Eric Byrd, Piano & Vocals

Pianist/vocalist Eric Byrd has been playing professionally for over 30 years. Along with the principles of swing and be-bop, rousing gospel-tinged chords and trilling blues lines are fundamental elements of his performance style. His improvisations are intense, soulful and romantic; he takes listeners on a joyride as his fingers create magical works of art.

Eric has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Tim Green, Warren Wolf, Jeff Majors, Charlie Byrd, and Yolanda Adams to name a few. Along with his own recordings as a leader, he also appears on over 15 recordings by other artists. A former music professor at McDaniel College where he completed his undergraduate degree, he is now Minister of Music and Worship Leader at St John Baptist Church, a large African American church in the surrounding area of Washington, DC. An in-demand leader and sideman, active in both the jazz and gospel worlds, Eric is the primary composer for the group.

15 Questions for Eric Byrd

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1. Why piano?

The piano is my voice. When I hear, when I sing, experience it through my hands. It’s all I’ve ever known.

2. Why jazz?

I heard the entire Kind of Blue record the summer of my freshman year of college. By the time the record was done playing, I was hooked. That record made me want to be a jazz musician. Period.

3. Why the heavy gospel and blues influences in your style of jazz?

This is my fault! I grew up with that music in my ear. Ray Charles, the Hawkins Family, Mahalia Jackson, BB King— all that music was a part of my early development. It wasn’t until I heard pianist Gene Harris that I felt unashamed to play soulfully in jazz. I mistakenly thought every musician had to be Herbie Hancock to be legit. But Gene could swing, he could play ballads, and he was bluesy. That was perfect for me!

4. What jazz artists do you revere most?

Miles Davis was the catalyst for me. From the root of Miles came the bop, modal, fusion and beyond periods with all the cats that helped make that music great. My oldest son has Miles as a middle name. That should explain a lot.

5. What are your favorite jazz recordings?

Kind of Blue, My Favorite Things, and A Love Supreme.

6. What is the best live jazz performance you've ever witnessed?

Tough question…Roy Haynes’ Birds of a Feather group in Switzerland was awesome, the Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo duet almost made me cry in beauty, and the Christian McBride Trio almost made me quit playing altogether.

Christian McBride Trio:

7. Who are the living jazz artists with whom you'd most like to play?

Branford Marsalis, Kurt Elling, Mary Stallings, maybe a duet with Herbie Hancock too! I’ve played alongside Chick Corea for a song and that changed my life!

8. What is the jazz venue you'd most like to play?

Village Vanguard: the holy grail of clubs.

9. What is your best piece of advice for young jazz artists?

To play like the masters you’re listening to, you must be willing to be MENTORED by them. Volume, chops, speed of notes, and song knowledge ain’t as impressive as playing the stuff NOT in the musical notation. Be willing to be around cats like Steve Novosel and soak up his knowledge. That will inform your playing better than any college program.

10. What are your favorite quotes by a jazz artist?

“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” – Charlie Parker.

“Volume doesn’t impress me.”  -Lenny Robinson

11. What is your favorite EBT recording/song?

I NEVER listen to our records, ever. I only do to determine if we should release the CD. So I really haven’t heard our music often or that much…

12. What is your favorite EBT live performance?

Hard to answer. Perhaps it was the one that made the band: Our audition for the Kennedy Center/US State Department Jazz Ambassadorship program in Steinway Hall, New York City in 2001.

All of our loved ones waited down below as the three of us had to play for 15-minutes upstairs for 4 people, 3 cats and 1 State Department representative.

Right before they came in to hear us, all 3 of us were completely silent; we are NEVER silent, especially when together. The tension was thick and my insecurities about my playing, my talent, my potential and my fledgling career was the only sound in my ear. B was nervously pacing, Al was playing rudiments on his leg. I prayed.

They entered and we played “Hello Dolly.” They responded with deafening silence. So, I did what I do: I made a joke. I still remember it and, funnily enough, I don’t remember much else about that whole experience. I said, “Please hold your applause! You are too kind, stop it, stop it, I’m blushing…”

They all laughed and I knew right there we had it; we had THEM. After that they started talking to us as if we had already made it. One of the judges fell in love with Al’s brush playing, which we all had by then.

The rest is history.

We got the gig, we got the tour. We got our domestic and international careers started. And I got a real band, a band of brothers.

13. Why Bhagwan?

There is not enough space to say why B and not someone else. Briefly, he set a very high musical standard for me personally. His attention to arrangements, his ability to groove, the ‘hump’ in his walking…he plays bass the way and WHERE it’s supposed to be played: above the shoulder.

So many bassists today want to sound like horn players. B sounds like a bassist, a fully grown, fully realized instrument. And right when you think that’s all he’s got, he’ll rip off a solo to remind you he can do that too.

He’s willing to sacrifice his ego to root everything Al and I play to serve the music. But don’t let the quiet demeanor fool you – he can lead.

Personally, B is difficult to put into words. There is a great comfort in making music with your very best friends. B and I have experienced life and death together. We had our first argument in almost 20 years a few months ago. There is no one I’m not married to I trust more than he.

All of that – every second of the last 15+ years – have made me a better musician and a better person. He is the guy that made us late to a sound check in Chile because he was giving his money away to street kids. What more can I say? He’s that guy. That informs his playing. That makes us all better.

14. Why Alphonso?

Have you ever gotten your behind kicked by a prize fighter that was so good, you almost didn’t mind you were left bleeding in the gutter? That’s what it’s like playing with Al. Rehearsal, gigs, sound checks— he will absolutely mow you down if you’re not on your game, then he’ll tell you about it afterwards. He’s unapologetically committed to ‘the sound’ of jazz, the vibe.

I think every pianist in a piano trio loves playing up tempo but prefers to play ballads because the drummer is on brushes. Nobody swings as hard as Al AND plays brushes that delicately.

Personally, Al has always provided a steady rudder for the ship. His honesty can hurt, but is always helpful. I want my friends to tell me truth, give me truth and our relationship can survive ups and downs. His laughter is infectious.

When the two of us get together we talk about grown man stuff; where B feels like my brother because we’re the same age, Al feels like wisdom because he’s older. He can cook, he can teach. When my father died he sat in the back of the church by himself so I knew he was there. If I didn’t have Al, I would keep playing but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun, as gratifying, or as fulfilling.

15. Why The Eric Byrd Trio?

They needed someone with the same name as me to fill in! 🙂

When I first started improvising in the early 90’s, the Chick Corea Acoustic Band CDs came out and they really had an impact on me. That group was led from the piano but the bassist and drummer were equally important, equally as talented, equally as mesmerizing. The bass and drums didn’t just support, they took the lead too. I always thought that if I ever started my own thing, I’d want a rhythm section that could lead as well as support. 10 years later and 15 years in, I got it.