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Free Form by Donald Byrd

This 1961 effort found trumpeter Donald Byrd in new territory, at least for that time in his musical growth. Though in general the concept of finding himself in new territory was not foreign, this, as the title piece indicates, found the hard bop icon wandering further afield than usual. The opening piece, however, finds him in wholly familiar territory. His "Pentacostal Feeling" is akin to a Cannonball Adderley piece, infused as it is with a wedding of the church and the funky grooves popular on the street at the time. His extended solo is followed by an equally impressive stretch by a young Wayne Shorter that gives way to an inventive Herbie Hancock section. On the following Hancock-penned "Night Flower," on which Byrd’s clarity of tone is simply magnificent, the feel is that of an Easy Street blues. Again, all parties are nothing less than magnificent. The solid bass and drum work from Butch Warren and Billy Higgins anchors the front line brilliantly, as they do throughout. Byrd’s "Nai Nai" has an almost nursery rhyme feel to it, though the horns take it to the stratosphere. On "French Spice," composer Byrd voices the horns and piano in such a manner as to highlight each player’s chops even as the piece allows ample stretching room. Shorter is dazzling here and Byrd is brilliant in his intelligent and probing exploration of the tune’s parameters. Higgins drives the piece with a steady beat and steady eye for the bends in the compositional road. The extended title piece, clocking in a just over 11 minutes, is the centerpiece for its ability to look into every corner, every aspect of the possibilities of the piece. There is no sense of anchoring to convention here. As the title makes crystal clear, this is an exploratory piece that each player invests their impressive musical ear and execution in completely. Hancock, Shorter, Higgins and Warren are partners rather than foils to Byrd. Each is imbued with the courage of their youth at the time and though they have each been at least as adventurous throughout their careers, this was a special assemblage. Hancock and Higgins are particularly risk-taking on the piece, though Byrd’s stratospheric exhortations are extraordinary in both their plotting and performance. Shorter takes a road not frequently taken, as well. The results are breathtaking and makes one anxious for more. The closing number, added to the CD reissue, is Hancock’s "Three Wishes." As impressive as the piece is, it might have benefited from insertion in the space in front of the title piece rather than behind. Regardless, the whole of the set is a minor masterpiece in the Byrd canon.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Donald Byrd
  • CD Title: Free Form
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Reissue Original Release: 1961
  • Record Label: Blue Note
  • Rating: Four Stars
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