Ray Brown, just about the most respected bassist in jazz, died earlier this year. Ever productive over six-decades of professional work, for the last few years he had been putting together a series of albums dedicated to various aspects of jazz instruments. Saxes, Trumpets, Singers, Pianists, and now Guitarists—all were introduced as some of Ray’s “Best Friends”, with any possible corniness easily disposed of with the first authoritative bass pattern. The unselfishness of the series is indicative, and if there is less Brown than one might wish on a tribute set, then this latest collaboration has the advantage of offering apt posthumous testimony to a player whose long career was generally directed towards making other musicians sound significantly better than they would otherwise have done.
Jazz guitar is not everyone’s cup of tea—even within jazz. There are those who find its twin poles of easy listening somnolence and fret-flying trickery equally shallow. The general orthodoxy of the players on these sessions will probably not win too many new followers to its cause. However, if the descendants of Charlie Christian and Oscar Moore appeal to you, then this is as good an example of the tradition in action as you can hope to get on one disc. There is ample variety of tone, tempo, and technique and the mood is warm and winning throughout.
The featured axe-men range from the legendary to the known-only-to-the-aficionado. The “lesser” names hold up their end so efficiently that there is no noticeable drop in quality at any point. Brown and his excellent trio keep the structures tight but not overly restrictive, and the end product is over an hour of well-modulated wizardry, largely bebop-based, with an ambient and articulate swing as the main impetus.
Six of the very best—Herb Ellis, Kenny Burrell, Ulf Wakenius, Russell Malone, Bruce Forman, and John Pizzarelli—get two numbers each to strut their stuff and are none of them at all shy in doing so. Pianist Geoff Keezer is allowed a fair head of steam while Brown and drummer Karriem Riggins tend to be a felt rather than a conspicuous presence. Ellis is the most showboating and Malone the most self-effacing (my vote is for Malone, in that choice). Bruce Foreman and Kenny Burrell carry off the major prizes for me, but only after a photo-finish.
Plenty of standards and one or two originals make up the repertoire. Fats Waller’s “Squeeze Me” (Pizzarelli), a breakneck “I Want To Be Happy” (Ellis),“Fly Me To The Moon” (Burrell),“My Funny Valentine” (Wakenius) and Neal Hefti’s “Little Darling” (Malone) give a good idea of the ground covered. If it all seems a little familiar, it is not at all perfunctory or tired. In fact there is bounce and effervescence to spare on the up numbers while the down tempo pieces are thoughtful and never slip off into simple, supper club strumming.
Plenty of blue notes add substance whenever a whiff of the indolent starts to arise. Ellis’ take on Brown’s own “Blues For Junior” and both of Forman’s contributions are admirable, but not the only, examples of this. The ever-bluesy Burrell manages to lose any clichés that might threaten such war-horses as “Fly Me to the Moon”, and his tribute to Billy Higgins (“Soulful Spirit”) which closes the set is, fittingly, the most moving of any of the tunes. As it is preceded by a powerful nod to Wes Montgomery, Forman’s “Blues For Wes”, the album ends on a prescient, valedictory note.
There will be other retrospectives that focus our attention more specifically on Brown’s own gifts as performer. However, in its concern for the other player’s contribution (in this case, the guitarist) there is something oddly appropriate about this final chapter to a worthy and likeable project. His dialogue on “My Funny Valentine” suddenly shows that Brown is never anything other than an equal (at least) partner in any enterprise he involved himself with, but if the music demanded a background role he took it. For Brown, the demands of the music were always paramount. There is a gentleness to these proceedings and much in the way of affection. I can think of many far worse attributes, musically, and not many better, in human terms, by which to be remembered.