The Records You Didn’t Know You Needed- - - #5:Charlie Byrd at The Village Vanguard—Offbeat 93008, Riverside 9452

In June 2020, Analog Planet published my article on the great audio engineer, David Jones’ Living Legends Riverside recordings of Black Traditional Jazz in New Orleans during the last week of January 1961. While researching the article, by checking records in my collection I compiled a list of Riverside albums for which Jones had been credited or co-credited as engineer.

When I pulled out this album, I immediately thought, “I remember this one. It’s a great Jones recording” and was ready to put it on the list, until I found that the record didn’t include an engineering credit. After listening I became even more convinced that Jones had recorded it.

Reference works list the recording date as January 15, 1961. Jones was hired, probably at the end of 1960, to do the Living Legends recordings and he left New York for New Orleans on January 20, 1961. It does not seem unreasonable to me to surmise that Riverside in January, 1961 either hired him for two projects or they needed someone to record Byrd at The Vanguard and their staff engineer, Ray Fowler, was unavailable, so they gave the job to Jones, who was.

On June 25, 1961, Jones recorded the jazz and audiophile classic Bill Evans Trio LPs; Sunday At The Vanguard and . The Charlie Byrd Trio recording at the Vanguard, five months earlier, while wonderful in its own right, I think, served Jones as a practice run through. When it came time to record Evans, Jones was familiar with the room and knew how to record in it a quiet trio. In 1984, Orrin Keepnews, co-owner of Riverside, wrote of the Evans recordings, “…our staff engineer, Ray Fowler, was not on hand, perhaps on vacation. (His replacement was Dave Jones, one of the best at ‘live’ location recordings in that two-track era…)” It’s purely speculation, but maybe Fowler wasn’t on vacation at all and Keepnews or his partner Bill Grauer, who was an admirer of Jones’ work, decided based on the Byrd Vanguard recordings, that Jones was the ideal choice for the job.

Charlie Byrd (1925-1999) was nearly unique among jazz guitarists in that he played a classical guitar, fingerstyle. For jazz in 1961, his music was unusual and eclectic, little touched by be-bop, but heavily influenced by his classical guitar studies with Segovia, the folk, country and blues music he heard growing up in Virginia, swing era jazz and the music of Django Reinhardt.

In January 1961, Byrd was trying to establish a career outside his home base of Washington D.C. where he had recorded for a local label and this was his second appearance at the Vanguard and his first recording for the Riverside subsidiary, Offbeat. The following year in 1962, he achieved enormous commercial success when he convinced Stan Getz to collaborate on the LP Jazz Samba which introduced Bossa Nova to the U.S. and made #1 on the Billboard Pop Chart.

The music Byrd and his trio (Keter Betts, bass and Buddy Deppenschmidt drums) played at the Vanguard was not in 1961at the forefront of developments in jazz the way John Coltrane’s own Live At The Village Vanguard session, recorded nine months later with Eric Dolphy was in its incorporation of modal and free playing. Byrd’s music however was innovative in broadening jazz by incorporating non-jazz influences.

On Side1, Byrd beautifully plays three standard tunes, displaying his stunning classical technique, while almost totally avoiding the bebop styled harmonic improvisation that Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell had brought to jazz guitar. Instead, Byrd improvises melodically using classical figures, hints of Flamenco, folk and blues melodies and some Django chords.

Hard swinging is not his forte and his playing has some of the stiffer rhythmic feel of country music. Playing jazz standards makes for inevitable comparison and it’s clear that Byrd is his own type of jazz guitarist, playing with a fresh, pretty, folk-tinged melodic sense that can make “Why Was I Born?”, a Jerome Kern melody, sound a bit like Django playing a mountain ballad.

On Side 2, “Fantasia On Which Side Are You On?” is over twenty minutes long and takes up the whole side. Although the liner notes claim that “Which Side Are You On” is a folk tune, actually, it was a union organizing song, written in 1931 by the wife of a union activist and first recorded by Pete Seeger and The Almanac Singers. Byrd’s “Fantasia…” takes the simple, minor key melody, places it over a root and the fifth bass figure, and he and the trio improvise and make out of such basic materials, a performance of complexity and changing moods. Byrd’s playing begins dark toned, ominous and, for him, unusually aggressive rhythmically, playing some hard charging chords over Betts’ superb bass playing. About halfway through his solo, he begins picking at and below the bridge, producing the effect of a plaintive, chiming melody against the still hard grooving bass and drums. Betts plays a beautiful, melodic solo with an appropriate in context, near quote of the gospel tune “Eyes On the Prize” and then there’s a drum solo that hints at Indian rhythms with brushes and cowbell before they take it out with Byrd’s playing, now mournful with dramatic Flamenco flourishes.

The piece has an open, spacey, hypnotic quality that was very unusual for jazz or any other music in 1961, but in 1968, wouldn’t have seemed out of place at a Grateful Dead Fillmore West show. The “Fantasia”’s improvisatory mixture of folk, jazz, Indian music, classical and blues was innovative and influential. Soon after, the sadly little recorded Sandy Bull and then many others, including Oregon, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and countless jam bands began playing music in a similar freewheeling, anything goes in the pot style.

Sonically, this is a great recording. In the David Jones article, I detailed at some length, his techniques and “sound”. The soundstage perspective is from the first or second row of tables so that the music is happening in front of us and the instruments “breathe” in the room. Byrd’s guitar notes sound individually picked, clearly coming from the sound hole of a wooden instrument with the overtones hanging above it in the air. The bass is deep and full, the leading edge of the notes emphasized when Betts starts swinging harder. The drums are magnificently recorded. The cymbals are easily distinguishable from each other and the overtones musically ring out. The bass drum is not only deep but sounds dynamic and percussive. Imaging is ultra-sharp. At the beginning of the record, Byrd introduces “Squeeze Me” and he counts it off, snapping his fingers and the snaps move through space as he lowers his hand to the guitar. The familiar sound of the Vanguard is fully present, and a few coughs and talkers can be heard that will draw your special “dirty look”.

At The Vanguard was originally issued on Offbeat in 1961 and reissued on parent label, Riverside in 1963 after Byrd and Getz hit #1 on the Pop chart. It’s been reissued many times since on LP and CD. I haven’t heard the Offbeat pressing. The 1963 Riverside press sounds magnificent and clean copies can be purchased for very reasonable prices (I fully concur with Mr. Washek’s sonic assessment of this wonderful album_ed).

firedog's picture

Edition of this sounds great. It's that good a recording.

Trevor_Bartram's picture

..unheralded recording engineers get a mention. During a ten year period Newbury Comics had batches OJC (& OBC) warehouse cutouts priced at $4 or $6. I would pick up anything when I recognized the artist or recording engineer. That's how I came by this outstanding Charlie Byrd recording (and several of his others). Good times. Highly recommended.

garyalex's picture

It's everything you say. It's not only a superb recording but the music is wonderful. Listening to this gem makes it clear that Charlie had chosen to begin exploring bossa nova and other Brazilian music. For me, side two is hypnotic. It's so easy to just lose yourself in the rhythms and chords. I found out about this remarkable recording in an Art Dudley review. Just one of the many things I learned from Art, may he rest in peace.

xtcfan80's picture

Yes...great LP. Saw Byrd live with the Great Guitars Charlie Byrd / Barney Kessel / Herb Ellis back in the 1970s and 1980s...Three of the tastiest guitars ever. Still have some video kicking around somewhere as my buddy filmed the show in K.C. for a local TV station.

Paul Boudreau's picture

Thanks, I wasn’t aware of this one. He had a club in DC that didn’t last long, closing in 1985. I went there once to see Tal Farlow.

Montpier's picture

As always a fine, well balanced and informed review from Mr. Washek.

But for me, Byrd's shortcomings: stiff rhythmic feel, unadventurous harmonic approach and lack of blues feel -- well, let's say I'm not a fan regardless of recording quality. Even Django started to incorporate bebop harmonic ideas (and electric guitar) in his later recordings

Check out YouTube videos of "The Great Guitars" w/Byrd, Ellis and Kessel that xtcfan80 refers to; personally feel that Ellis and especially Kessel are much more accomplished guitarists.

So, if I'd much rather listen to Django, Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow or Johnny Smith 78 era recordings, even on CD than this Byrd album, does this mean I need to return my vinyl audiophile decoder ring?

xtcfan80's picture

So great to have someone mention Johnny Smith. A great guitarist and a true gentleman. I got to meet Johnny a few times here in his adopted home of Colorado Springs. He mentored many Front Range guitarists and all spoke of him with personal and musical reverence...

Montpier's picture

Attempting to better understand music theory during the pandemic so started taking guitar lessons. Have been checking out lots of players I hadn't really listened to closely in the past. Dug out the Mosaic box set of Johnny Smith's Roost sessions and realized how incredible he was. Seems everyone describes him as a gentleman and impeccable player.

Read interview with Bill Frisell where he expresses regret not fully taking advantage of some lessons he had with Smith. Frisell recently recorded a wonderful tribute album with Mary Halvorson, "The Maid with the Flaxen Hair—A Tribute to Johnny Smith" on Zorn's Tzadik label.

Intermediate Listener's picture

Recommended this record in a video interview shortly before he died. Not surprising given his fondness for acoustic guitar. Reissued in Europe (still during the all-analog era) under the title Which Side Are You On?, with different less stylish cover. But sounds fine.

Intermediate Listener's picture

Missed the Art Dudley reference above.

Mark Evans's picture

and later stopped off at a local Chicago record store and found a m- copy of Charlie Byrd in Greenwich Village for $10 (Milestone M-47049, released 1978). This two-fer includes the mentioned At the Village Vanguard and the At the Gate recordings each of which recorded by Dave Jones. Incredible detail, spatial, quiet and flat vinyl for an overall enjoyable listening experience.

jazz's picture

Great record, I agree! I have the wide deep groove Offbeat original and the small deep groove Riverside release as mentioned here, both stereo.

The Offbeat original sounds a bit more direct and immediate, the Riverside a bit more spherical and laid back, rather slightly different (and in another way not less interesting) than worse. If it’s difficult to get the Offbeat, there’s no need to scratch the head, the Riverside is the same kind of great quality and fun.