Donald Byrd is one of my favorite musicians during the 70’s Blue Note era especially. The Detroit native replaced the late,great Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers after a stint in the US Air Force. After launching his career as a band leader in the late 50’s,Byrd’s became Blue Notes equivalent of Miles Davis in terms of transitioning from acoustic bop jazz to fusion. Along the way,he also helped launch one of jazz-funk’s seminal bands in The Blackbyrds. His mid 70’s collaborations with the Mizell brothers Larry and Fonce are actually in a class by themselves too.
Around 12 years ago,I began to listen heavy to both the Blackbyrds and Donald Byrd’s mid 70’s jazz-funk recordings. This came from my dad playing the music of Madlib for me. Now this is a DJ/musician/producer/rapper who loved 70’s Blue Note. And focused a lot on Byrd’s music from that period. It was through DJ/musician Nigel Hall and his radio show at WMEB in Orono,Maine that I learned where to find one of my favorite pieces Madlib had used,since I wasn’t accustomed to first hearing classic funk songs via samples. Turning out that the song in question was the 1974 album title track “Stepping Into Tomorrow”.
A thunder-like sound opens into the song. The main groove is established right away. This is a slow,percussive drum from Harvey Mason,a melody setting bass line from Chuck Rainey,Larry Mizell’s ARP strings and Byrd’s trumpet. As the vocals of Byrd and a trio of female backup singers harmonize on the choruses,a minor chord intro then extends into a series of solos. First Byrd on trumpet,then Gary Bartz’s sax and finally Jerry Peters’ organ. The main chorus/intro/refrain parts repeat to,with a number of psychedelic,synthesized sonics until the song fades out.
“Stepping Into Tomorrow” is one of those truly democratic jazz/funk numbers. Instrumentally,it was a dream team of the finest of jazz/funk players in that area. And each one is performing at some of their finest on this groove. Its a strong enough groove to stand on its own. Yet it can be sampled all on its own in a way that doesn’t destroy its special musical qualities. Its the songs elasticity that represents its strongest quality. While I personally feel original funk songs should be searched for on their own rather than via samples,whatever method one uses to get to this funk will be its own reward.