(Visual) Notes on Culture
  NOTES ON ONE SONG: Donald Byrd's "Fancy Free"
This blog has slowed considerably in lieu of catching up on other projects. I hope to keep it a bit more heavily stocked in the weeks and months to come. In the mean time, give it a "happy two years" nod and check out my latest efforts over at The Modest Proposal.

Donald Byrd is one of the most famous trumpeters of the post-bop era. Along with Woody Shaw and Miles Davis, he helped to define the transitional sound that lead from more traditional and straight-ahead styles through rock-fusion and funk. Purists tend to like Byrd's solid hard-bop sessions from the 1960s, especially A New Perspective (though this album contains interesting vocals), Fuego, and The Cat Walk.

Byrd began a gradual shift to jazz-funk in the later part of the sixties, as did several other popular artists. While Miles Davis started his shift by introducing electric instrumentation beginning around Miles in the Sky, he moved to a largely electric sound by In A Silent Way, took the first plunges into rock hybridity with Bitches Brew, and emerged as a loose rock-funk force with On the Corner.

Byrd took a different path. His first work in the fusion vein (though, I think, in a much more interesting register than the fusion that would emerge by the mid seventies) was his albums Fancy Free (Blue Note, 1969). His Electric Byrd (1970) was seen as his answer to Bitches Brew--in the same way that Woody Shaw apparently answered with Blackstone Legacy, also of 1970--but the true sign of his having arrived at somewhere different and in the mainstream was 1972's Black Byrd.

I prefer Fancy Free to them all. It probably doesn't help this album's reputation that it has been out of print in the U.S. for nearly 15 years. I found a copy almost purely by chance and initially knew nothing about it. The cover had the lilting impression of birds in flight and I hoped that it wasn't just a corny rift on the Byrd-Bird connection. I was wrong.

"Fancy Free" opens the record, a twelve minute track that effortlessly builds, sweeps, and glides. Byrd is in bandleader and composer mode, as the instrumentalists who really make the track are pianist Duke Pearson and flautist Jerry Dodgion. Pearson really vamps on some laid-back, soft counterpoint while Dodgion personifies the aforementioned birds in the introductory chorus. The track really benefits from the large band setting, with a strong rhythm section marked by stand-out work by John Richardson. When Byrd finally does come in for his solo roughly five minutes into the track, it has built into a bouncy and slightly funky wall of sound. He jumps above and takes flight.

Years ago, I held a dinner party at my house. It was one of the first post-college bashes to include lots of college friends. Everybody had recently settled into a job or was about to start one. As it was to be a laid-back potluck, I wanted to slightly ironically set the mood with lounge-y jazz music from the 1960s and 1970s. I first spun Quincy Jones' Big, Bad, Bossa Nova to polite laughs. Next, I wanted to play a record that I both adored and thought would make good music to converse to. That record was Fancy Free. Much to my dismay, several friends almost instantly started furrowing their brows and insisted that I change it. My opinions were not universal.

My love for this tune--for which twelve minutes were never enough--let me on the search for more versions. The first I found was on Grant Green's fabulous Live at the Lighthouse (1972), one of three albums now available from that excellent period (the others are Alive! of 1970 and the recently released Live at Club Mozambique, originally recorded in 1971 but not issued until 2006). Green's cover of "Fancy Free" is immanently dance-able. His combo for Lighthouse was heavy on percussion and funky licks and obviously appealed to more groove-oriented audiences. The structure of the song and its solo spots remain the same, but the soloists and their affectations have changed.

One cover of "Fancy Free" doesn't even go by that name. Prolific drummer Art Blakey's 1972 album Child's Dance features a song called "Child's Dance (Christian's Song)" that, for all intents and purposes, IS "Fancy Free" but with a slightly different tempo, more straight-ahead instrumentation, and a different title. It is a fine version and shows a whole different slade of masters at work.

The Lighthouse must have been a popular place for this tune, because another interpretation of the song from that era that I've been able to track down appears on the rare 1972 Elvin Jones album Live at the Lighthouse. After giving percussive grounding to Coltrane for years, Jones moved on an adventuresome leader in his own right. By the time of Live at the Lighthouse, he had been heading Blue Note recordings for several years. His "Fancy Free," aided by some wild playing by Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman is about as out-there and "free" as the song could possibly go. At just over 20 minutes, it really lets each player stretch out. Jones plays snappy but loose, while Grossman and Liebman dual over, under, above, and below the chorus.

The song remains a popular cover tune even today. A favorite version of recent vintage is this punchy take by Japanese jazz combo Trans of Life. Enjoy "Fancy Free"!!

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