From a quick glance at his discography, you could be forgiven for not realising the importance American guitarist Charlie Byrd played in the evolution of jazz. Because whilst Stan Getz may get most of the acclaim when it comes to the 1960s Bossa Nova craze, it would probably not have existed without the guitarist from Virginia…
Stay tuned to find out why, via our round up of 8 essential Charlie Byrd albums.
Born on September 16, 1925, Charlie Byrd was one of four brothers who were all musicians. He was taught to play the acoustic steel guitar by his father, developing an early affinity for Django Reinhardt which touched his music, to some extent, for the rest of his career.
After a brief spell in Paris during World War II, he immersed himself in both the worlds of jazz (at Harnett National Music School in Manhattan) and classical (with guitarist Andrés Segovia in Washington), showing the broad open-mindedness which would lead to his future successes…
By 1957, aged 32, his extended studies were apparently over and he embarked on a recording career which spanned 5 decades until his death in 1999. We pick up the story there with a selection of his most important albums, including the one which brought jazz and Brazilian music crashing together…
Jazz Recital (Savoy – 1957)
The earliest recording of Charlie Byrd, Jazz Recital is a fascinating listen for how he brings his classical leanings and (to quote the album cover) his “Spanish guitar” into a jazz context.
Whilst not always an unadulterated success (the hook-up with the band sometimes sounds a little uneasy), his solo versions of ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Spring Is Here’ are delightful. Coupled with a hard-swinging demonstration on ‘Homage to Charlie Christian’ this album is definitely worth checking out for these tracks alone.
The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd (Original Jazz Classics – 1960)
This recording showcases a more matured Byrd, confidently intertwining his classical roots with jazz. The synergy with the band, especially with bassist Keter Betts, shines through, marking a harmonious collaboration.
Byrd’s tribute to Reinhardt in ‘Nuages’ and ‘Django’ is deeply expressive, while his renditions of jazz standards like the swinging ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’, the soothing ‘Speak Low’, and the evocative ‘Moonlight In Vermont’ demonstrate his versatility.
This Charlie Byrd album is a testament to his artistry, meriting a keen listen.
Jazz Samba (Verve – 1962)
Jazz Samba was the breakthrough album for Byrd, and for the Bossa Nova style of jazz as a whole. Whilst Stan Getz is often the posterboy for the craze, it would likely not have happened without Byrd…
The guitarist had just returned from a State-sponsored diplomatic tour of South America when he bumped into Getz at the Showboat Lounge where he had a regular gig. He invited Getz to his house to check out some Bossa recordings he’d picked up in Brazil by João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Getz fell in love with the music and co-led the Jazz Samba album which was released by Verve in 1962. While most will associate the album with the tenor saxophonist, it was Byrd who kicked off the project and arranged the music.
Two tracks from the album were released as singles, ‘Desafinado’ (which translates as Off Key or Out of Tune) and ‘Samba de Uma Nota Só’ (which more often goes under the English title of ‘One Note Samba’).
Stan Getz would win a Grammy for his performance on ‘Desafinado’, but this should not take anything away from some of Byrd’s finest playing on record.
Solo Flight (Original Jazz Classics – 1965)
From his very first release, Charlie Byrd showed he was one of those rare musicians who can sound at their best alone. Solo Flight is a wonderful way to experience Charlie Byrd’s playing in this format; it’s lyrical and full of interest as he ‘accompanies’ himself through a less-than-obvious selection of material.
Highlights include a superb version of Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ as well as a brave choice in a gently swinging rendition of Neil Hefti’s ‘Li’l Darlin’’.
Byrd By the Sea (Fantasy – 1974)
Whilst we can usually tell a musician’s influences through their playing, it’s probably not always as revealing as ‘Byrd by the Sea’ which couples Jobim’s ‘Meditation’ and ‘Concerto in G’ by classical composer Vivaldi with some classic jazz material.
It’s perhaps the inclusion of his brother Joe Byrd on bass that helps Charlie sound completely at home on this trio record.
The standout tracks are a fiercely swinging ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and a tongue in cheek ‘Salty Dog Blues’.
Moments Like This (Concord – 1994)
Fast-forward 20 years and we hit one of our favourite later Charlie Byrd albums that has a rather unusual line up of guitar, clarinet, bass and vibes and drums (both played by Chuck Redd).
It’s very much ‘anti-clutter’ with clarinettist Ken Peplowski lean and economical in his playing as the frontman.
One of the most sympathetic line-ups that the guitarist has found himself in, this is simply top flight small group jazz.
As a selected highligh, Byrd’s affinity with all things Ellington is captured in a perfectly balanced and nuanced ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ which is highly recommended listening!
My Inspiration: Music of Brazil (Concord – 1999)
More than three decades after Jazz Samba put Byrd, Getz and the whole of Ipanema Beach on the map, Concord Records cooked up the major label trick of revisiting that material.
As the title suggests, My Inspiration: Music of Brazil takes Byrd back to some of the his favourite bossa nova tunes.
Chuck Redd is again present on vibes (his presence with the guitar is most pleasing) and Scott Hamilton makes a guest appearance on half the tracks; his classic Getz-inspired tenor sound blends so well with Byrd’s gentle lines and does almost transport us back to 1962.
For Louis (Concord – 1999)
Recorded just three months before his death, this delightful set has the the guitarist in fine fettle.
Bossa nova and Louis Armstrong are not a combination that immediately springs to mind, but Charlie Byrd’s gentle romp through ‘Struttin’ with Some Barbecue’ alongside trumpeter Joe Wilder is swinging, whilst a tender ‘Autumn In New York’ with soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson is quite beautiful.
The whole band finally get together for a fitting performance of ‘Remembering Louis Armstrong’.
In true jazz style, Charlie Byrd was not just active but prolific until the very end. As this brief excursion through his repertoire shows, he was a fascinating talent with an ability to bring together styles and musicians around his classical-tinged acoustic guitar playing.
If, like us, you’re keen to delve deeper into the work of this legendary guitarist, you have more than 60 albums to choose from, not counting his work as a sideman!
We hope this article and the eight classics we’ve picked will provide a great springboard from which to do that!