The Blue Note 4000 Project: 4007 – Donald Byrd, Off to the Races (1959)

Catalog Number: Blue Note 4007 – Previous | Next

    Donald Byrd (tp), Jackie McLean (as), Pepper Adams (bs), Wynton Kelly (p), Sam Jones (b), Art Taylor (d)

    Cover photo: Francis Wolff
    Design: Reid Miles
    Liner notes: Joe Goldberg

    Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, December 21, 1958.

    Originally released March 1959

    Date(s) first heard: January 26-27, 2021 (Apple Music)

    My Take

    I first became aware of Donald Byrd more than 25 years ago through his involvement on Guru’s Jazzmatazz records. The late rapper’s deep respect for jazz was evident on these records. And because I’ve always been a listener who has checked out the influences of the performers I’ve enjoyed, looking into Byrd was supposed to be a given. But time has a way of running away from you if you get distracted. Which is a long-winded way of saying that Donald Byrd has been on my musical to-do list for far too long.

    Obviously, he’s played with everybody, so I’ve heard him many times on other peoples records. But this is the first time I ever listened to one of his own albums is its entirety. It’s almost (?) embarrassing to write that sentence. But even a long journey begins with a single step and…blah blah blah. I’ll just say that I am very pleased to have a lot more Donald Byrd records in my immediate musical future.

    You probably won’t hear this unless you listen to a lot of jazz, but Byrd’s tone is unique among his contemporaries. On the continuum between swagger (Lee Morgan) and intimacy (Miles Davis), Byrd is just slightly closer to the Miles end. Maybe Clifford Brown with a just a suggestion of late ’50s Miles airiness? Ultimately, none of these distinctions are very important. He has a beautiful tone and he plays with intelligence and emotion throughout.

    The other horns complement each other well. Pepper Adams often sounding like he was shot out of a cannon. Jackie seemingly in the process of finding his mature sound, relying less on the blazing Bird licks that he regularly turned to even just a year or two earlier. Sometimes sounding like he’s search for something.

    Side note: I wonder what Jackie McLean and Byrd would have said if you’d told them that within 10 years, they’d record well over 20 Blue Note between them. In retrospect, we can say that this was the start of the most artistically fruitful decade of both men’s careers. But no one could know that at the time, for nothing is ever as inevitable as hindsight would make it appear.

    TL;DR: Hard bop played well. Nothing very memorable, but an important step in the right direction for the major players involved.

    Best track: “Down Tempo.”

    Miscellaneous: With a Blue Note discography spanning 20 years and two dozen releases, this was Donald Byrd’s first time as session leader for the label.

    Sick looking Mercedes on the cover.

    2 thoughts on “The Blue Note 4000 Project: 4007 – Donald Byrd, Off to the Races (1959)

    1. I was originally drawn to this album solely on the strength of the album art. As much as I want to love album with amazing album art like this, I agree, I like it, don’t love it. Aside from your favorite, my other two favorites are the opener and “Off to the Races” (I love the timing of the transition to “Down Tempo”). I’m embarrassed to say that after years of hearing this album, I never knew McLean was on it…crazy how I his playing never caught my attention enough for me to investigate…listening at this very moment, it’s definitely his tone.

      PS: If Morgan and Byrd diverged eventually, I challenge anyone to listen to BLP 1540, “Hank Mobley with Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan” and easily tell Morgan apart from Byrd. I still can’t without the aid of the liner notes!


      1. I checked out the first tune on 1540 and correctly identified LM on his first solo. Maybe a fluke, but I heard him play a line that sounded too “Lee Morganish” for it not to be him! 🙂


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