This is the Charlie Byrd Trio as it really is, as you’d hear it in person at Washington’s Showboat Lounge cellar club, where Byrd happily seems to go with the lease.
As Charlie explains: “This is the first time I’ve recorded an entire album with the trio itself. And the repertoire is typical of what we usually do, perhaps that’s the important thing. There are some folk blues things here, some pseudo flamenco jazz, and more conventional tunes, with emphasis on Ellington and Gershwin, which again is typical of our repertoire.”
And the wise man, or woman, who listens to this LP will not give those “folk blues things” only passing attention, meaning Travellin’ ON, Mama I’ll Be Home Some Day, and Lay the Lily Low. There is a good deal of precious nonsense being written about jazz music today with a high percentage of it stressing the importance of being funky. The trouble is that many musicians supposedly blessed with a natural concern for the funky, earthy, basic feel of down home music are only sophomorically funky at best, which is to say that their roots don’t go very deep, if jazz must be discussed in horticultural terms (as seems the fashion today). On the other hand, Charlie’s feeling for funk is undeniably genuine.
Born in the small town of Chuckatuck, Virginia, in September of 1925, Charlie was playing down home blues and folk music long before he ever heard of Charlie Christian or Andres Segovia, two widely dissimilar guitar players who were to influence him tremendously. Charlie Byrd more than digs down home music; down home music is an essential part of what he plays and what he is. Regardless of his success with more sophisticated music, from Bach to modern jazz, I sometimes think that Charlie is at his very best balling it up with something like Mama on this set, or Salty Dog, which he has not yet recorded.
Other tracks of special interest, to my taste, are Gypsy In My Soul (“We seem to have a good beat on this one and I’ve always liked that tune,” said Charlie as he listened to the tapes) and Gershwin’ How long Has This Been Going On? The warm, thoughtful, cleanly-cut treatment of Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss is another striking example of Byrd’s happy combination of technical skill and jazz feeling. And as, too, is In a Mellotone, the Ellington tune based on the chord progression of Rose Room.
As for Funky Flamenco, let it be known that Byrd is not a flamenco guitarist and does not pretend to be one. “We never play a serious flamenco tune,” he says. “This is just a pseudo flamenco jazz thing … completely in fun.”
Most of the other selections should be familiar to most everyone save for Blues for Felix. The Felix of the title is Felix Grant, a deservedly popular Washington disc jockey with integrity and great enthusiasm for good music.
Up to here nothing has been said about he other two musicians on the record, and that’s misleading. Misleading because this is not a guitar solo album, by any means. The other member of this Charlie Byrd Trio, bass player Keter Betts and drummer Bertell Knox, play vital roles.
Betts is an excellent musician and certainly a far better bass player than many who do well in all-star jazz polls. Before joining Byrd in 1957, he worked with Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley, among others, and might best be described as a “musician’s musician”. Byrd explains Keter’s role in the trio this way: “I’ve never heard a bass player I’ve liked better. Not that he has the most technique of any … but he has an instinctive sense of form and no matter what the tune of the tempo, he’ll never lose you. Even the biggest square in the audience always knows where he is. When I solo, I feel that I’m playing with him. I feel what he does is as much a part of my solo as what I’m playing. I listen to him constantly as I play.” Knox has worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Arnett Cobb and Wild Bill Davis and joined Byrd in ’58. Charlie describes him as a melodic drummer, whose articulation is very good … one of the eight or ten best brush players in the business.”
Speaking of the trio as a whole, Charlie adds: “We get a lot from each other as far as figures and patterns are concerned. This gives the trio an integrated togetherness as well as a variety of timbres and sounds. In the kind of trio we have it’s quite essential that the drummer be a sensitive melodic player … You might say that Keter also fills the function of a tenor player while I’m the brass and the drummer is also the piano.”
This is the first record that Byrd has made with his Fleta guitar, which he bought in Europe while on tour with Woody Herman in 1959. Made in Barcelona, there are only about ten Fleta guitars made each year. A Fleta was th first guitar other than a Hauser that Segovia ever used in concert, according to Byrd, who studied with Segovia in Italy in 1954. Charlie also has two Hausers but finds the Fleta has “a bigger and better tone.”
I would think that anyone interested in the guitar, or jazz music, or both, would enjoy this record. I do not for a moment suggest that every track on the album is great or even near-great, but I do suggest that this LP has more than enough music of permanent value to please even the most fastidious, nit-picking breed of cat.
Jazz columnist, Army Times
Byrd’s other Riverside albums include –
Once More!: Charlie Byrd’s Bossa Nova (454; Stereo 9454)
Bossa Nova Pelos Passaros (436; Stereo 9436)
Latin Impressions (427; Stereo 9427)
Byrd’s Word (448; Stereo 9488)
Byrd in the Wind (449; Stereo 9449)
The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd (451; Stereo 9451)
Charlie Byrd at the Village Vanguard (452: Stereo 9452)
Blues Sonata (453; Stereo 9453)
This recording is available in both Stereophonic (RS 9450) and Monaural (RM 450) form.
Recorded at Reeves Sound Studios, New York City
Album design: KEN DEARDOFF
Back-liner photos by LAWRENCE N. SHUSTAK
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street, New York City 36, New York