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JazzTimes 10: Essential Donald Byrd Recordings

Highlights from the catalog of an underrecognized trumpet great

9. Donald Byrd, “The Onliest” (Getting Down to Business; Landmark, 1989)

After disappearing down the crossover R&B rabbit hole in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Byrd disappeared from the music scene entirely for several years to focus on teaching (he’d earned his Ph.D. in 1982), years during which he apparently didn’t even practice much on the horn. He made a comeback in the late ‘80s, making music clearly inclined in the acoustic direction that the “Young Lions” had brought back. By 1989’s Getting Down to Business, made with fellow elder Joe Henderson, then mid-career Al Foster, and several of the aforementioned Young Lions (Kenny Garrett, Donald Brown, Peter Washington), Byrd had brought his chops back up to snuff. He brings brilliant figures and a quite daring harmonic conception to his original “The Onliest,” gladly taking on the younger generation’s complex harmonic language and speaking it with ease—and easy swing. At least, Byrd makes it sound easy, though it’s clear how hard his bandmates (including Henderson) are working to make it so. Byrd was back.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.