CHARLIE BYRD AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
Charlie Byrd (g) Keter Betts (b) Buddy Deppenschmidt (drs)
Recorded ‘live’ at the Village Vanguard, New York City
Just Squeeze Me (13:03) (Gaines-Ellington)
Why Was I Born? (5:58) (Hammerstein-Kern)
You Stepped Out of a Dream (6:50) (Kahn-Brown)
Fantasia on Which Side Are You On? (20:36) (Charlie Byrd)
I can remember quiet distinctly the day Charlie Byrd taped this album. It was the kind of day night club owners prefer to forget, and tend to remember, with a driving sleet that had New York looking like a ghost town. It was, in short, one of the worst days in a truly abominable winter. Yet, even before Charlie began tuning up for the first set, the Village Vanguard was packed. If any conclusion is to be drawn from this, it would have to be, I wager, that a dedicated artist draws followers of almost equal dedication.
For Charlie Byrd is an artist. At this point, I don’t think there is anyone who would dispute his right to that title. In over 25 years at the same old stand, I’ve been privileged to see and hear a fair sampling of genuine artists. As personalities, they were almost humorously disparate, ranging from volcanoes of flamboyance of the mildest of corner-sitters. But as performers, they’ve all shared at least one common trait: a continual growth in their manner and meaning of expression. And Charlie’s got that!
The general consensus among critics who’ve heard Charlie’s albums is that he seems to improve with each new disc. I’d have to add that it seems to be true of his club appearances, too. Charlie has brought his trio to New York and the Vanguard twice, the first time in the summer of 1960, and the second time in the winter of the same year, shortly before he and the group left for Latin America on a State Department-sponsored tour. There was a small but noticeable advancement the second time around (when you reach the stature of a Charlie Byrd, any progression must almost necessarily be on a small scale. There’s only so much room in which be expand.) I’ll say nothing about his technique. Probably only Segovia (who, incidentally, was one of Charlie’s teachers) and a few other qualified students of the guitar could distinguish any improvements in Charlie’s already brilliant technique. But I would like to comment, for what it’s worth, on Charlie’s actual performances:
In the moths between this first engagement at the Vanguard and the next, Charlie seemed to have become even more fluent and improviser, displaying a stinging attack I’d never heard him use before. He was moving further from the melody, coming up with bright and original things, and was able to sustain them longer. It wasn’t, I think, that Charlie was now more at home at the Vanguard. His understated but firm ability to command and audience’s attention had been just as sure at his first outing in New York as it was this last time. If there was any improvement, and I’m sure there was, it must be chalked up to progress – artistic progress. And, if my theory about Charlie is correct, you’re holding a pretty fine album in your hands. It’s Charlie’s latest, and it was recorded on the last day of his second engagement at the Vanguard.
What more can I tell you about Charlie Byrd? As a man, Charlie is like a gift from heaven to a night club owner. He is pleasant, interesting to talk to, untemperamental (although firm when his wants are reasonable), and – punctual!! On the stand he is quiet, assured, humorous. His relationship with his two sidemen, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt, is affable and easy-going, but it’s evident that Charlie has keen respect for them, both as musicians and people. And they for him.
Someone once described Charlie as “a perfectly nice, normal guy – with a magnificent gift.” So would I.
Max Gordon is the owner of New York’s Village Vanguard, the long-running nightclub (since 1934) that,
under Mr. Gordon’s astute supervision, has given birth to such stars
as Burl Ives, July Holiday, Wally Cox, Harry Belafonte, Ertha Kitt. For the past several years,
the Vanguard has been on a modern-jazz clubs in the country, featuring such greats as
Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, and of course, Charlie Byrd.
Charlie Byrd is, for quite a few reasons, a phenomenon among guitarists – and for that matter among jazz musicians. To start with (not because it’s most important, but because it is possibly most unusual and it is closest at hand), what other musician – jazz or otherwise; or what performer of any kind, for that matter – has to your knowledge ever had album notes by a club owner! But as Max Gordon points out here, Byrd is a most unusual fellow.
Several of the points of be made about him are of course well-known to any and all of his many enthusiasts, but the very fact that he does have so many fans is in itself remarkable. For Byrd has built a major jazz name for himself while remaining, with very few exceptions, based in the city of Washington, D.C., which is hardly a hotbed of jazz activity. In the Fall of 1957 he opened at the Showboat in our nation’s capital; he has played there, to packed and raptly attentive houses, as often as he has wanted to ever since, which means that only some touring with Woody Herman and a slight taste of “the road” with his trio – such as two visits to the Vanguard – constitute the outside world’s direct exposure to the Byrd magic.
Also notable is the fact that Charlie is equally at home with both jazz and the classics. Well “equally at home” is a pretty stodgy way of putting it; let’s just say that this man knows and loves and plays his whole instrument and virtually all conceivable facets of its repertoire, old and new. But what less could be expected from someone who was first introduced to guitar music by way of the blues and folk music played by his father and by the primarily Negro customers at his father’s country store in southeastern Virginia, whose formative jazz influences included both Django Rheinhardt and Charlie Christian, and who in 1954 studied with Andres Segovia. (and the number of jazz guitarists who could have passed and audition for Segovia is probably roughly the same as those who have had club owners praise them in print!)
There is also the fact that Byrd now plays unamplified guitar for the most part, which probably stems from his classical orientation, but is also nothing more than you might look for from a man whose whole approach to his music is so clean and uncluttered and so fundamentally based on direct, articulate communication with his audience.
On the present album, Byrd does what so many threaten to do on “on-the-job” recordings, but rarely follow through with: namely, to take advantage of the relaxed and audience-encouraged atmosphere to rally stretch out. Perhaps it’s just that most musicians aren’t allowed to do that, for fear that the sort of extended playing they get by with in a club might get to seem pretty dull and drawn-out under the closer examination a permanent, recorded effort can receive. But no one could have such fears when the artist is as constantly and burstingly inventive as Charlie Byrd. Thus, working in his accustomed close rapport with the wonderfully big-toned bassist, Keter Betts, and the brilliant young drummer, buddy Deppenschmidt, Byrd takes up the first side of the record with only three numbers. All are standards, but none are of the done-to-death variety, and from the first perhaps unexpectedly languid and earthy notes of the usually-bouncy Just Squeeze Me, you know you are in for something different and worthwhile.
But the really different part comes on Side 2, which is devoted in its entirety to what Charlie terms a “fantasia” on Which Side Are You On!, a folk tune for which he has long had much affection. There is little point in talking about this composition (and “composition” is exactly what it must be rated as), except to say that it offers Byrd in a very wide range of mood and feeling and tempo, so that it could be considered a liberal education in the art of listening to Charlie Byrd – which is the same as calling it a liberal education in guitar enjoyment. So, by all means, go ahead ad listen …
This record is reissued from original Offbeat label.
CHRLIE BYRD can also be heard on Riverside on such albums as –
Once More!: Charlie Byrd’s Bossa Nova (454; stereo 9454)
Bossa Nova Pelos Passaros (436; Stereo 9436)
Latin Impressions (427; Stereo 9427)
Blues sonata (453; Stereo 9453)
The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd (451; Stereo 9451)
Mr. Guitar (450; Stereo 9450)
Byrd in the Wind (449; Stereo 9499)
Byrd’s Word (448; Stereo 9448)
This recording also available in both Stereophonic (RS 9452) and Monaural (RM 452) form.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York City 36, New York