With a little help from Cuban-born saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera the jazz world heralds the entrance of 22 year-old Alex Brown, capturing but a glimpse of his talents on a monster recording debut simply entitled Pianist. It was actually D'Rivera's bassist, Oscar Stagnaro,who began to gig with pianist around the Boston area, ultimately introducing Brown to D'Rivera, and the rest is history. Taken with Brown's skills on the instrument and his understanding of Latin music beyond Afro-Cuban rhythms, D'Rivera took him under his wing and presents the pianist's solo flight with this album.
Never in awe of his mentor—always respectful and very expressive in his play—Brown emerges from the shadows with a clear message that he has, indeed, arrived. Though he shares the studio with seven veteran professionals, Brown demonstrates a commanding presence and rarely relinquishes it. Recorded in a two-day date in 2010, Brown presents eight blistering originals and throws in the Pixinguinha Brazilian choro cover "Lamentos," as well as Cole Porter's classic "Just One of Those Things," to cap what is truly an exciting selection of music.
Featuring hollow marimba sounds from Warren Wolf,, the percussive "Prologue" opens the set in hard-driving fashion, presenting changing grooves that do not quite develop into a definable melody, but remain interesting nevertheless. "Warm Blooded" is a soft-toned piece with rhythms drawn from an unnamed rap song that Brown composed as a school assignment. There is absolutely no resemblance to rap here, however, which was the intent; instead, the piece is warm-natured and highlights flugelhornist Vivek Patel.
Producer D'Rivera appears on three pieces, blowing his alto saxophone on the high-octane, Latin-tinged "The Wrong Jacket"—the album's defining piece featuring, percussionist Pedro Martinez—as he lends his instrument and vocal accompaniment against the crashing cymbal accents from drummer Eric Doob. D'Rivera, Martinez and Wolf come out swinging on Brown's "Buleria," a fiery Spanish flamenco reinterpretation that matches the energy of "The Wrong Jacket." D'Rivera and the pianist are simply superb on the spicy "Lamentos," as D'Rivera wields his high-pitch clarinet to better bring out the Brazilian ragtime flavor of the piece.
Composed and dedicated to jazz icon and pianist Chick Corea, "Elektric" provides the kind of charge that allows Brown to showcase a measure of his piano chops. With a melody containing a strong jazz influence, "Leaving" is another Latin piece penned using the danzon rhythms from Cuba its the foundation. Brown is especially expressive on "Waltz" and "Just One of Those Things," the pianist appearing a trio format setting with Doob and bassist Ben Williams
Brown is indeed fortunate that D'Rivera recognized the potential of his talents and produced this stunning debut.
Alex Brown: Press
Even for a pianist with as prodigious a talent as Alex Brown, having a heavyweight in the music pantheon such as Paquito D’Rivera produce his debut album, must have largely been a dream. However, to pull off a debut as fine as this is a feat in itself. As a pianist, Brown has remarkable technique. Although he may still be searching for his true voice and that may take time, he appears to be closer than most. He is truly expressive and has an expansive sense of time. Brown’s sense of the acute and obtuse accents of a melody is rivalled only by his sense of how to lay down a surprising harmony. With his strong left hand, playing seemingly every kind of rhythmic figure almost at will, Brown can create memorable phrases, sometimes surprising the listener with classic Afro-Cuban tumbao, as much as he can by conjuring up a contradanza, or even a valse. And then he can swing and bop too…
On the album, simply entitled, Pianist Brown serves notice that he is well on the way to being a leader that musicians will rally around. He is never overawed especially by the presence of such mighty musicians as Paquito D’Rivera, whose classically sharp alto and woody clarinet graces several tracks and he even gives the breathtaking percussionist, Pedro Martinez good reason to believe that he can shuffle that rumba tempo with swaggering confidence. Latin American musical idioms seem to be Alex Brown’s strong suit here and his gentle Bossa Nova swing that he introduces in “Lamentos” with seeming casual grace is, indeed a perfect example of how proficiently he captures the idiom, before he breaks up the song midway, only to return it to if much brisker samba rhythms. Of rhythms it appears Alex Brown appears to be a special kind of maestro.
Then there is the devastatingly beautiful drama of his “Buleria,” a crackling chart written in the style of that memorable dance form from Cadiz, Spain. The manner in which he lets his hands chase one another as he hammers out melody and chords as he recreates the spirit of Cadiz, Spain. The manner in which he lets his hands chase one another as he hammers out melody and chords as he recreates the spirit of Chick Corea’s rapid modal moves in “Elektric” is extraordinarily precise and controlled. “Waltz” pirouettes with classic grace as the all-too-alive characters glide eloquently across the floor.
There is a back-story here and it is one of great promise. Not only does Brown rally his musicians, especially the young ones, trumpeter Vivek Patel, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Eric Doob and marimba player Warren Wolf, but he also draws experienced men like D’Rivera and Martinez into his compositions that are compact, yet roomy enough for galactic leaps as the men improvise. It appears that not only is Alex Brown the pianist about to arrive, but the Brown the composer is not far behind at all.
Tracks: 1. Prologue; 2. Warm Blooded; 3. The Wrong Jacket; 4. Lamentos; 5. Elektric; 6. Waltz; 7. Buleria; 8. Leaving; 9. Just One of Those Things.
Personnel: Alex Brown: piano; Paquito D’Rivera: alto saxophone, clarinet; Vivek Patel: flugelhorn; Warren Wolf: marimba; Ben Williams: contrabass; Eric Doob: drums; Pedro Martinez: percussion, vocals.
Alex Brown, Pianist (Paquito Records/Sunnyside)
The cover of this recording says, “Paquito D’Rivera Presents” in small type, “Alex Brown, Pianist” in headline type. That’s all I needed to throw open the jewel box and slide it into the CD player. First, if D’Rivera is stepping out, it must be good. Second, Brown’s not a total newcomer. He’s been developing a name as a sideman with the likes of Jon Faddis, Jane Bunnett, Slide Hampton and D’Rivera. I was not disappointed. Pianist is a great collection of very hip, very modern, Latin jazz, and Brown can play. The first tune, “Prologue,” pulls you in with smokin’ piano and marimba work by Brown and Warren Wolf, respectively, as well as Pedro Martinez on percussion, Eric Doob on drums and Ben Williams on bass. “The Wrong Jacket” has some nice touches with D’Rivera on sax and Vivek Patel on flugelhorn before Brown digs in to show off his chops. “Lamentos” is a sweet choro by the Brazilian composer Pixinguinha. In the liner notes, Brown points out that the choro is a precursor to the samba. Pianist also includes a tribute to Chick Corea, called “Elektric,” and an interesting take on “It’s Just One Of Those Things.” It’s a really fine first record that leaves you wanting more.
Alex Brown, Paquito D'Rivera Presents Alex Brown, Pianist
by Jon Regen
This album is a veritable master class in the art of modern jazz piano. From the scintillating first track “Prologue,” which pits Brown against the nimble marimba of Warren Wolf, to the angular intro chording on “Elektric,” (his recorded tribute to Chick Corea), Brown unleashes a torrent of musical tenacity across this impressive disc. He’s a young piano lion poised for great things. (Sunnyside, alexbrownmusic.com)
New England Conservatory-trained acoustic jazz pianist Alex Brown crosses over into many forms of music on this, his debut album. Supported by mentor Paquito d'Rivera (on the Paquito subsidiary of the Sunnyside label), Brown weaves Latin jazz on occasion within a contemporary framework, reminiscent of his clear idol, Chick Corea. Brown is extremely talented, cramming many notes into each measure during the circular "Prologue" and the distinctly bouncy, quirky Corea-like "Elektric." Brazilian choro, neo-bop, ballads, and even churning true montuno-flavored music are here in different formats from trio to sextet, at times showcasing d'Rivera's alto sax, rising-star vibist Warren Wolf, or Vivek Patel on flügelhorn. Alex Brown's initial foray into the jazz world is an impressive one, with a high ceiling for things to come.
I was concerned when I saw the front of the CD, "Paquito D'Rivera Presents Alex Brown, Pianist." It's nice for a big-name musician to help out the new kid, but does he really need an endorsement? Is he that bad? Fortunately, I was dead wrong. Brown is one of the finest young pianists I've come across, and this debut album is nothing short of outstanding.
Alex Brown has managed to get around, having worked with Rivera's band since 2007, but also performing with Miguel Zenon and Wynton Marsalis. He studied with Danilo Perez and Charlie Banacos at the New England Conservatory and won some Young Composer Awards. He sometimes fronts his own group, and is poking around in classical music on the side. So, he has no dust on him, but what does he sound like?
The first word that comes to mind is "complex." His arrangements fill the ear, but not needlessly so. Brown plays fast, but can slow it down when he wants to. He works with a fair number of musicians, as you might expect when playing Latin jazz, but he puts them to good use with everything carefully constructed, while leaving plenty of room for improvisation. His choice of Latin styles range from Cuban to Brazilian, having absorbed a lot from his mentors. Forces vary on each track, and when Brown goes for a mainstream sound, he pares down to a quartet or trio. The second word is "strong." Brown has no timidity in his playing. He can be gentle, but that's very different from weak, and he knows where he is going and what sound he wants.
Lastly, I would use the word "generous." The pianist is out front a substantial portion of the time, but so is Vivek Patel on flugelhorn, and Warren Wolf on marimba. D'Rivera makes an appearance on three tracks, "The Wrong Jacket," "Lamentos," and "Buleria," getting some time in on both alto sax and clarinet. Patel is often where D'Rivera is not, supplying different colors and variety to the tracks. Everybody gets solo time, but for much of the rest Brown has the musicians playing in combinations, trading phrases and keeping the music moving.
The recording was produced in two days, with the larger group on Day One, the smaller quartet/trio work on the next day. The only musicians who play on every track are Brown, Ben Williams, and Eric Doob. The three are by themselves for two tracks, "Waltz," and "Just One of Those Things," the latter one of the two tunes not written by Brown. The first is a slower piece, contemplative and warm. The second starts in similar fashion, but speeds up quickly, with lots of fine work by Williams on bass. Days
One and Two are mixed on the album, lending even more variety from track to track.
As a debut album, this is as good as one is likely to find. The playing is superb, with Brown everywhere but not overwhelming. My interest never flagged, because with every minute came something new, a combination of instruments, a set of colors and tones, a new rhythmic direction. This is great Latin jazz combined with great mainstream jazz, and I recommend it highly.
The latest crop of jazz 20-somethings I (CD reviews)
By Phum Mon, Jazzblog.ca
I received a little bit of heat this summer after I used the term "prodigy" in a post. Suitably chastened, I'll simply say that two 20-something musicians whose CDs I'll review below are very sophisticated and formidably powerful pianists who are well on their way.
But before I get to the discs, I should recommend a 20-something band that plays tonight at Cafe Paradiso -- the Mike Ruby/Le Boeuf Brothers Quintet. Led by the tenor saxophonist Mike Ruby (A Torontonian now in New York) and the alto saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf and pianist Pascal Le Boeuf (two Californians now in New York) , the group played Paradiso almost a year ago, and my review of its show is here. If you prefer a video showing what the band is up to, here's one showing that the straight-eighths, odd-meter, alt-rock-influenced strain of contemporary jazz is a big part of what they do, and they do it well:
The music tonight (Aug. 24) runs from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Cafe Paradiso (199 Bank St.) and there's a $10 cover.
On to the CDs:.
Paquito D'Rivera Presents Alex Brown - Pianist (Sunnyside)
Although pianist Alex Brown is just 23 and a recent graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music, he has already played with Toronto saxophonist Jane Bunnett, trumpeter John Faddis, and most notably, for several years with saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera. Here's a 2008 duet by the Cuban-American jazz icon and protege:
At his young age, Brown has consolidated a whack of jazz and classical information so that -- as you would expect of D'Rivera's chosen accompanist, the pianist is a precise, modern mainstream player with plenty of rhythmic verve. One of the CD's stops-out tunes is Brown's composition Elektric -- a lean, jamming tribute to Chick Corea, and indeed Corea's affinity for long, crisply articulated lines and cleanly jabbed chords has rubbed off on Brown. (You can also hear Herbie Hancock's octave trilling on a few occasions -- Geoffrey Keezer recently quipped that every pianist does it -- as well as plenty of Latin-jazz piano savvy.)
Seven of the disc's nine tracks are likable Brown compositions generally built for stops-out blowing. Generally, he tends to combine straight-eighths feels and occasionally Latin grooves with singable melodies. (Brown might be a touch to the right of the Le Boeuf Brothers in terms of where his music sits stylistically.) The disc's beginning (Prologue), middle (Elektric) and end (a razzle-dazzle, tricked-out trio version of Just One Of Those Things) provide the most striking impression of Brown as a dramatic, punchy, high-energy player.
He's well-supported by fellow hard-hitting youngbloods Ben Williams on bass (who interacts gamely with him on Elektric) and drummer Eric Doob, who on several occasions unleashes a tumult of rhythms from behind the kit. Trumpeter Vivek Patel plays flugelhorn on four tracks and Warren Wolf plays scene-stealing marimba on two tracks, giving the disc added colour and personality. Finally, D'Rivera is a guest on two tracks that not surprisingly showcase Brown's Latin flair. Lamentos is a nice, stately recital of a Brazilian choro by the composer Pixinguinha with D'Rivera playing his trademark smooth and soulful clarinet; Brown sounds just a touch rushed when the tune kicks into high gear. Buleria, a Brown composition which he calls his take on flamenco, is driven by percussionist Pedro Martinez on cajon.
A New Face (Avey Dell)
Pianist Bobby Avey, who is 25, has a slightly different set of interests than does Brown. He's at least as hard-hitting and complex, but his music -- influenced at times by the odd meters of Balkan music, the dense and dissonant harmonies of classical music and the force of rock -- is a bit to the left of Brown's, you could say. Avey's jazz is less song-based and romantic (in the musical sense), more knotty rhythmically, and more involved and "out" harmonically and melodically. Here's a clip of his quartet playing:
By the way, the drummer in the clip is Colin Stranahan, who coincidentally will be playing tonight at Cafe Paradiso with the Le Boeuf Brothers -- small world, eh?
The disc consists of eight Avey originals, of which four are for his trio and four feature saxophonist Dave Liebman, such that A New Face is a follow-up of sorts to the 2006 Liebman/Avey duo recording Vienna Dialogues, which consisted of adaptations of classical works by Schumann, Handel, Debussy and other composers.
Avey's disc is a potent statement all his own. The disc's opening track for his trio, Late November, is a swirling fiesta of odd-meter, counterpuntal jousting and brash, crunching lines and chords. Bassist Thomson Kneeland and drummer Jordan Perlson who seem utterly fearless as they dive into this tune and the disc's other equally dark and daunting compositions. Insight drives mightily, and Half Is Less Than Half is especially epic, with Perlson offering a solo that is scary in its intensity. While I wouldn't call Avey's compositions singable, they are engrossing because their smart mix of complexity, precision and pounding is so authoritatively executed.
Liebman's heavily chromatic, go-for-the-throat playing suits Avey's absorbing, intriguing material to a tee. His soprano saxophone provides the emotional climax to the slow, majestic In Retreat. Influence is a broad, mysterious and ultimately heated duet, with the young pianist showing all the poise and sensitivity he needs to keep up with Liebman on soprano. The fierce, disc-closing Time Unfolding finds Liebman on tenor, his sound wide and whinnying, ratcheting up the already considerable energy.
Just as Brown's music should leave him in fine standing with Corea (and D'Rivera) fans, Avey's gutsy, intriguing fare should appeal to lovers of outward-bound jazz explorers such as Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran (and Dave Liebman).
• “Alex Brown represents a very bright light - glowing in the midst of those who are yet finding their way towards his level of excellence. His discipline precedes a high level of artistry that rarely is found at his young age."
Cecil McBee, bassist
• “Alex Brown is the most gifted young performer I have seen in some time. His versatility is reflected in his high degree of skill on both violin and piano. I have no doubt he will be a major voice in jazz in the years to come.”
John McNeil, trumpeter
• “I'm really knocked out by 'Montrose Towing.' It really exhibits volumes."
Eric Reed, pianist
• "Alex Brown, blessed with virtuosic ability, is becoming a mature and serious pianist/composer. It is quickly apparent to the serious listener that Alex holds this music we call jazz in high regards. He will carry on this art form with an eloquent voice on the piano and a creative mind as a composer."
Allison Miller, drummer
• "I consider Alex the future of music; he's amazing, particularly for such a young musician, he has real soul."
Dave Valentin, flutist
• “Alex is playing at both a musical and technical level beyond his years. He is well on his way to developing his own personal approach to the music and will be a force to be reckoned with in years to come”
Ingrid Jensen, trumpeter
• "Whether it's composing, piano, or violin, Alex's warm personality and unbridled energy always shines through. I think he's a remarkably talented guy."
Director of Jazz and Improvisational Music
Lawrence University Conservatory of Music
• “Alex had demonstrated a remarkable level of musical maturity and creativity at his young age when winning the inaugural VCU High School Jazz Composition Competition. From the breadth and depth of his writing and his multi-instrumental playing, it's already clear just how serious he is about seeking his voice in the jazz community. He continues to gain insights from every available resource, and I look forward to hearing his future creations as a composer/performer.”
Antonio J. Garcia, Director of Jazz Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University
• "I've had the pleasure of witnessing Alex's impressive artistic growth over the years. He has always taken full advantage of the opportunities to play with some of the finest jazz artists in the world and it shows. He's a special individual and I know he's headed for a great music career."
Telluride Jazz Celebration
Paquito D'Rivera Quintet; The Count Basie Orchestra; Nnenna Freelon
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall
September 28, 2007
The first concert in the series of Mellon Jazz Fridays at the Kimmel Center kicked off in the midst of Phillies “fever,” with our local baseball team vying to hold first place in the Eastern conference, so the concert was interspersed with updates of the scores of the Phils and the Mets games by Anne Ewers, the new Kimmel CEO, and Mervon Mehta, seasoned Vice President for Programming. There was also an announcement that Mellon Bank had recently merged with the Bank of New York but thankfully would continue its sponsorship of this outstanding and popular jazz series.
However, the audience’s attention was quickly diverted to the anticipation of music as Paquito D’Rivera and his group came on to perform. It was clear even from the first few bars that this was a group of virtuosi making the finest quality Latin-based jazz instead of the pop-jazz mix all too typical of the genres comprising the world of latin pop. Diego Urcola’s up-tempo valve trombone solo on the first piece, “What About That?” from D’Rivera’s new CD, Funk Tango (Sunnyside Records, 2007), was done with carefully measured artistry reminiscent of the great Bob Brookmeyer, and Urcola’s full and rich timbre was a pleasure to the ear. Urcula's arresting tones, moreover, set the stage for what was literally a series of complex compositions, rather than just “tunes,” by a group manifesting exceptional musical sensibilities.
Bassist Oscar Stagnaro’s composition, “Mariela’s Dream,” also from the new CD, featured solos by the versatile Urcola on muted trumpet, D’Rivera on saxophone, and Stagnoro on his guitar-style bass, which he used to great advantage throughout. Starting out with the flavor of a “Dizzy” bebop tune (Dizzy Gillespie was D’Rivera’s mentor and colleague in the early days), the piece evolved through various movements, developing each while undergoing several transfigurations, ultimately culminating in a powerful tango-style rhythm. Such transformations can only be executed by the most proficient players and accomplished improvisationally by the very best of jazz musicians. A nod must be given to Gillespie here, because he was one of the pioneers, along with Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans among others, in the coming of age of jazz as a full musical form--not exclusively an improvising soloist's idiom but an extemporaneous-sounding compositional expression influenced by the spontaneity of the individual player.
In keeping with the theme of the new CD, a tango composition by the great Argentinian composer, Astor Piazzola, revealed still further complexities in the capable hands of D’Rivera, who incorporated shifting moods, tempos, and intensities, as if his performance were a deconstructive and reconstructive study of Piazzola’s melody and erotic rhythmic pulsations. D’Rivera showed himself to be in total possession of the music both as instrumentalist and leader. Pianist Alex Brown, a twenty-year old boy wonder, played an astonishing solo both in terms of technique and musical expression. Brown is simply a budding genius of jazz piano (think Art Tatum and Bud Powell) and is likely to lay claim to some spectacular achievements in the future.
“Fiddle Dreams,” originally written by D’Rivera for violinist Regina Carter, proved to be a rich, elaborate work starting out in a bebop mode and developing a feeling of the gang “rumble” from West Side Story. Taking the notion of musical composition to still further heights, this piece literally included several “movements” in sonata form.
The set ended on a spectacular note, with an upbeat bossa nova. Super-rapid soloing by Stagnaro and a cool cornet solo by Urcola with shades of Art Farmer, led to an extended section with a Bach-like theme and variations suggestive of the “Well-Tempered Clavier,” including solos by all the members of the group. It reminded me of a mind-blowing recording of a jazz version of a Bach fugue by the transplanted French pianist Bernard Peiffer, an unsung hero of jazz who influenced Michel Legrande. You’ve got to be very confident in yourself as a complete musician to pull off something like this, and the D’Rivera Quintet certainly met the challenge with flying colors. All in all, they provided a magnificent set of serious music combined with the “lightness of being” which Mr. D’Rivera brings with him wherever he goes.
I wondered if the Count Basie Orchestra might prove anticlimactic after such a stellar performance, but there is something about the Basie sound that immediately grabs you, and this show was no exception. Percussion is crucial to the Basie idiom, and drummer Brian Grice drove the group with that remarkable combination of power and grace that Sonny Payne gave to the Basie band in its salad days. Coincidentally, Mr. Grice looks like you might imagine a Basie drummer in a movie, a big guy who moves around the drums like he’s got shock absorbers under his seat! Of the various standards performed by the group in the first half of the set, especially welcome was Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” as arranged by the great Basie saxophonist and arranger Frank Foster, who also served as music director immediately after Basie's demise. Equally enjoyable was Foster’s arrangement of “Disconnection,” with a fine trumpet solo by Mark Williams, and a piece entitled “IQ,” dedicated to the legendary saxophonist, Ike Quebec.
The first half of the set was brought to a climax by two Basie classics, “One O’Clock Jump” and “April in Paris,” representing respectively what have been called the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” and incarnations of the band. The group was in top form throughout and magically evoked the sensational feeling of those heady days when Basie would make his short “clinks” on the piano (recapitulated now by Tony Suggs) and the whole ensemble would break out into unsurpassed swinging ecstasy. (Basie, always a master of understatement and brevity, was once asked to define jazz, and simply replied, “Tap your feet.”)
Hughes then introduced singer Nnenna Freelon and her music director (as well as arranger and, like Hughes, a trombonist), Dennis Wilson. Mr. Wilson admirably took over the podium, conducting the band in a controlled and nuanced way typical of the recording studio, in sharp contrast to Mr. Hughes’ minimalist and trusting Basie-like leadership. Wilson hunched over the band, using his entire body--hands, arms, shoulders, and trunk--to get all the details right. The group responded with a virtually airtight ensemble effect, backing Ms. Freelon to a “T.” Freelon started out with a swinging version of “Shiny Stockings,” then, mostly with the support of the rhythm section, did a lovely ballad called “I Have Waited So Long,” written by Sarah Vaughan. She dedicated “You’ve Changed” to Billie Holiday, in keeping with her CD devoted to “Lady Day.” On this number, Doug Lawrence peformed a lyrical tenor sax solo that would have pleased Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. This number was followed by superb arrangements of Gershwin's “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Garner's “Misty,” and the Jerry Bock standard “Too Close for Comfort.” Freelon was fully up to the task of singing with the Basie band. Her timing and rhythm were impeccable, and she swung the music firmly but lightly with shades of both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan as well as her own unique “diva” style.
The set concluded with a standing ovation and an encore, a classic blues finale with Bill Hughes conducting and Freelon singing scat. At that point, the dynamic between Hughes and Freelon appeared a trifle strained to me, and mirrored a vague concern I had about the atmospheric shift caused by the abrupt change of band leaders and arrangement styles when Ms. Freelon and Mr. Wilson took the stage. Perhaps Bill Hughes could have handled the segue differently, but my misgivings were more than likely associated with the anticipation of a change in the band’s identity if and when Hughes steps down from the music directorship after his splendid tour of duty. It would be a shame were the Basie band--the foremost personification of the swing era itself--reduced to secondary status as somebody's back-up band.
Stellar vocalists like Rushing, Williams, Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Bennett, Vaughan, more recently Liz Wright, and a host of others who have thirsted for the opportunity, then realized their dream to sing with this great band, always stayed in the more humble role of guest singer, while Ms. Freelon brought on her own leader and arrangements, taking over the reins from Hughes and the group. (As I recall, Sinatra brought some of his own arrangements--by Quincy Jones in particular--when working with Basie but never a music director, which would have been an insult to Basie, whom he admired and trusted.) In all fairness, everything Freelon and Wilson did was top notch and faithful to the Basie sound; yet clearly the difficult nature of the big band business is no less a concern to the last and arguably greatest of the big bands. The Count Basie Orchestra is an American institution going back to its earliest days in Kansas City in the 1930s, and I sincerely hope it never loses its inimitable sound and continuity with a tradition of over 75 years. This band belongs to America and not to any single guest performer or impressario, however talented he or she may be.
Paquito D’Rivera Quintet:
Paquito D'Rivera: saxophone/clarinet; Diego Urcola: trumpet, valve trombone: Oscar Stagnaro: bass; Alex Brown: piano; Eric Doob: drums
Count Basie Orichestra:
Bill Hughes: conductor and trombone; trumpets: Michael P. Williams, William “Scotty” Barnhart, Endre Rice, Freddie Hendrix; trombones: Clarence Banks, Alvin Walker, David Keim, Barry Cooper; saxophones: John Williams, baritone; Doug Miller, tenor; Doug Lawrence, tenor; John Kelson, lead alto; Marshall McDonald, alto; rhythm: Brian Grice: drums, James Leary: bass, Will Matthews: guitar, Tony Suggs: piano.
Nnenna Freelon: vocals; Dennis Wilson, conductor, trombone, and music director for Ms. Freelon along with the aforementioned members of the Basie Band.
The Third Annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival formally opened last night with a gala concert at the Inter-American Development Bank. Emceed by WJLA’s Leon Harris, it included short sets by three acts.
Native Washingtonian Davey Yarborough is a premier jazz educator: he’s a founder of the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, the Ellington School’s Jazz Studies program, and the Smithsonian’s Jazz Evenings for Young Professionals lecture series. He’s also an accomplished saxophonist, as shown in the straight-ahead New Washingtonians quintet. Concentrating on tenor for the three-song set, his fluid, ornate sound was best demonstrated in a thrilling bebop version of Ellington’s “Cottontail.” Yarborough channeled original soloist Ben Webster while tearing up the stage in his own improv.
The quintet’s other highlight was pianist John Ozment, who’s also an educator (he’s a professor at the University of Maryland). Though he used more flourish in the one ballad, Ozment played economically and rhythmically on the upbeat tunes, and displayed his absorption of piano tradition when he broke into a rollicking ’30s swing on “Cottontail.”
Yarborough didn’t talk much to the audience, but clarinet and alto-sax legend Paquito D’Rivera was full of entertaining banter. The festival’s artistic director presented a trio of himself, pianist Alex Brown, and cellist Dana Leong. He was funny: Introducing his “Fiddle Dreams,” D’Rivera explained that it was commissioned by the Library of Congress for jazz violin and piano, “but I’m playing it on clarinet because my violin is in the pawn shop.” The set was comprised of jaunty, bustling Latin jazz in various rhythms, including a rumba arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” (”Celebrating Dizzy” is the 2007 Festival’s theme, as this would have been the seminal trumpeter’s 90th year.)
While every musician was more than talented, I caught two who were phenomenally brilliant. One was D’Rivera’s 20-year-old pianist, Alex Brown, already a seasoned veteran who’s taught master classes at the University of Panama. D’Rivera noted that Brown had first seen the group’s confounding arrangements two days before, and mastered them all. Festival organizer Charles Fishman indicated that Brown has two more performances during the festival, accompanying Oscar Feldman at Bohemian Caverns Friday night and leading his own trio at Johnny’s Half Shell Saturday. See one of them: This kid’s got more talent than anyone has a right to.
The other prodigy was headliner Nnenna Freelon. Experiencing her is unique, and difficult to describe. Whereas Yarborough reached out with his music and D’Rivera worked the crowd with his wit, Freelon had us in the palm of her hand the instant she stepped onstage. Frankly, she looked a little crazy: hair slightly tousled, smile and gaze intense, and loose leopard-print dress continually falling off both shoulders. Nonetheless, she had a presense for which the word “regal” is inadequate; no royalty ever had such hypnotic command. Freelon was more like a high priestess.
Her voice, simultaneously clear and sandy, cast a spell through five songs, offering pathos and impeccably tasteful scatting. The concert’s highlight had D’Rivera joining her for Gillespie’s “Birk’s Works,” his clarinet accenting her (somehow) romantic scat with the only genuinely bluesy solo of the night. Also memorable was her intimate performance of “Stella by Starlight,” accompanied only by pianist Brandon McHugh. “This song has become an old friend,” Freelon said in introducing it, then evidenced that statement with the sensitivity of her vocal.
Charlie Fishman’s goal with the festival, besides celebrating Ellington’s legacy, is to elevate D.C. to a world-class jazz outpost. If last night’s gala is any indication, Fishman is damn close to that achieving that goal.