Review Summary: Only through great musical struggle can you get an album this carefree and easy-going.
Dr. Donald Byrd is a curious case of a truly eclectic musician. In his half a century long career of brilliance he spanned a plethora of styles and influences and spearheaded variety of movements in jazz, funk and adjacent genres. Often unfortunately staying at the background of many of his contemporaries, his unique vision and trumpeting skill nonetheless brought him acclaim within and later outside of jazz circles, eventually becoming one of the most influential musicians of his time (even Herbie Hancock in all his lust for innovation saw Byrd’s craft as guidance). His early work covered a vast array of stylistic subjects, from straightforward jazz, soothing blues, a grand variety of bop projects and experiments and even variations of rhythm ’n’ blues. And after working with and being greatly influenced by many of his august contemporaries like Idrees Sulieman (unjustly forgotten nowadays), Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins to name just the very few, Donald found a new voice just as unique to him as all his previous iterations were. And it was a voice of power and absolute musical finesse.
Come 70s, he had already scoped the stylistic spectrum through and through. His work included influences and homages of all imaginable sorts, from Latin jazz, funk movements to various genre mixtures that ended up becoming his calling card. If you wanted a jazz master who combined classic bop style with quite literally anything that was around, Dr. Byrd was your man. The abundance of his bop ventures is exhilarating, but by this point it was time for him to progress, diversify his portfolio. He already dipped his toes in some danceable fusion music before, but now it was time to bring it all together; the bop, funk, soul, rhythm ‘n’ blues, multicultural tributes and his newly found interest in bringing the music to the roots of African-American culture, the namesake, Africa.
In three tracks and relatively short runtime, the purview of Ethiopian Knights
is encyclopaedic. Every song, even the quick three minute interlude, is instrumentally and in musical homages a menagerie, but one where all the subjects are crammed together. Or it’s a zoo, but a free range one. Or a soup. Or a… nevermind, the point is that Byrd manages an admirable feat of musical fusion, without having to sequester any of the influences or styles. They are clear as day, but symbiotic, complementing and elevating each other. Opening “The Emperor” does not waste its introduction throwing the listeners into compound of groovy intricacies. Production’s surprising clarity immediately strikes, as it gives each instrument room to shine; Byrd’s mesmerising trumpet, Ed Greene’s dynamic drums, fat sexy bass by Wilton Felder, dense sax solos of Harold Lord, Joe Sample’s subtle organ passages and even out of nowhere vibraphone bossed around like a bitch by virtuoso Bobby Hutcherson. These first few moments set you straight and keep you locked until you realise, astonished and bewildered, that shocking fifteen whole minutes have passed. “The Emperor” is a spiritual journey, danceable and wild. Listeners are treated to jazz played like funk, elements of Latin music, whole instrumental sections following individual patterns, but matching perfectly. Donald wanted to make the opener a statement and he damn well succeeded.
What a naïve thought to assume that “Jamie”, the middle track, will offer its short three-minute runtime to breathe and relax after “The Emperor” forced your legs to go into uncontrollable dance craze. It may start off innocently with soothing organ section letting you detox, but the drums swell up and the emotional trumpet leans in. And the song builds and builds until the fade out carries the crescendo away and leads you into eerie drum passage of “The Little Rasti”, the second and last long megalodon on the album. Shamanistic sounds of the drum solo don’t at all prepare you for that thick accompanying bass and psychedelic guitar lead. Immediately the instruments proliferate and raise the intensity. It is a track in testament of easy-going fun. The album’s goal seems to be fun at all costs after all, especially one simultaneously acknowledging the roots of the genre and influences. It may be the hard bop throwback in drumming and brass section, it may be the compositions ecstatic and enrapturing inspired by afrojazz, it may be one of the innumerable other sides of Ethiopian Knights
; one way or another, Byrd’s tribute to musical progress and summery fun in the face of any and all circumstance is heard here more than probably anywhere else at the time. If the world is on fire, Donald Byrd wants you to go tanning. If life is cruel, Ethiopian Knights
want you to laugh in the face of that cruelty. If adversity barricades your moves, dance and have fun on the spot until the barrier crumbles.