June 16, 2010
Porter Records PRCD 4040
Alto saxophonist Marion Brown never achieved the same fame or notoriety as some of his New Thing’s contemporaries, because, as these CDs prove he was a man out of time. While Albert Ayler was destroying jazz’s most vaulted conventions with his fervid glossolalia, and Archie Shepp was attacking bourgeois conventions verbally and with his over-the-top playing, Brown, their contemporary, was gently extending the Bop tradition in a more-or-less standard format.
This doesn’t mean that the organized improvising on Why Not, a reissued classic from 1966, or on Live 1965, a newly discovered session by pianist Burton Greene’s quartet is any way lacking. It’s just that with the benefits of hindsight, we can hear that players such as Brown – and drummer Rahied Ali, who is also present on both discs – were Free Jazz Mensheviks compared to the out-and-out Free Jazz Bolshevism which avatars such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Ayler – and sometimes Shepp – promised and delivered.
It’s interesting to note who else is involved on these dates. Playing a program of his own compositions based on different thematic ideas, Greene, who explores the inside as well as the outside of the piano, is the most radical stylist on Live. Bassist Reggie Johnson was a steady journeyman, who also worked with Shepp and trumpeter Bill Dixon. As for Why Not, besides Ali, who had R&B and Bop roots, the other players are Norris “Sirone” Jones, a half-decade away from his breakthrough as part of The Revolutionary Ensemble, and who retreated increasingly towards the mainstream before his recent death; and pianist Stanley Cowell, a Free Jazzer only by affiliation who from the 1980s onwards was ensconced in mainstream piano formations.
Greene’s singular inventiveness is made that much clearer from the first track of his disc, where his soloing bounds from Red Garland-like blues to Bach-like inventions that would have fit perfectly in John Coltrane’s initial version of “My Favorite Things”. Nevertheless, the almost 28 minute “Like It Is” – how’s that for a mid-1960s title? – shows that the pianist’s forward-thinking strategies were already in place. When Johnson begins to worry his strings with beneath-the-bridge friction, Greene joins in with clanks and stops from the piano-harp. Then, as Ali intensifies his attack with press rolls, cymbal shakes and bass-drum bumps, the keyboardist responds by alternating between kinetic runs and string-stopping. Earlier his discordant note clusters made common cause with Brown’s ancillary note extensions and pressurized trills. Later Greene’s hunt-and-peck pianism turns to outlining designated notes, with Brown contributing a coda of disaffiliated tongue splatters.
Lower-pitched, aleatory expositions make up Brown’s narrative on “Cluster Quartet II”, based on compressed motoric clusters. Nonetheless the broken octave exposition depends on Johnson’s thick strumming, Greene’s stomps and tremolo respites and time-suspending thumps and ruffs from Ali to fully satisfy the compositional ideas.
Would that a similar try-anything ethos was present the next year. Why Not’s four performances, while better recorded, seem desultory in comparison to the work on the other CD. Only the title tune generates real heat, and that might be merely because it taken at a faster clip than the others. It encompasses a stop-start staccato interface and tremolo key scattering from Cowell and Ali’s double-timed flams and pops which reintroduce some excitement after unadventurous walking from Sirone. Brown’s final solo variant involves recapping the head, then using a frequent stylistic tick of the time, repeating it again as the coda.
On the rest of the CD, tempos range from balladic to frenetic –sometimes on the same track – with the pitter-patter bass lines, piano chording and clattering cymbals referencing (Free) Bop rather than Energy Music. Brown confirms his traditionalism throughout by quoting as frequently and incongruously as Dexter Gordon; “My Mom Gave Me a Nickel” at one point, “Three Blind Mice” at another.
“Homecoming” – perhaps a symbolic title – epitomizes this approach. Beginning as a melancholy intermezzo, with the theme stretched by Brown, it swiftly explodes into cacophony complete with military press rolls from Ali; surprising honky-tonk-like syncopation from Cowell; and, when he isn’t quoting other tunes, squeaky country brass- band references from Brown. Speeding up the pace from adagio, the four unite for a presto finale.
Why Not is valuable because it restores to general circulation one of the seminal sessions in Brown’s limited discography. Live 1965 is more impressive. It demonstrates – as does John Coltrane’s Ascension and Shepp’s Fire Music – that Brown’s best work may have resulted when someone else led the recording date.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Why: 1. La Sorella 2. Fortunato 3. Why Not? 4. Homecoming
Personnel: Why: Marion Brown (alto saxophone); Stanley Cowell (piano); Norris “Sirone” Jones (bass) and Rashied Ali (drums)
Track Listing: Live: 1. Three Theme II 2. Cluster Quartet II 3. Like It Is
Personnel: Live: Marion Brown (alto saxophone); Burton Greene (piano); Reggie Johnson (bass) and Rashied Ali (drums)