Once in a while CDs just sneak up on me. More often than not they have been lying around forever and suddenly, while crawling around in front of my jazz collection, which is housed in low shelves, CDs literally jump out at me. I just have too many CDs and when the bug bites me, I try to listen to sessions I haven’t heard at all or just sampled and shelved away for some reason.
I wonder what went wrong when I went on a Monty Alexander and Ray Brown buying binge and stowed the CDs away. I was probably hooked on some other stuff (I did buy the CDs discussed below just when I entered one of those retro fits after having purchased the remastered Status Quo back catalog, which transported me back to my childhood and lots of air guitar playing in my 9 square-meter room at the time, so that might be an explanation).
Well, in October I pulled out one of three CDs to start me off … and I haven’t really listened to anything else since then. This first CD was Ray Brown’s last session on a recording simply entitled “Ray Brown / Monty Alexander / Russell Malone”, released by Teldec in 2002, and it not only made me sift through my collection for more, but also took me on an extended research trip around the Internet and another buying frenzy.
I bought the hybrid SACD that time and when I popped it into my player to give it a detailed listen so many months later, it wasn’t the excellent sound that literally bowled me over. This session is a real smoker, a swing session to rival all small-group swing sessions. It is a tremendous recording that stands proud and tall next to the best trio jazz I have in my collection (and of that type, I have tons).
Some people might call this lacklustre or too “cute”, but man could these three men swing. It really depends on where you’re coming from. If you are the sixties Miles Davis et al bebop freak, this one might not be for you. If you think there wasn’t any decent jazz before fusion hit the market, this one is definitely not for you either. But if you are a fan of extremely tight, tasteful and exemplary playing in the traditional swing mode, this recording is one of the best.
Monty Alexander (piano), who is also known for his forays into reggae-style jazz, pulls out all the stops on some of these tunes, and together with Russel Malone’s traditional rhythm style and Ray Brown’s impeccable bass work this is one happy session to get your feet tapping as soon as track two, “Fly Me to the Moon”, kicks in after a somewhat plaintive “Django”.
There are so many highlights on this CD that it is difficult to single any out. Listen to track 4, “Honeysuckle Rose”, and pay close attention to how Alexander sails into his absolutely magnificient solo on top of a sustained Mallone cord (around 2:20), enjoy the trio kicking up some serious dust on “Dexter’s Deck”, and study what these guys can squeeze out of a simple blues structure, “Blues for Junior”, or how Ray Brown makes “Just Can’t See For Looking” walk along at a steady but leisurely pace.
Other people liked this session as well:
“Alexander plays immaculately, while Brown’s simpatico with Malone is evident throughout…” **** 1/2 — Down Beat
“…final evidence, if more was needed, of Brown’s primacy among bassists.” — Jazz Times
“…the finest album of (Brown’s) latter-day career…one of the label’s best jazz releases ever and one of the most delightful mainstream jazz albums of the year.” — Billboard
“Ray Brown…practically invented along with Jimmy Blanton, the modern jazz bass, much like Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker created new dimensions in jazz horn playing.” — Wall Street Journal
“…a familiar and likable collection of jazz and pop standards…along with a few markedly accessible originals…the level of musicianship is so mighty that there are plenty of insights, pleasures and treasures to discover…” — Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Brown’s warm and mellow tone is perfect here.” — Associated Press
“With an easy flowing set card and a cool vibe that just won’t quit, this is a fine way for one of the giants to be remembered.” — Midwest Record Recap
“Ray Brown was one of a kind when it came to jazz bass, and this is one of his finest. Highly recommended.” — JazzReview.com
It is incredibly sad that this was Ray Brown’s final recording. He was one of the very best bassists around, if not the best, and on this recording he was (still) at his very peak which had lasted so very long. If you want to hear how the bass should be played in a drummer-less session or, in fact, in any session, this is one of the finest examples. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
The next album I didn’t even know I had continued my rediscovery, “Straight Ahead”, a double-CD (containing the two LPs “Trio”, 1981, and “Overseas Special”, 1984, a live session recorded just about two years later at the Satin Doll Club in Tokyo) by Monty Alexander, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. If Ray Brown’s last session was already the better Oscar Petsron session sans the flourishes and hence the better for it, this one continues in that vein, pairing Alexcander and Brown up with one of the guitarists most clearly of the old Charlie Christian school of playing. What makes this release stand out is that the three veterans of so many sessions do not try to turn the tunes into ego-fests but simply let them speak for themselves. Everyone has a light touch on this session and the music profits tremendously. One of the high points must surely be their rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” or, surprisingly for me, the excellent version of Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie”. Add to that a gritty “C.C. Rider” and a slew of other impeccably played and recorded (the famous Concord sound is a huge plus here) tunes and what you have is a stellar example of three people totally in synch both rhythmically and empathetically.
The third album which pushed me over the edge into a buying frenzy was “Summertime” by the Ray Brown Trio, featuring Ulf Wakenius. This one is with a drummer and despite a, in my opinion (your mileage may vary, as did that of other critics), comparatively flavorless comping approach by a young Geoff Keezer, Brown’s then new pianist to replace Benny Green, this session brings to the forefront the Wes Montgomnery bluesy style of Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius. If you listen to Wakenius erupt on an uptempo “Yours Is My Heart Alone”, you are again reminded of how many fabulous musicians have been brought to the forefront by Ray Brown. The session also showed, once again, that Brown, then 72 (!!), was just getting better with every release. On top of that, the session is presented in the famous flawless Telarc sound and if you liked the two CDs discussed above, you just have to add this one to the shopping cart before you hit the “deplete my bank account now” button.
These three recordings have offered me countless hours of enjoyment and made me look for even more Monty Alexander (his “Live at the Iridium”, for example, is stunning), Ray Brown (check out, for example, “Some of My Best Friends Are… Guitarists” if you liked the CDs above, or sample “Live at Starbucks”, one of the best live recordings I own), and Ulf Wakenius (I just love his “Notes from the Heart”, which actually manages to add to Keith Jarret’s tunes, reworked here in a trio format).
Get ’em while you (still) can. This is all jazz and, unfortunately, it has a knack of one day simply disappearing from the face of this earth.