Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on November 12, 1963.
This unusual set (reissued on CD by Blue Note) was one of the most successful uses of a gospel choir in a jazz context. Trumpeter Donald Byrd and a septet that also includes tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and pianist Herbie Hancock are joined by an eight-voice choir directed by Coleridge Perkinson. The arrangements by Duke Pearson are masterful and one song, "Cristo Redentor," became a bit of a hit. This is a memorable effort that is innovative in its own way, a milestone in Donald Byrd's career.
All Music Guide
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Donald Byrd, when asked about his musical goals a couple of years ago, said: "I'm going to go as far as my emotions, intellect and experience will allow me." Recognizing the corollary need to actively widen and deepen his capacities for musical expression, Donald continually sets himself challenges. His most unique venture so far is this evocative fusion of voices with jazz instrumentalists in a setting which is itself a fresh intertwining of traditional religious feelings with modern, jazz-infused idioms.
Donald has been working toward this album for a number of years. In each of his recent sets, there has been at least one new composition in which Donald has explored his own church background in the context of the way he hears and feels now. There was "Amen" (in Fuego, Blue Note 4026); "Hush" (in Royal Flush, Blue Note 4101); and "Pentecostal Feeling" (in Free Form, Blue Note 4118). Now Donald has felt equipped to undertake an entire album in this vein. It's important to note, however, that this is indeed A New Perspective in terms of a jazz approach to the Afro-American religious heritage. This is not a tongue-in-cheek, oh-how-soulful-l-am session. Nor is it an attempt to somehow mix oldtime religion, rhythm and blues and stomping jazz into a hopeful ride on the best-selling charts.
"I mean this album seriously," Donald emphasizes. "Because of my own background - my father was a Methodist minister - I've always wanted to write an entire album of spiritual-like pieces. The most accurate way I can describe what we were all trying to do is that this is a modern hymnal. In an earlier period, the New Orleans jazzmen would often play religious music for exactly what if was - but with their own jazz textures and techniques added. Now, as modern jazzmen, we're also approaching this tradition with respect and great pleasure."
Donald regards the choral singing in this album as in the tradition - though modernized - of those large spiritual singing groups which used to travel around the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among them were the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Tuskegee Alabama Choir. 'In other words," Donald explains, "the music in this album is basically akin to the spirituals rather than to the later rocking gospel style. As for the absence of words,' he continued, "I couldn't think of the exactly proper words for each piece. Rather than compromise with inadequate images, I used syllables." Thereby, each listener can attach his own text - from whatever writings, religious or otherwise, seem to him to reflect the marrow of each piece.
Donald chose Coleridge Perkinson to direct the eight-voice chorus because of his admiration for Perkinson's broad musical knowledge and flexibility. They had first met in 1952 at the Manhattan School of Music, where both were students. Perkinson has since acquired a sizable reputation as a choral conductor, here and in Europe, as well as a vocal coach. "Coleridge,' Byrd adds, "not only knows most of the classical repertory - instrumental as well as vocal - but he's also an impressive jazz pianist. He still occasionally plays with Max Roach and other former colleagues. Therefore, he seemed exactly right for the bridging of disciplines that was required in this assignment.'
For the arranger, Donald chose Duke Pearson, whose lyrical individuality as pianist and composer have been demonstrated in his Blue Note albums under his own name (Profile, Blue Note 4022; Tender Feelin's, Blue Note 4035). For Duke, this was the first major writing assignment he'd had since coming to New York in 1 959 from his native Atlanta, Georgia. "I had done," Duke recalls, "a considerable amount of writing for various combinations while I was at Clark College in Atlanta and also during the time I free-lanced at home. I never tried anything quite like this before, and I'm pleased at now naturally it all came out."
The chorus for which Duke wrote consisted of four male (two tenors, two basses) and four female (two sopranos, two altos) singers. Most are graduates of Manhattan School of Music. Donald Byrd wrote out the preliminary sketches for each track, and then instructed Duke as to how he wanted them to evolve from that point. "I asked Duke to do the scoring," Donald underlines, "because we've worked so well together. We've collaborated on many tunes, and it's sometimes hard to tell which of us did what sections. Duke writes much better than even he knows. The one basic guide I had for Duke was that the writing had to be vocal, really vocal. And the way to test your scoring is to sing it yourself. If, in singing it, the line is too long or the intervals are too tricky, you have to change them. I wanted the parts to feel natural for the singers."
"And what happened," adds Herbie Hancock, another close associate of Donald, "is that the music, to a considerable degree, played itself on the date."
"From my point of view," Donald continued, "I think all writing should sing, including writing for instruments. I always try to play in a vocal manner. For me, that's much more vital than showing how fast or high I can play. In this set, it was particularly important that my playing be vocalized because of the function I wanted the trumpet to perform. For three months before we recorded, I got up at six every Sunday morning and listened for three hours to the religious programs on WLIB in New York so that I coula get back into the swing of this music. And what my trumpet occasionally does here is to take on the role of the minister who is sometimes preaching and shouting over the congregation. The congregation in this case consists of the instrumentalists and the chorus.
Elijah is named after Donald Byrd's father. The music itself though does not characterize the usual service at his father's church as Donald was growing up. "We had those Methodist hymnals," Donald recalls, "which were based on English tunes and Lutheran adaptations of drinking songs and that sort of thing. But once in a white, when one of the older visiting ministers came through Detroit, we would abandon the formal hymnal and really go into the traditional, Southern spirituals that were first sung during slavery. It's the latter quality, rather than the sound of the formal Methodist hymnal, that I tried to get into Elijah."
Keeping the spirit buoyant and mellowly joyful is Kenny Burrell, followed by Donald Best, a resourceful vibist whom Donald found at the Manhattan School of Music. After Hank Mobley's own preacher-like solo, Donald takes over the pulpit with assurance and contagious warmth. The emphatic piano witnessing is by the increasingly forceful and personal Herbie Hancock; and in a strikingly exclamatory close, the chorus returns triumphantly.
In the Bible, the beast of burden is the mule. "The title of this one," says Donald, "came, therefore, from the slow, shuffling type of beat that characterizes the piece.' After the undulatingly relaxed choral singing, the band enters playing modern, close harmony under Donald's simple melody; and the effect is refreshingly intriguing. Donald's own solo is one of his most distilled lyrical statements on record. Donald Best is again fluently inventive; and Hank Mobley, like Donald Byrd before him, avoids all excess ornamentation. His message is direct and spontaneous. The same intensity and clarity mark Herbie Hancock's lithe solo.
Duke Pearson wrote "Cristo Redentor" (Portuguese for "Christ The Redeemer") as a result of an experience he had in Brazil in 1961 while he was touring South America with Nancy Wilson. "Coming into Rio," Duke notes, "you see Corcovado peak with its huge white statue of Christ. That sight led me to write this composition right away. I'd never felt that close to religion before." The melody is uncommonly airborne and reflects the awakening of wonder. Donald sustains and deepens the soaring combination of serenity and depth of feeling in the piece. Note here, as throughout the album, the alertness and stimulating taste of Herbie Hancock's accompaniment patterns.
Donald Byrd's "Black Disciple" is one result of the research he's been doing on African rhythms, a project which has led him into correspondence with musicologists in Africa who have sent him recordings and other material. The impetus for this particular composition, however, came from a Folkways recording of a tribe in the Congo. "The rhythms fascinated me," says Donald, "particularly because of their nervous insistency." Within the framework, therefore, of a modern hymnal based on Afro-American traditions, this is an arresting attempt by Donald to adapt African rhythms to his own diversified musical experiences. The rhythm section communicates the appropriately restless turbulence, and there are heated solos by Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Herbie Hancock, and Lex Humphries. The title, incidentally, refers to the one black monarch among the three Kings who came to Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.
Duke Pearson's "Chant" involves imaginative use of choral inversions; and along with shifting colors, the piece has on engaging quality of relaxed fulfillment - a reeling communicated in their distinctive ways by Donald, Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell, Herbie Hancock, and the supple chorus.
As a result of the satisfaction felt by all the participants in this unusual joining of forces, Donald Byrd is preparing another vocal album. He is also a newly accepted pupil of Nadia Boulanger, with whom he is studying in the summer of 1963. Byrd will then stay a year in Europe for a private instruction in conducting and composition. Already having earned an M.A. from the Manhattan School of Music, Donald is also working on his doctorate in music education from Columbia University. During the 1962-63 academic year, he taught at New York's High School of Music and Art. Simultaneously, he planned this album and other projects and continued his research into American history.
Considering his credo- "I'm going to go as far as my emotions, intellect and experience will allow me" - Donald Byrd is certain to be a formidable figure in American music in the years ahead. And not only in jazz.