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Bargain Bin Babylon: Donald Byrd: Places and Spaces

Bargain Bin Babylon: Donald Byrd: Places and Spaces

Bargain bins are calling you to pick up the catalogs of greats like Byrd.

Donald Byrd, along with much of the other big names of ‘70s fusion, is essential bargain bin-core. He played with a laundry list of significant musicians throughout the ‘60s and released a few of his own certified classics (namely A New Perspective and Electric Byrd), but the majority of his massive solo discography remains critically underappreciated. The best of these, like 1972’s Ethiopian Knights and 1973’s Street Lady, masterfully folded funk, disco, soul and world music into jazz, resulting in some of the campiest, sexiest albums to come out of this first wave of fusion. Released in 1975, Places and Spaces is another solid entry in this style. While it’s not a high-point like any of the previously mentioned albums, it’s a nonetheless enjoyable release that can please open-minded fans of both jazz and disco.

At this point, Byrd’s relationship to jazz had grown tangential. His chops and improvisational ideas are still stellar, but neither is a prime focus on Places and Spaces. His playing mostly concerns short little phrases and ad-libs between the choruses and verses, and the bulk of the album focuses on his rhythm section: drummer Harvey Mason, percussionist Mayuto Correa, bassist Chuck Rainey and the twin guitars of Craig McMullen and John Rowin. Whether or not this music sounds like jazz, each of these musicians is clearly steeped in the tradition. Their light and tight group-playing guides these instrumentals, but the band is never so understated as to completely hide their technical proficiency.

To Byrd’s benefit, this self-distancing from hard-edged jazz is met with supremely sticky hooks and Barry White-lush production. Byrd’s music is a little groovier than White’s and less saccharine, but the overall feel is precisely within that high-budget, late-night sound. At its best, this musical approach gives Byrd the perfect platform for his romantic musings. “Dominoes” is one of his finest love songs, anchored by sweeping strings and a funk guitar line that’s played so delicately that it sounds like the pick is barely touching the strings. The closer, a cover of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” doesn’t have the pleasant and mystical nostalgia of the original, but Byrd’s slightly quicker and more loosely-structured version is no poor replica in its downtown reimagining of the soul classic.

Places and Spaces’ title track balances the sentimentality of “(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes” with a separate section of more sinister funk, both of which are carried by a lyrical message that reads as a diminished precursor to Lauryn Hill’s “Every Ghetto, Every City” in its view of America as a vast landscape of a singular people. Given the agreeableness of the music and the sparsity of Byrd’s lyrics, reading too much into a political critique might be stretching. Still, like the gospel hopefulness of A New Perspective, Byrd’s subtle addresses towards his country and culture in this track, or the call-to-arms on the more driving “Change (Makes You Want to Hustle),” do add another dimension to the otherwise apolitical music.

Byrd’s quasi-disco approach on Places and Spaces isn’t flawless, however. “You and Music,” especially with its placement later in the album, starts to feel a bit tired in its smoothness. The vocalists sound weak as well, and the lyrics are almost parodic of ‘70s lovemaking music with their simplistic rhyme scheme: “Perfect rhythm, sweet harmony/ Makes me want to dance/ Makes me want romance/ Puts me in a trance.”For many, the entirety of Places and Spaces exists in this eye-rolling territory. If you have a soft spot in your heart for hyper-clean funk and disco from the ‘70s—as I do—your local thrift stores and bargain bins are calling you to pick up the catalogs of greats like Byrd, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola and Herbie Mann.

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