The Eric Byrd Trio plays gospel classics like jazz on “Saints Are Still Marching”


For their eighth recording in 20 years, The Eric Byrd Trio presents nine gospel classics in the style of jazz. The result of the ensemble melding styles is the creation of a traditional-sounding third genre. There are no gimmicks, only the celebration of a genre with a higher calling.

About The Eric Byrd Trio

The group consists of pianist/vocalist Eric Byrd, bassist Bhagwan Khalsa and drummer Alphonso Young, Jr. The three have been described as “enthusiastic ambassadors of jazz.” They have traveled the world playing their straightforward and energetic compositions.

While the three are firmly rooted in the traditions of swing and be-bop, they also appreciate gospel and soul music as the core of what they do in jazz. The trio is also part of a larger, eight-piece band they call “The Eric Byrd Trio: Brother Ray Band,” in honor of soul icon Ray Charles.

Each member of The Eric Byrd Trio has an extensive backgrounds in professional jazz performance and have advanced degrees in various musical fields that perhaps enable their fluidity between genres, while maintaining their jazz roots. The trio members are also educators who are well-qualified to pass along their knowledge of jazz to students.

With graduate degrees in Music History, African American Music and Jazz Performance, they frequently give clinics in music history, jazz and the relationship between spirituals/gospel, blues and jazz.

The group members have performed with some of the most recognizable names in jazz, gospel and soul. Wynton Marsalis, David “Fathead” Newman, Yolanda Adams, Buck Hill among others.

“Saints Are Still Marching”: The Eric Byrd Trio

This is not the first recording to meld the sound of sacred music with more popular forms. However, this is arguably the most successful of recent years. The success comes from a mix of aspects. The specific songs chosen, the style in which they are played and the verve that the group gives each song, all make the songs on “Saints Are Still Marching” enthralling to hear.

Typically on tribute albums, or recordings of cover songs, it is customary to see the original artist given credit. However, a few of the songs on “Saints Are Still Marching,” are in the public domain. While this might not seem important on the surface, what it means is that the songs are of certain age, and that there is a certain amount of access associated with them.

Anyone who has visited, or grown up in a black American church will be familiar with the songs The Eric Byrd Trio presents. “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” among others, are treated to a mix of jazz and soul. Bass notes from the piano and the acoustic bass add gravity to songs intended for sacred purposes. Another nice touch is Byrd’s singing. In addition to his piano duties, when vocals are required on this recording, he provides them. On each track, Byrd’s vocal stylings sound trained, yet expressive.

The standout tracks are “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” When listening to the vocals, audiences familiar with certain performance quirks might find themselves bracing against them. But Byrd doesn’t fall into them. Among the most problematic of said quirks is unnecessary frills in the form of high notes at the end of vocal lines. Without such, the tracks take on new life.

“Blessed Assurance,” though an instrumental here, brings to life the words of blind 19th century poet and composer, Fanny Crosby. The vocal line in the song is replicated in the piano line, but the effect is smooth, not strident. Listeners familiar with the song will find themselves able to sing or hum along if they choose.

“I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” is a staple of the black American worship experience, appearing in Methodist and Baptist hymnals regularly. The song is essentially a dirge, and when sung properly, should send a chill through listeners. And that is what happens here.

Some of the songsĀ  on “Saints Are Still Marching” begin traditionally, and then the jazz and soul elements are woven in as songs continue. This is an interesting approach that adds texture to each piece.

“Saints Are Still Marching” sounds like a success. The Eric Byrd Trio never stops sounding like a jazz band, but the group’s fluency in the languages of gospel and soul music helps to highlight the songs’ original purpose.





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