For more than a decade, performances by the Eric Byrd Trio have been a holiday staple in Westminster, with the group performing Vince Guaraldi's music from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" each year at the Carroll Arts Center. This year, the group is returning in the heat of the summer, to perform the works from another master musician, Ray Charles.
During the concert, held Friday at the Carroll Arts Center, 91 W. Main St., Westminster, the trio will be joined by a four-piece horn section to create the "Brother Ray Band," a tribute to Charles, who died in 2004. Eric Byrd, leader of the trio, said he has long been a fan of Charles' music.
"He's been a big influence on my musicianship. It's been an honor to play the music of one of my musical heroes," Byrd said. "There are a lot of great singers, and a lot of great musicians out there, but what I found so compelling about him was how his voice and his piano are just an extension of him as an artist."
Sandy Oxx, director of the Carroll Arts Center, said the concert came about as a way to showcase the skill of the Eric Byrd Trio outside of the holiday concert and the distractions that come with the holiday special events.
"I would really like an audience be able to hear his outstanding musicianship, not just at Christmas, and not just with kids jumping around in the aisle," Oxx said. "I told him, 'You tell me what you want to play; you tell me what you need to shine, and I'll find a way to make it happen.'"
Throughout his 50-plus year career, Charles produced songs in a variety of genres, performing pop songs, ballads, jazz tunes, instrumental selections, R&B and dance music. Byrd said the Brother Ray Band will focus more on lesser-known Ray Charles pieces, avoiding some of the singer's signature songs.
"You can't beat Ray without being Ray," Byrd said. "How do you sing 'My Way' better than Sinatra? You can't. You just pick the songs that are more of a natural fit for your band and musicianship and limitations."
Byrd said they hope to capture the sound of the music Charles was producing in the '50s and '60s with a mini-big band horn section and full rhythm section. He said it was novel to perform with a horn section, as a musician so used to being a part of a trio.
"A lot of times when we perform, I'm the lead instrument, since in a trio the piano is the lead," Byrd said. "I fill up a lot of space and try to create a certain volume or dynamic approach to certain things so our bass and drummer respond to that. With the big horn section I don't have to work quite so hard. I can play a little more between phrases."
One of the things that impresses Byrd about Charles' skill is his ability to put himself into the music.
"He was incredibly soulful. I've always been drawn to people who have a soulful way of singing," Byrd said. "They way he played, it evoked a certain emotion. It wasn't just an academic or a musical exercise. There's just something very compelling about him."
Because of Charles' emphasis on soul, Byrd said it wouldn't be right to merely copy what the master did, but rather find a way to blend the sounds of Ray Charles with the sounds of Eric Byrd.
"I think the goal is to try and create a place where there's a happy fusion between Ray Charles and my own style," Byrd said. "It's about what you can bring to the table. You take a look at what your influences are, and they might be all great artists, but you have to find your own voice in that."