Album Review: Places & Spaces, Donald Byrd, 1975 (Blue Note)

This album from trumpeter Donald Byrd is one for the ages.  Easy-going string and flute arrangements give this record a breeziness that became the soundtrack of the 70s.

Production team, Larry and Alphonso ‘Fonce’ Mizell, were behind many of the jazz/funk fusion artists of the decade, including flautist Bobbi Humphrey, the Jackson 5, and disco sensation A Taste of Honey.

What’s remarkable about this album is not its innovation but rather how it capitalized on the jazz fusion movement that was well in-flight at the time.

Jazz fusion is said to have been born with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (Sony, 1970). It’s true that Davis was the preeminent innovator that reinvented jazz, most notably with the introduction of electronic instruments.

However, Byrd and the Mizells created a much more accessible sub-genre, one I would liken more to pop than Davis’ brand of esoteric fusion. Like George Benson’s Breezin’ (Warner Bros., 1976), this record uses jazz instrumentation and improvised solos within the construct of a pop song. Incidentally, the Mizell brothers used a stable of studio musicians on all of their Blue Note hits, drummer Harvey Mason being one of them. Mason appeared on Benson’s Breezin’ and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (Blue Note, 1973), both mammoth records in the evolution of jazz (read my review of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters here).

In a way, this album is just as daring as a grand opus like Bitches Brew. Just as Davis turned his back on the traditionalists of the golden era of jazz, Byrd moved forward by embracing pop forms that would eventually morph into disco. Byrd risked rejection from two sides: the jazz world who would view him as a sellout; and the pop world, to whom he likely appeared as a ‘square’ at the time.

Byrd could have done worse than to give over the production reigns to his one-time students, the Mizell Brothers. As it happens, it was exactly the right move. A double legacy was his reward: this classic album and a signature sound that defined a decade in music.

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