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October 15, 2012 6:03 pm
The Blackbyrds’ first flush was in the early 1970s, when dancers demanded instrumental virtuosity alongside well-crafted rhythms. Behind the scenes, disconsolate out-of-work saxophonists and discarded modern jazz trumpeters had teamed up with funky young rhythm sections and honed floor-filling, cutting edge grooves. With vocals sidelined to sing-along chants, it was a last throw of the dice for instrumental jazz to cross into something approaching a mass market. And, 40 years on, early records by Kool and the Gang and Brass Construction still retain their bite.
The Washington DC-based Blackbyrds scored half a dozen hits and a decade in the top flight – but their back-story has a twist. Far from being seasoned veterans of a dying jazz circuit, the band were youthful protégés of an established jazz heavyweight, trumpeter Donald Byrd, and early records twinned instrumental nous with new-generation cool. Once established – “Do it Fluid” did the trick – their vocals became more sophisticated, but they never lost their reliance on a well-turned solo.
As one would expect, this gig wisely book-ended more recent material with their long-established and much-sampled repertoire. Three of the original members remain – drummer/leader Keith Killgo, bassist Joe Hall and guitarist Orville Saunders – and there are now two stand-alone vocalists, both itching to deliver the decorated inflections and laid-back vibes of contemporary R&B.
But the reliance on instrumental prowess remains intact and at this gig, with showmanship cut to the core, it was a strength. There were long introductions – Keith Killgo’s warpath drum solo a classic crowd-raiser – and extended high-point instrumental breaks. The much-used lone trumpeter was brash, strong in the upper register and full of be-bop inflection, and the piano solos, delivered by a Mumfords look-alike, were deep-toned highlights. Even the vocalists’ showcases stood out for their improviser’s flair.
And at the heart were the insidious beats, hooky chants and downbeat inflections of the group’s original hits, the sing-along “Walking on Rhythm” – with smoky muted trumpet and the original synth line – “Happy Music” and “Rock Creek Park”. Sounding fresh and playing with purpose, The Blackbyrds sidestepped the heritage trap and deserved their re-call, though more audience contact would raise their game.
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