Ray Brown: Walk On

Ray Brown
Walk On

“We all miss Ray Brown”, says his admiring fellow bassist John Clayton on a sleevenote to this splendid twofer. I’ve said the same here at PopMatters reviewing one of a couple of this year’s CDs which have a dedication to the great man, one by a younger bassist, another by a duo, both graduates of Brown’s (alas, now in both senses) late trio.

The shock of his death was huge. He’d played his early afternoon round of golf, and when he hadn’t turned up for the evening’s gig someone went looking. Like his exact contemporary Dick Wellstood in 1985, Brown had passed away during his afternoon nap. Wellstood was short of his sixtieth birthday, Brown 75, each man was in his prime. The night was undoubtedly traumatic.

Brown exercised a nice line in patter about his age, while fronting the last great Ray Brown ensemble. He told audiences he needed these young men to teach him things not current when he, as a contemporary of Ellington, was coming up. Ellington (born 1899) was an exaggeration, but Brown did play brilliantly on some of the last Ellington dates, momentously as a duo partner on This One’s for Blanton for Pablo (now Original Jazz Classics). He was nearer a contemporary of the short-lived Jimmy Blanton, who died aged 24 in 1942, having already raised bass playing to the wholly new plane Brown lived on. Thirty and then fifty years later, Brown wore Blanton’s mantle, heir to the trailblazer — and like Blanton with Ellington (as well as many other things) an individual voice as accompanist, soloist, indeed partner.

All Brown needed was people good enough to work with. Listening to him with Geoff Keezer, I was reminded suddenly of Brown on probably the best-selling recording he ever made: Night Train. Many people know this Oscar Peterson trio disc very well. But when did you last realise you’d taken a bass player for granted? Listening to this last trio date, I suddenly remembered Brown’s voice on bass there nearly 50 years before — as distinctly as hearing a singer and remembering her phrasing of something else. Ray Brown’s part in fifteen years of two classic Oscar Peterson trios demands recognition, first in the piano-guitar-bass trio with the stupendous Herb Ellis — and when the irreplaceable Ellis left, in the second classic ensemble with the wonderful Ed Thigpen on drums. He was at the heart of two classic ensembles and the transformation of the one into the other. I’m sure he relished the challenge. The subsequent deepening of Monty Alexander’s talents brought Ellis and Brown together again in another wonderful trio, after which (and omitting much) we had the last Ray Brown Trio, another succession of classic ensembles.

Its respective pianists were as young as Peterson had been when he founded the trio under his renowned name. Also, there were young drummers even as good as Ed Thigpen. Brown later was joking only in the way he spoke of how much these young men had to teach “an old man”. There’s a new lightness and flexibility to his playing in that succession of fresh settings. Benny Green is one young pianist whose later work demonstrates what he learned, just as he expresses his gratitude in plain words. (Peterson doubtless knows how much he, too, learned.) The new musicians fed Brown with new challenges. His energy was well demonstrated in the prominence of his contributions with (not behind) even Peterson. It was there to the end — for all that he laughed about being “an old man” and the strain of playing an encore. The encores swung away all thought of the years.

Brown was never interested in reconstituting the Peterson trio. These were trios, not piano trios, and least of all showcases for himself — as this last session demonstrates. Reverence doesn’t have to exclude other relationships, and Geoff Keezer knew exactly what Ray Brown wanted. The young lion is neither cowed by the size of the old one, nor afraid the old man might be fragile. He expresses his respect in the most energetic and, where appropriate, even aggressive piano playing. Following the lyrical beauty of Brown’s accompanied solo opening to “America the Beautiful”, Karriem Riggins’ kicking drumming takes things up. Before the end, we’ve paid a visit to Tyner country.

Riggins is wonderful behind the even more lyrical bass and piano duet on “Stella by Starlight”. I don’t mind comparing this with a Peterson trio, contrasting the incisiveness of Keezer’s lines and touch with the all-embracingness of old twentyfingers. Brown is subtler and better than ever, when Keezer comes into prominence, and then when the pianist retires for the bass solo.

“You Are My Sunshine” has plenty of fun, and the nearly 15 minutes of a three-movement “Ray Brown Suite” also have moments of sheer happiness — amid a very wide variety of expression.

The second movement’s atmospheric opening is succeeded by piano then drum fireworks, and there’s a kind of stalking, at times racing bass before the movement’s suspenseful end. The third movement starts with hints of maybe Rachmaninov and some interesting up-and-down the keyboard stuff from Keezer which would daunt most bassists. The closing “Hello Girls” sounds nothing like what its title might suggest. The hyper-romantic theme is bowed by Brown, with a huge emotionally expressive sound (I’m tempted to say Koussevitsky, who was a virtuoso on Brown’s instrument before he conducted the Boston Symphony in so many broadcasts during Brown’s youth). This theme is repeated, separating two contrasting solos from Keezer. It’s a curious conclusion to the programming of the CD. It’s not a climax. It expresses something like yearning. But then nobody was expecting an end. Somebody should mention one reason why Ray Brown trio performances could be so satisfying. He built in so many contrasts and alternations.

Rescheduled as part of a memorial, the last trio date prefaces the second disc: a marvellous collection of entirely first-rate material unissued from earlier sessions. Two titles with Monty Alexander and Lewis Nash’s (1994) include a very Caribbean “Woogie Boogie” further enhancing awareness of Brown’s range.

Unless there’s been a misprint, one live date produced both splendid examples of the trio with Benny Green on piano/Greg Hutchinson on drums, and the very different trio of Brown and his fellow bass masters John Clayton and Christian McBride — with a splendid “In a Mellow Tone” duet simply with McBride. The same three-bass hit (another name for that trio) were on a second live date less than three years ago and played Clayton’s composition/arrangement “Three by Four” in a style dismissing any thought that this is a gimmick. People have wrong attitudes. The great musician swings through false barriers put up between “fun” and different sorts of inspiration.

The closer “Down by the Riverside” is an example of what I can only seriously call holy fun. The three bassists holy-roll and hallelujah so full-heartedly that Brown can’t resist ending things with a delighted laughing “amen”. There had been joy in the studio and there has been joy in this world! Hallelujah, again!