Rob Brown is an alto saxophonist, acclaimed composer, and improvisational wizard. His career spans more than two decades, during which he has played in numerous ensembles and contributed pieces to accompany poetry readings and dance compositions. His earlier work and experiments with heavy-blowing “ecstatic music” caused a slight stir in the New York free-jazz scene. And over time he has acquired an impressive reputation as one of the most exciting new free-jazz altos in the business. Crown Trunk Root Funk is filled with dark spells and heavy lulls with rare shimmers of melodic brightness that are only heightened by their scarcity. The esteemed group under Brown consists of bass player William Parker, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and pianist Craig Taborn. Together they provide a forceful, sinewy rhythmic backing to Brown’s puzzle-constructing compositions.
The relationships between abstraction and clarity, discordance and soulful melody play a crucial role in Crown Trunk Root Funk. At any given moment, the thorny sounds give way to more friendly companionship. Throughout the album, the laudable interplay suggests that these gentlemen have recorded many hours in the studio. After all, Brown hand-selected each musician for the recording; choosing long time collaborators (Parker) and like-minded adventurers (Taborn) to play his standout piece from the 2006 Vision Festival.
The first track, “Rocking Horse”, is an off-kilter little funk bomb that manages to recall Frank Zappa for a couple swift moments. In the last two minutes, Brown’s alto becomes more yearning as the backing rhythm slows down a half step. “Worlds Spinning” functions in a similar fashion. Its soulful undertones surface at the end of the song with high-hat shimmers and Brown’s mournful melodies.
“Sonic Ecosystem” is an odd centerpiece for Crown Trunk Root Funk. Pianist Craig Taborn puts glitchy murmurs behind Brown’s alto, along with his scattered piano keys. At a lurching pace, Brown continually asks a question with his alto wails. Small musical accoutrements—chimes, buzzes, and maracas—add to the song’s dark mystique. This track seems to be either a critic’s favorite or the one that stifles the flow of the album. While it’s certainly superfluous to give too much attention to fluidity in free-jazz, continuity is nonetheless relevant.
Following the 11-minute plus “Sonic Ecosystem,” the funky backgrounds of the musicians begin to shine a bit more prominently. “Ghost Dog” and “Exuberance” sway with bounce and assurance, hinting at the Detroit-funk pedigrees of Cleaver and Taborn.
With over a dozen or so albums under his belt, Brown has (mystifyingly) rarely been at the helm of an ensemble. So it’s a welcome pleasure to see him return as the composer and focus of Crown Trunk. On this, his first release as a leader on AUM Fidelity, he has put together a confident ensemble to really explore the deep grooves of his compositions. Generally well-balanced, eminently exploratory, and surprisingly funky, Crown Trunk Root Funk is a successful product from a musician just as adept in the studio as he is on a New York club stage or at any other venue.