Monty Alexander and Ray Brown

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.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. arnold van kampen04/05/2009 at 1:10 am

    The Last Recordings of Ray Brown ????

    Dear Volkher every time I read this stupid things about this Telarc cd of Ray Brown,Russell Malone and Monty Alexander I get angry.
    Earlier I wrote on other pages of yours that Ray’s very last trio was certainly NOT with Monty Alexander but with that fine pianoplayer Larry Fuller and Karriem Riggins.
    I contacted Telarc about this, but they said: “We have no recordings of that trio!”
    Well I think that fact gives you not the right to mess up with the truth.
    Only months before Ray suddenly died during a nap after playing golf, he did a European Tour and one of the stops was a splendid concert at the Jazz Festival in Bern, Schwitzerland on May 3, 2002.
    So if nobody can find recordings of this splendid trio, maybe they should bring out this entire concert.
    I have this on DVD (fine picture) so it could be released both as DVD and/or CD.
    During this period Monty Alexander had his own trio with Bobby Thomas Jr. and Hassan Shakour, and was recorded on DVD in the New Morning in Paris,in fine shape.
    Ray Brown was always eager on getting fine pianists and even asked his life-long friend and “blood-brother” Oscar Peterson about this.
    So when Ray went on the road again, after the L.A.4, he first had Monty on the 88 keys.
    Monty was followed by Gene Harris, who was semi-retired at that time.
    Gene was followed by Benny Green, and after that Geoff Keezer was in the Ray Brown Trio.
    Larry Fuller played in the Jeff Hamilton Trio and Ray stole him away, when he needed another pianist.
    Jeff found another fine pianist in Tamir Hendelman.
    So you could say there is some “inner-circle” headed during that time by Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson.
    These giants used the talents of a younger generation: Monty Alexander, John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, but also were mentors.
    When Oscar and Ray had their “legendary” reunion trio, from 1989 to 1993, this trio with Herb Ellis on guitar was backed by Bobby Durham first and later Jeff Hamilton.
    During the time Monty had severe problems (his wife died) Ray needed another pianist and Oscar let Ray listen to this fine record of Gene Harris “At the Otter Crest”.
    Ray persuaded Gene to join his trio, that first had Mickey Roker on board, who had also played in the Oscar Peterson Trio.

    However I really think you should split up the careers of Ray Brown and Monty Alexander.
    Both had their own careers and only for a short period Monty was in Ray’s Trio.
    Worth mentioning are of course the recording of The Quartet, led by Milt Jackson and Ray Brown, with Monty Alexander and Mickey Roker.
    I think there are at least four cd’s from that group, and most certainly two from an earlier period when Monty first joined Ray and “Bags”.
    But in my hughe collection I also have fine recordings of the Ray Brown Trio, with Gene Harris and Mickey Roker, joined by Milt Jackson.
    In your essay you also mentioned Ulf Wakenius, who was in the very last Oscar Peterson Quartet.
    Although I agree with what you said about my dear friend Ray, I have to bring up that talented Dane: Niels-Henning Oersted Pedersen, who was most certainly also a member of this “inner-circle” group and the fastest gun in town.
    Ray demonstrated me once, how NHOP could play this fast.
    “A normal bassplayer uses two fingers to play the strings, while
    “The Viking” used four.”
    And speaking of “normal” players, did you know that Oscar Peterson had this big hands, he could easily reach 12 keys?

    Although most of these giants are no longer with us, I think we have to pass their musical legacy to a younger generation.

    Arnold.

    Reply

  2. Hello Arnold,

    nice to see you around here again. It’s been a while. My site has been a “has-been site”, an “on-and-off” site, has been neglected at times and was virtually dead in the water again and again. That’s life. My life, in fact.

    I can understand your frustration with this (rather brief) post of mine in regard to the “last recordings of Ray Brown.” I admit I have been negligent in fixing this post as to the many remarks you sent me or left here in regard to this issue. I also truly appreciate your input, which I have hoped I could rope in to lead to YOU writing about the issues debated here (see below).

    Here’s my take:

    a) This is an age-old post which hasn’t been read by anyone since January of 2008 (!). My stats tell me so. All the visitors since that date were ones looking for illegal rips of that trio album.

    b) I have had some posts on Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Monty Alexander (who I’m not such a huge fan of all the time) and, especially, Nils Henning up my sleeves for all too long which were going to straighten out matters in more detail.

    See, I’ve seen Nils Henning live at least 100 times, probably more, and when I lived in DK and frequented the “Montmartre Jazz Club” (in its second incarnation, which had all but left behind its original jazz roots), and later, when I was a regular at the “Copenhagen Jazz House”, I had many a chance to sit down and talk with him. In a way, Nils was my “hero”, if that is at all the appropriate word. I often saw him more as a father figure with the relaxed, straight-ahead and absolutely gentleman-like demeanor he positively radiated. Believe me, Nils told me some things that had nothing to do with music whatsoever and that still resonate – and in a way guide – my life today.

    I’m not kidding when I say that the day he passed away was one of the saddest days of my life. He was simply a great man who should not only be remembered for his stunning artistry, but especially for his way of putting complete strangers at ease, for giving invaluable help and information and for being, well, himself. He was the epitome of the Danish term “hygge”, which I’m sure you know the translation of.

    To be quite honest, what I’ve written so far on the various personalities and artists mentioned,is unpublishable, especially because – in the case of Oscar Peterson, for example – there are so many damn detractors around who “hate(d) his guts” (I do believe that is an appropriate summary of some of those more radical sentiments). I, for one, have always been a huge and – in many cases – forgiving fan, simply because Oscar Peterson brought so much life, enjoyment and, yes, artistry into my life.

    On top of that, I’m usually not knowledgeable enough to put into words what I hear (musically), aside from an emotional response. Still, the future will most likely see me try.

    Arnold, right now I can only offer you to sit down, write up a post (any length you like) on Ray Brown’s final engagements that you seem to know a lot more about than 99.9% of this planet, and I’ll post it here. I would be very interested in a more detailed depiction of those final sessions, concerts and events, and I know the rest of the jazz world would be as well.

    How about it?

    Finally, please do not forget one thing: This site is – more often than not – a release valve for me after 16 or more hours of 7-days-a-week work, and I often “hammer out” instinctive responses to things I like, garnish them with at times horrendous style (and more silly adjectives than you can shake a stick at), and I often don’t give any post a second thought after it has gone live. When I posted on that trio CD, I did so after it had gotten virtually constant airplay around here. I loved it, let people know about it, did a three-second check on the Net of what (wrong) info there was … and that was it.

    Suffice it to say that Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen (my absolute “hero”; call me “fanish”, and you’ve hit the nail on the head) and Nils-Henning (I’m putting these four individuals into one basket for a reason) made my life a lot more joyful and exciting.

    Additionally, as a drummer, I am the world’s biggest fan of Jeff Hamilton who I believe is and can be the only true successor to Ed Thigpen’s artful mastery of the drums.

    I can definitely tell that you simply must be on my side of the fence on these latter sentiments as well.

    Best,

    Volkher

    P.S.: Don’t hesitate to contact me via my site’s contact form. I’ll get right back to you. Promise.

    Reply

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