Everybody has a story to tell. Judging by the wonderfully inventive music contained on this disc, pianist/composer Brandon McCune obviously has a deep well of musical tales.
One story that I’ve told for years happened in the early 90’s, back when I was the Jazz Editor at Chicago Magazine. As a purveyor and reviewer of the local scene, nothing endeared me more to a club called “The Bop Shop,” than the night I met Brandon when he was a teen-ager.
It was a quiet weeknight and a sparse crowd at the now defunct north side jazz spot. The band was on break when two brash underage boys tried to get in. Since they weren’t carrying instruments, the man at the door balked at their insistence that they were musicians. Fortunately, both a patron and the bartender recognized the duo from the weekend all-ages jam session. I didn’t know either kid.
The two of them, Brandon and his buddy Anthony Wonsey, proceeded to shock and awe those present with an amazing organ/piano duo. Then the two switched instruments with Wonsey going to the piano and Brandon playing the trumpet. I remember their personalities being much like their performance; precocious, confident and determined. What I remember most from their conversation was their absolute resolve to leave Chicago for New York after high school.
What I didn’t know then was that more than friends, Wonsey, a couple of years older, was a mentor to the younger one. In that role, he delivered some advice that stayed with Brandon and helped shape his career. To this day, he remembers the advice verbatim.
“Wonsey told me, ‘be a rhythm section player first. Learn to comp, it’ll keep you working. People will hire you if you make them sound good. You have your whole life to solo.’”
Brandon has seemingly lived these words, first falling under the considerable harmonic, lyrical and rhythmic spell of Kenny Barron while studying with him at Rutgers University. Then, over the years, I watched with local pride as Brandon built his career as he “comped” for three of the most successful jazz vocalists of our time; Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Nneena Freelon.
Working with Carter was really Brandon’s graduate work as she led what was among the last of those great bands that were really traveling bebop universities.
“Betty taught that it’s important to play for the moment and give it all you got,” he remembered. “Also that if the music isn’t thinking forward, its dead. Abbey taught me how to listen and to be thoughtful when I approach the music. Both taught me that making music is not about the chords on the paper, but about listening to each other and trusting we’ll find it together.”
After matriculation from those two greats, Brandon put on a dazzling display of what he learned playing, touring and recording with Freelon. By the time he became her musical director, he was quite assured in his musical abilities and his abilities as an arranger. Without question her most inventive arrangements of standards and particularly the new standards, came from Brandon, enhancing the career of both the singer and the pianist.
Now it’s time for Brandon to sing his own songs and tell his own stories with this, his debut album. The voices that he uses on most tracks are three fabulous young horn men; Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Bruce Williams on sax and Michael Dease on trombone. With an exotic rhythm, he uses them to interpret his harmonic vision of the New Orleans night he first saw his wife on We Met Under The Crescent.
Dease, in particular, is a revelation on every track he solos on showing a depth that belies his young age. While he’s fired up throughout, his feature on the sensational ballad As the Years Go By shows wisdom and sensitivity. Williams also shines but especially on Brandon’s compositions that add 21st century rhythms like Zuri and Lala, and Griot. And Hendrix is just a beast, effortlessly strutting his range and his lyrical abilities.
The trio tracks on Tell the Story find Brandon out front of two solid veterans in bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. These are the tunes with the young pianist stretching out and telling his stories through the skills and strength of his voice on his instrument. His solos and comping on the ensemble pieces are inventive and impressive, but it is on the trio tracks where any jazz lover can hear what it is he’s trying to say.
He does a surprisingly upbeat take on the standard Old Folks which is dedicated to his grandmother who did a tap dance recital at the age of 82. The only other standard among these sterling originals is The Very Thought of You, where Brandon is obviously paying homage to his mentor Barron. But his other influences including Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancok and Mulgrew Miller can be heard throughout this sparkling debut, particularly the original blues trio title piece. Tell the Story, is kind of a self-fulfilling title because after hearing this album I know Brandon McCune will be around to tell his stories for a long time.
Now at the age of 35, Brandon has emerged from the shadow of accompanist with this, his debut album, Tell the Story. If it’s true that jazz is a sponge, Brandon’s ensemble compositions are meaty offerings of that theory with strong traditional foundations absorbed by what the pianist hears today; forward looking while respecting the past. These ten tracks are an accumulation of experiences, both musical and personal, that not only accelerate his career but confirm his status as one of the top players to come out of the post-young lions period.
Mark Ruffin, Program Director, Real Jazz/Sirius XM