R&B, Blues, Soul & Stax

Handpicked Soul

18 JAN 13 DAVID SHANNON

Imagine being asked to start a rock act with Slash, or forming a vocal harmony group with Stephen Stills, or putting together a jazz combo with Dizzy Gillespie. That's what happened with D.C.'s The Blackbyrds, an R&B, jazz-funk group brought together by trumpet great -- and distinguished university music instructor -- Donald Byrd.

In 1973, Byrd recruited a few of his best music students at Howard University and the group signed to Fantasy Records the same year, charting a number of singles between 1974 and 1981. Fantasy Records compiled their best love songs on the 2007 release, Lovebyrds: Soft & Easy, a collection of mostly instrumental ballads that stand out for their sheer musicality and easy, catchy vibe.

Most of the songs here are lively, jazz-tinged instrumentals with rhythmic hooks and memorable melodies. Sprinkled throughout are more mainstream R&B tunes featuring the falsetto of drummer and vocalist Keith Killgo, who went on to have a long and successful songwriting and producing career.

Keyboardist Kevin Toney, who supplied the reverbed keys for the Blackbyrds, eventually produced and arranged for artists including Isaac Hayes and Michael McDonald. Bassist Joe Hall became a composer and cataloger of breakbeats, while sax player Allan C. Barnes played with marquee names such as Gil Scott-Heron and Wilson Pickett. Guitarist Barney Perry also kept writing music and releasing albums. Playing with Byrd bestowed the group's members with a pedigree that opened many other musical doors. Being handpicked by a player and teacher of Byrd's caliber will do that.