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Fuego (1959)

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Lex Humphries

Fuego -- a title that might be somewhat misleading -- is the final Blue Note recording exclusively pairing Donald Byrd with Jackie McLean, a fruitful partnership that set the yin of the (in this case) restrained trumpeter, against the yang of the tart and extroverted alto saxophonist. While not quite a unified whole, the two were involved in turf battles that were based on mutual respect, here exuding a quieter fire that toned down McLean and muted Byrd to attain an intriguing harmonic balance. Duke Pearson's clever piano in the middle, with Doug Watkins playing bass and favored drummer Lex Humphries, made for one of the more diverse sounds in modern jazz circa 1959-1960. Of course hard bop is at the core of this band, but Byrd is moving further into post-bop, as served up heartily by the two horns during the modal, rambling, and staggered theme of the title selection. It's more a cool flame than burning inferno, as the drum inserts of Humphries fill the cracks of the horns' bluesy ideas. "Bup-A-Loup" is a harder bop theme, with distinct staccato accents identifying the melody priming McLean's quintessential solo. "Low Life" also takes into account the burgeoning original soul-jazz aesthetic in a jaunty mood that parallels the Bobby Timmons evergreens "Dis Here" and "Dat Dere." As Byrd's father was a preacher, "Amen" pays tribute to the spirit-soul in a gospel shuffle straight from the pulpit with some static drum accents. "Lament" is not the J.J. Johnson standard, but a light, soul-jazz original with ultimate feeling, depth, and sophistication -- a real beauty. The title "Funky Mama" fools you a bit into thinking it is a typical soul-jazz number, while it is, in fact, a long, striding, loping, cushy, and dusky blues, very patient and elegant, embellished by McLean's singing alto. This is where Pearson in particular shines, wringing out all of the combined pain and joy so prevalent in the styles of previous masters like Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner, and Tommy Flanagan. On the front cover, a contemplative Donald Byrd is depicted, perhaps pondering his next move and his band five years after successfully joining the New York City jazz scene from his native Detroit. It also represents his thoughtful role in Fuego, as he takes a break from forceful interaction to play a more democratic role on this refined and mature album that is less brash, a prelude for his more powerful statements yet to come. ~ Michael G. Nastos