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Making His Presence Felt

**** THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET, "In a Crowd," Douglas Music; *** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Jazz at the Philharmonic, Frankfurt 1952," Pablo Jazz; *** RAY BROWN TRIO, "Live at Scullers," Telarc Jazz

December 28, 1997|Don Heckman

Diverse as these three seemingly disconnected albums may seem, there is a single thread that joins them. And it is the far-ranging talent of bassist Ray Brown.

What does Brown have to do with a Modern Jazz Quartet album? The answer is evident in the composition "Pyramid," the very first track of this new release, which chronicles the ensemble's performance at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. The piece is a Brown original, a blues that the MJQ has included as a primary entry in its repertoire for decades (and which served as the title track for a classic 1960 album).

Recorded in September 1963, two months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, at a time when major civil rights demonstrations were taking place (which motivated John Lewis to dedicate a number to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), the album reflects the turmoil of the period only in the unusual urgency of some of the soloing.

(The album is one of three Monterey Jazz Festival performances acquired by veteran jazz record producer Alan Douglas. The others, featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, will be issued later, as part of Douglas' continuing release program, much of which is also dedicated to his company's extensive catalog of music by acts such as John McLaughlin and Eric Dolphy.)

"Pyramid," a basic but elegantly laid-out blues line, was generally done by the MJQ in an unusual rhythmic fashion, beginning slowly, building to a quicker tempo, then gradually reverting to the original speed--thus a reflection of the title. Here, however, it remains in a slow but forward-seeking rhythm, with Milt Jackson's articulate, blues-drenched lines soaring freely.

The balance of the program--including Lewis' "Winter Tale" and "The Sheriff," Jackson's "Bags' Groove" and the standards "I Should Care" and "Mean to Me"--is vintage MJQ.

Brown takes a more active role in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, the last European event of the 1952 European tour (eight years after the all-star jam session format was created for a Los Angeles fund-raiser). The release has been drawn from the many hours of tapes recorded during the JATP era, now gradually being made available on the Pablo label.

As part of a rhythm section that included Max Roach and Hank Jones, Brown was called upon to provide a rock-solid foundation for the sometimes-effusive soloing of the JATP style. And he responded in typically dependable fashion, although his work, in the occasionally uneven audio, is not always as clear as one might wish.

The program includes some solid trumpeting from Roy Eldridge (including a fiery duet with Roach), a long, typically thoughtful drum solo from Roach, and crisp, sophisticated lines from Jones.

What is most noticeable about the performance, however, is the irony of tenor saxophonist Lester Young's presence. His influence upon the younger players of the time was pervasive. And the soloing of Flip Phillips--despite his tendency to ham it up for the crowd (a characteristic element in the JATP performance style)--is often derivative, frequently outright imitative, of Young's playing. Yet Young himself (and thus the irony) was on the far side of his career. Still occasionally coming up with the elegant minimalism that made his playing so memorable, he more often seemed to be putting his time in at a not particularly felicitous (for him) employment venue.

Brown's long career (the Pittsburgh-born native played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell on the day he arrived in New York in 1945) to the contrary, he has never quite received the status that his talent and accomplishments seem to deserve. But he seems to be content to center his creative energies in the string of trios he has led for decades.

The sterling qualities he brings to the trio format is front and center in another live performance, this time in 1996 at a Boston nightclub. His role here is that of magisterial elder, leading a group that features pianist Benny Green (who amicably concluded his productive association with Brown shortly after this recording was made) and drummer Gregory Hutchinson.

This was a group that flowed stylistically from Brown's lengthy connection with pianist Oscar Peterson. But the talented young Green, who played (and plays) with a remarkable awareness of the overall history of jazz piano, brought his own musical curiosity and insight to everything.

The performance is filled with light and enthusiasm. And Brown's bass--dark, deep and driving in his accompaniments, animated and alive in his soloing--is the work of a jazz master. The influence he generates in the three albums noted here, ranging across time and manner, affords convincing evidence of his long and continuing importance to the music.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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