Joe Ross (Roseburg, OR.)
Crystalline messages with good beat, tempo and melody
Playing Time – 69:35 -- There are many impressive jazz players who can burn a blaze of notes but never seem to say anything. They should study the music of pianist Donald Brown and notice how each of his compositions makes a coherent statement full of character. To make music that is truly transcendent and memorable requires great self-awareness. Brown knows what and how he thinks about his art. On “Blues Man From Memphis,” the eight tracks ranging from 7-11 minutes each have crystalline messages with good beat, tempo and melody.
To deliver them with honest, uncompromising vision, it’s important to recognize the three arrangers of the music who manage to allow for both freedom of expression within the context of rather precise musical statements. While the author of all, Donald Brown arranged “The Scenic Route to Donny’s Heart,” a beautifully woven tapestry of notes, rhythms and dynamics. The wistful reverie has a lavish setting embellished with touches of flutes, horns, guitar, percussion, orchestra bells, and vocals. Bill Mobley arranged “Nancy and the Children’s Playground” and “New York.” Brown’s pieces are largely inspired by people or places, and the former pays tribute to his sister Nancy. Immediately following is “Blues for Brother Jerome,” a more up-tempo lively number that has a bright melodic sheen. A very cohesive unit, The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra is directed by young trumpeter Vance Thompson, arranger of five of Brown’s compositions. Brown says “He [Thompson], along with Bill Mobley, has taken my music, dressed it up in a tux, and left the sandals on.” Thompson’s liner notes recognize Donald Brown’s music as warm, soulful and inviting at its core. Three of the tracks were recorded live in September, 2005 including “The Thing About George Coleman,” a tune with considerable emotional depth that was originally named “Blues Man From Memphis” in honor of the great jazz saxophonist known chiefly for his work with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock in the sixties.
This album is as much about the musicians too. “Blues Man From Memphis” displays the symbiotic relationship between good songs, solid arrangements and consummate musicianship. The arrangements provide the soloists with plenty of space to stretch out. Brown hails originally from Hernando, Miss. but spent his early years in Memphis as a studio musician before taking a stint in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Moving to Knoxville in the 1980s, he teaches at the University of Tennessee, tours and performs regularly. Sharing the spotlight with Brown are special guests John Clayton (bass), Stefon Harris (vibes), and Greg Tardy (tenor sax). Graduating from Indiana University in 1975, John Clayton has been associated with the Monty Alexander Trio, Count Basie Orchestra, Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Clayton Brothers Jazz Quintet, and others. Clayton currently teaches at the University of Southern California. Clayton opens “The Thing About George Coleman” (the re-named title cut) with over two minutes of solo bass that elicits a joyful glee and appreciative applause from the live audience. Greg Tardy’s saxophone appears in the mix of four pieces on “Blues Man From Memphis.” He started as a classical clarinetist but wanted to become a jazz saxophonist the moment he heard the subtle, powerful and heartfelt emotion of John Coltrane with Thelonious Monk. He does some very nice lyrical playing on this album project. Another soulful shade is the undeniable excitement of vibraphonist Stefon Harris, a young New York artist in his twenties who burst on the jazz scene about 1998 and has built an excellent reputation for his performances and recordings.
Prolific and imaginative, Donald Brown gives us some very refreshing and original big band jazz. Building on tradition, his imagination resonates with the innovation of a musician with the stature of Herbie Hancock. With the support of excellent musicians and arrangers, the album’s sum is a very inspiring profile of Brown’s character and the depth of his heart’s spirit. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR. rossjoe at hotmail dot com)