Originally recorded on December 21, 1958 at the Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey.
All transfers from analog to digital made at 24-bit resolution.
Originally issued in 1959 as Blue Note BLP 84007.
From the crackling opening notes of "Lover Come Back to Me," it's clear that Off to the Races is one of Donald Byrd's most invigorating sessions of the late '50s. Working with a stellar supporting band - Jackie McLean (alto sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Pepper Adams (bari sax), Sam Jones (bass), Art Taylor (drums) - Byrd turns in one of his strongest recordings of the era. Throughout the album, Byrd switches between hard bop, ballads, laid-back blues, and soul-jazz. Two of the numbers are standards, one is a cover, and three are Byrd originals, but what matters is the playing. Over the course of the album, Byrd proves he has matured greatly as a soloist, capable of sweet, melodic solos on the slower numbers and blistering runs of notes on the faster songs. McLean is just as vigorous and lyrical, contributing some fine moments to the record, as do Adams and Kelly. There's nothing surprising about Off to the Races; it's simply a set of well-performed, enjoyable hard bop, but sometimes that's enough.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
Inevitably, and perhaps unfortunately, jazz in this country is part of show business. As such, it treads the tightrope of all entertainment, trying to be an art form and a going business proposition at the same time, often succeeding at neither. But since it is a part of show business, existing at its best as a means of expression and at its worst as a means of inducing people to buy expensive drinks, it falls prey to the show business rules.
One of the most pernicious of these rules has to do with publicity. It stands to reason that heroes are not born every minute, or every ten years, but publicity must have heroes, and if none are available, must manufacture them where none exist. Often a man is built up to be a hero long before he is really due for such acclaim; then, when it turns out that he is not flawless, he is cast aside in favor of this week's new giant. If he really has the stuff of talent, he can outlast both types of treatment (and who can say which is more dangerous?), and quietly, without fanfare, work his way honestly into a position of importance. Once this is done, his status is secure. The most obvious example of talent weathering such storms of popular fancy in recent years is, of course, Frank Sinatra, who came back "bigger and better than ever," as the publicists say, and today has little to worry about, artistically or financially.
It seems to me that in the realm of jazz, and in not quite so noisy a fashion, Donald Byrd has recently suffered the same fate. Coming out of Detroit a few years ago with some other extremely talented young musicians, he was hailed everywhere as the new great trumpet player, even winning the Down Beat Critic's New Star Poll in 1957. Now, "great" is a word that should be carefully reserved and brought out only at very special times. If Donald Byrd was not truly great at twenty-one or twenty-two, that is not very important. And if the fans who think they own jazz, that it is their own special province, dismissed him when he became too widely known to be their secret, that is not very important, either. What is important, and what can be judged from this record, is that Donald Byrd is a very good musician, and an honest one.
He has matured since all the fuss was made about him; that much is apparent. At one time, he sounded much like Clifford Brown; he no longer does. He is developing his own voice, and it is a strong one. Nor is he a slavish imitator of fashion. Many young trumpet players, influenced by the obvious stature of Miles Davis, play soft, whispery trumpet - one technique among many, one that is superbly suited to the statements Miles makes, but that might not fare so well for others. Donald Byrd, on this record, plays a wonderfully open horn, more reminiscent of the true trumpet sound than the work of any young musician I have heard in several years. It is, as it should be, a sound that is in keeping with his music rather than with fashion. His is not a slanted, oblique music like Miles's, it is an open, forceful, direct music. In keeping with his sound is the energy that is apparent throughout the record. Donald obviously wants to play and enjoys it - a warm feeling, somewhat rare in these diffident days, that communicates itself instantly to the listener and carries him along.
After several appearances as a sideman for Blue Note, this is Donald's first date as a leader, and he has chosen men well suited to his musical thought. They possess the same energy and drive that are characteristic of his playing, and make this, through their combined efforts, an essentially cheerful record in an era of angry, slashing music.
Jackie McLean, an alto player, has been around much longer than his years would indicate, and at various times, in such groups as George Wellington's, could almost be considered to be in partnership with Donald. Pepper Adams shares with Donald the distinctions of being a New Star poll winner and being from Detroit. Wynton Kelly and Art Taylor have been present on several Blue Note LPs, and Sam Jones, an extremely talented young bass player, was one of the reasons for the success of the Cannon ball Adder ley-Miles Davis Somethin' Else LP on Blue Note.
The one standard, "Lover Come Back to Me," is taken at the rapid tempo common to jazz performances. Someday, it may be remembered that this was once a ballad. But there is every reason for it to be swung in this way, as this performance proves.
"Paul's Pal" is by Sonny Rollins, and has the easy, slightly sardonic charm of his best compositions. Sonny is worthy of being placed among the finest jazz composers, and Donald deserves credit for both his choice of the tune and his playing of it.
The remaining four tunes are Donald's own compositions. One of them, "When Your Love Has Gone," is in many ways the best example of his abilities on the LP. In these angry days, it is almost as rare to find a young musician who can play a ballad as to find one who can write one. Without ever resorting to the evasive device of double-timing (which only keeps a ballad from being a ballad), Donald, for the only time on the record without the benefit of the other two horns, gives an extended, emotional, open-horn performance.
Two of the other pieces are "Sudwest Funk" and "Down Tempo." The first takes its name from the name of a Southwest German radio network where, no doubt, the concept of funk has also penetrated by now, and is a well-rooted example of today's idiom. The second is a blues of a quite different nature; a return to the happy, hollering blues of the forties. Both are open, easy performances.
The remaining Donald Byrd composition, the one that gives this album its name, is "Off to the Races." It is a rather fascinating, well-ordered tune taken at a slower tempo than one might expect from the title. Built around a march-tempo motif, it is brilliantly introduced and concluded by Art Taylor. If it is meant that everyone goes off to the races between the arranged portions, that much is certainly true.
As the cover indicates, Donald Byrd, after having suffered in a very short time the ins and outs of popular favor (and it is typical of jazz that happenings which take a great amount of time anywhere else happen quickly within its limits), is finally off to the races himself. This record is enough to make that, rather than a wish or an opinion, a fact.