He must be a good guy, Dean Brown. For his first album, a whole bevy of jazz-funkers have turned up to lend the guitarist a helping hand. Look at this for a list—Marcus Miller, Bill Evans, Randy and Michael Brecker, George Duke, Billy Cobham, Christian McBride, Ricky Peterson and David Sanborn—and that’s just a few of the illustrious names who grace Here. Partly it’s because Brown, who may not have recorded under his own name, has been around since the 1970s and played with most of these guys. Partly it’s because this is jazz-rock of the type some of those names used to make but no longer get the chance to—things having moved on.
No one is going to accuse Dean Brown of moving on. Though he throws in the odd smooth jazz and vaguely Latin cut, his heart is back in the days of Hendrix and the Beatles—or at least back with that generation of rockers who returned to jazz via Weather Report and Miles Davis’ post-Bitches’ Brew incarnation. Therein lies the problem—I don’t like rock guitar. For me this would be a much better record if someone had unplugged Dean without telling him. I am sure he is good at what he does and there is certainly an audience for rock with a jazz flavour, but the second that fuzzbox gets trodden on I’m off. Some of the numbers aren’t even “flavoured” but pure stadium rock. The closing track “The Battle’s Over” is the worst thing I have heard this year—in fact it’s the worst thing I’ve heard since 1974—where it sounds like it belongs. There is also a Beatles cover and, guess what folks, I can’t stand them either.
So this was always going to be a struggle. There are compensations in the form of straightforward funk cuts (“Back in the Day”) or the aforementioned Latino stuff (“The Clave Groove”). The very smooth “Believe Me” is, in this context, sanctuary. “Gemini” includes Marcus Miller’s best bass work for ages—including his recent album - and that is worth anyone’s time and money. Bill Evans—the saxman—is not usually a favourite but performs well, as do the Brecker Brothers. When reined in, Brown is a sympathetic sideman and obviously has the respect of all involved. Ricky Peterson is his usual commanding presence on the Hammond. His work on “Big Foot” is outstanding.
But it’s not enough. The two vocal tracks are dreadful (a horribly dated, would-be funky “Tell It” and a dire rendition of “Baby You’re a Rich Man”) while Brown’s guitar steamrollers even the better tracks. For example “Bigfoot” is ambling along in nice roadhouse fashion until the axe-wielding heroics butcher it. “The Clave Groove” escapes, but largely because it is essentially an Evans-led number and Brown keeps it jazzy. The culprit on that track is Billy Cobham—who fires out some runs as intemperate as Brown’s work elsewhere.
ESC are specialising in keeping the jazz-rock end of fusion in the public eye. They are appealing to an audience who come out of rock and to whom Brown will sound just fine. The track they will hate is the one I find least troubling, “Believe Me”. On this, George Duke plays some of his most thoughtful electric piano and Brown turns in a gentle if rather derivative solo that demonstrates sure technique and a rare moment of grace. It is immediately followed by power-chords I had thought I would never hear again and a leaden prog rocker called “Solid”, which even a beautiful solo by Michael Brecker cannot save. Then the mock-psychedelia of the Fab Four cover. Grim.
Doubtless I am missing out and if your tastes include Mahavisnu Orchestra, Weather Report and a touch of Spinal Tap you will have a field day. Check out the cover. If the sight of a shaggy haired man clutching a guitar, his eyes closed, face screwed up in orgasmic intensity, does not bring back nightmares then you could get a lot from Here—these are all, in their field, great musicians. For me, what might have been occurs in the middle section of “Just for Kicks” where Randy Brecker plays some late-Miles mute and Bernard Wright gets funkily weird at the keyboards. Now that is my kind of fusion. Sorry Dean.