WBGO Radar

Donald Byrd & Pepper Adams: Motor City Scene

Motor City Scene

The “Motor City Scene” captured on this wonderful reissue of Bethlehem Records’ 1960 LP was actually in New York. For it was in the Big Apple that these six young musicians from Detroit were making their mark on jazz.

The oldest – baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and pianist Tommy Flanagan - were scarcely thirty, and at twenty-three, drummer Louis Hayes was the youngest; trumpeter Donald Byrd, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and bassist Paul Chambers were all in their twenties. All found music in the Motor City, then found their way to New York, after army stints in Korea for several of them.

In their teens, Adams, Flanagan and Burrell played together in a Detroit big band led by tenor man Lucky Thompson; Chambers, Byrd and Burrell all graduated from the music program at Cass Technical High School. So by the time of this session, they had more than a decade of shared experience, and an intuitive musical intimacy and ease which belies the session’s relaxed mood, and is immediately apparent on tracks such as “Star Dust” and “Philson.”

The session was called by Gus Wildi, the young Swiss immigrant who founded Bethlehem Records in 1953, two years after his arrival in New York, and ran it for nine years. Wildi promised listeners “micro cosmic sound” on his recordings, and gave artists free rein; among the musicians Wildi recorded in this span were Charles Mingus, Carmen McRae, Duke Ellington and Dexter Gordon. Like most of Bethlehem's LPs, this album features wonderful original artwork by Burt Goldblatt.

“Trio” is a spirited day at the races between Burrell and Adams, and “Libeccio” showcases the group’s unusual combination of timbres. “Bitty Ditty” showcases Flanagan’s piano and the inimitable sound of bassist Paul Chambers at his prime. All tracks feature the warm, minimalist quality of the original recording, which lives up to its original billing as “high fidelity” and is carefully remastered here.

At twenty-eight, Byrd was one of the busiest trumpeters in jazz, having arrived in New York in the early fifties and joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers as replacement for Clifford Brown. With dozens of sessions for labels such as Savoy and Prestige under his belt, he first teamed with Adams for a Riverside recording in 1958. The pair then co-led a hard-driving quintet which recorded six sessions for Blue Note over the next decade, which were reissued as a box set by Mosaic in 2000.

We are fortunate that this Bethlehem session has come back to light, as it offers a relaxed counterpoint to the Blue Note sessions, and it has been re-presented with great care by the folks at Naxos, who plan to roll out dozens of titles from the label’s long-dormant catalog in coming months, including albums by John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Booker Ervin. 

It captures these Motor City musicians’ youthful enthusiasm and and joy for their chosen craft in a way that is truly timeless.

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    - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

 

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