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Charlie Byrd (g, unamplified guitar on Side 1) Barry Harris (p on side 2 only) Keter Betts (b) Buddy Deppenschmidt (drs)

Recorded October 23 (Side 2) and 24 (Side 1), 1961


The Blues Sonata: (Charlie Byrd)

  1. Polonaise Pour Pietro (6:54)

  2. Ballad in B Minor (4:57)

  3. Scherzo for an Old Shoe (9:01)


  1. Alexander’s Ragtime Band (5:25) (Irving Berlin)

  2. Jordu (4:35) (Duke Jordan)

  3. That Old Devil Called Love (4:46) (Fishcer-Roberts)

  4. Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart (4:29) (James F. Hanley)

   When I first heard Charlie Byrd, not quite two years ago, it was as a sideman on an otherwise bland record I was called upon to review for The American Record Guide.

   “(Byrd) is the reason you should get the record,” the resulting review read, “ and he is more than reason enough. Playing unamplified guitar with the straight-on, 1930’s swing of Django Reihardt, he has considerable classical training too (a Segovia student), and he manages to inject that classicism in an exactly proper, unpretentious way. He obviously enjoys playing, and he is a joy to hear.” Since editor James Lyons of that magazine gives his staff much more freedom than they are likely to find anywhere else, I was allowed to pursue my interest in Byrd, and in due course reviewed the Offbeat record called Charlie Byrd Trio: “Byrd’s talent is unusual, in its range, its depth, and its basis. He plays unamplified guitar, which is a personal preference of mine, but much more important, is better suited to his ideas … Charlie Christian is apparently not his model, which is in itself enough to place him in a class by himself. The blues he plays are country blues, hillbilly rather than Negro (he comes from Virginia, where they apparently have roots, too), and the blues performances here are among the most joyfully exuberant you are ever likely to hear … But none of these remarks can do more than suggest the nature of the music. What is important is that a highly gifted musician has fashioned a personal, deeply-felt expression out of diverse influences that have made their impact on him, has assimilated them completely, and plays as he wishes without regard for fashion. What has evolved is by turns touching, joyous, amusing, and technically astonishing. And it always swings.”

   Those thoughts are equally applicable here, but they also serve to point out that it was, at once time, comparatively easy to overlook and unclassifiable musician like Charlie Byrd. For the last few years he has had his own trio, consisting of himself, bassist Keter Betts, and drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt. Since he remains for the most part in his home town of Washington, D.C., one has little opportunity to run across his music in the course of listening to someone else, which is how one most often finds a new favorite (any one of several Miles Davis sidemen would do for an example here). Today, of course, almost everyone knows who Byrd is, so that proselytizing is no longer necessary. But even though his situation in regard to the public has changed, he continues to play the kind of music he likes, and to stay in Washington most of the time.

   Any conversation with Charlie Byrd, no matter how brief, reveals that he loves the guitar, and that unlike guitarists who, following Christina, have emulated horn lines, his music is based on the unique capabilities of his instrument. He plays classical finger style, (he is an accomplished classical guitarist as other recordings prove) without use of a pick. In a modest way, perhaps because of this approach, his seems to me one of the more successful attempts to blend jazz and classical techniques. Because of the nature of his work, he will attract no followers on other instruments or become much of an influence himself, which detracts in no way from what he has accomplished.

   The entire first side of Byrd’s latest recording is taken up by his Blues Sonata. At first hearing, this might seem to be three unrelated pieces, with only the coda at the end of the last section, which echoes the initial theme of the first, to the tem together. But as Byrd explains, there is a larger design present. The first section or movement, called Polonaise Pour Pietro, in honor of the owner of Washington’s Showboat Lounge, Byrd’s home base, is in the classic sonata from. The first theme is stated in the tonic key. Then the secondary theme is stated in the dominant key. The development section in this case an improvisation, is in yet another key, after which there is a return to the tonic for a restatement of both themes and a brief coda. However, as with the best jazz, one is not conscious of the formal intricacies, but only of pleasure in the music. The second movement, Ballad in B Minor, might better be termed ballade, for its mournfully ruminative evocation of Chopin. The full power of Byrd’s unique romanticism is in evidence here; one of his most striking qualities, it has, I should think, an enormous appeal to all lovers of guitar music, whether or not they are devotes of jazz. The final movement is evidence of the influence that the Spanish guitarists have had on Byrd. The title, Seherzo for an Old Shoe, makes reference to the phrase “So long, Old Shoe,” which Charlie’s friend, Washington disc jockey Felix Grant, uses fro his sign-off. More than in the other movements, space is given to the interplay that exists between Byrd and his associates, Betts and Deppenschmidt. The coda, as previously mentioned, is a brief restatement of the first theme of Polonaise Pour Pietro.

   On the Blues sonata, Byrd employs the unamplified guitar that has become his trademark, but the second side of the LP is another matter entirely. It features a rare instance of Byrd’s use of amplified guitar and the addition to the regular group of pianist Barry Harris. Not unexpectedly with a man who has given as much care and thought to his music as Byrd has, the two elements are interrelated. Amplification and piano give added variety to the set, of course, and reveal Byrd’s talent in a different light than we are accustomed to seeing it, but there is more to the situation than that. “Tom me,” Byrd says, “the amplified guitar is almost like another instrument. I play my own ideas, of course, and I still use finger-style rather than a pick. But when you work with another harmonic instrument, such as the piano, it’s better to use amplification. Horns wouldn’t make that much difference, because they’re not harmonic. But the subtleties of unamplified guitar would be lost against the more dominant characteristics of the piano.” Obviously, then, the use of amplification is not a casual choice. Nor is the decision to use Barry Harris. “He plays piano like I think it ought to be played,” Byrd says. “He doesn’t let his ego get in the way of his piano playing. He has a very musical, pianistic approach, instead of sounding like some monster having its teeth pulled.”

   On the amplified instrument – a DeAngelico guitar with a Gibson amplifier – Byrd is more chordal, and employs less of his classically-inspired figures than on the Sonata. But again, there is no evidence that an abstract musical or instrumental theory is being demonstrated. It is simply uncomplicated, happy swinging music; three standards and a jazz classic that seem, to me, to revive the tradition of back-room playing for fun. But then listening to Charlie Byrd is always fun, or else the techniques and vast musicianship would have no point. And, despite the obvious care and craftsmanship that has gone into this recording, that attitude, I think, will serve as the best way to enjoy the music of one of the unique guitarists of our time.


   CHARLIE 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)

Charlie Byrd at The Village Vanguard (452; Stereo 9452)

The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd (451; Stereo 9451)

Mr. Guitar (450; Stereo 9450)

Byrd in the Wind (449; Stereo 9449)

Byrd’s Word (448; Stereo 9448)

   This recording is available in both Stereophonic (RS 9453) and Monaural (RM 453) form.

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Recording Engineer: RAY FOWLER (Recorded at Plaza Sound Studios; New York City)

Album design: KEN DEARDOFF

Back-liner photos by STECE SCHAPIRO


235 West 46th Street, New York City 36, New York

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