Saturday, February 6, 2016

Pick me, Mr. Brown! Pick me!

I haven’t played with a whole lot of jazz bands and ensembles, but one thing I noticed when I did: As long as the band had a good bass player, I was able to hold my own, and even (on rare occasions) shine. I suppose the fact that the piano is part of the rhythm section along with the bass, but I just think that when the bass is driving the song, whether lagging or tipping, it’s one less thing the piano player has to worry about, making his job much easier. I think this compendium of hits from Ray Brown demonstrates that fact.

Taken from a 23-year stretch, five of some of the best jazz pianists of the last fifty years are here: Monty Alexander, Cedar Walton, Gene Harris, Benny Green, and my personal favorite, Geoffrey Keezer (who I happened to meet a few years back). It doesn’t hurt to have drummers like Jeff Hamilton and Elvin Jones, or soloists like Terrence Blanchard, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Stanley Turrentine, but ultimately, this music shines for me because of Ray Brown letting the piano players ring out.

Notice how Mr. Brown takes center stage, but thoughtfully includes the drums and piano in the shot. He's part of the rhythm section, and I think it's great that he acknowledges that.

Probably my favorite track is Gene Harris’ take on Summertime, which he turns into a rolling, vamping, boogie-woogie blues that is utterly fascinating. (The crowd goes wild!) That’s saying a lot when you have competition like Monty Alexander on Blue Bossa, Gene Harris on Have You Met Miss Jones, and Cedar Walton doing Horace Silver one better on Sister Sadie. These in turn have to compete with even older standards, which may not even have been standards the first few times Ray Brown played them, like Cherokee and Caravan. There’s just so much great music here, and I love being able to study how the bass frees up the other instruments while also dictating to them the terms of the song. I hear it a little differently each time.

Thankfully, I’m sort of kind of sticking to my New Year’s resolutions, and I’ve actually been playing piano a lot more of late. Maybe I’ll run into Mr. Brown before long and I can cajole him into playing with me. (Okay, no.) But I will say, the next time I run into a capable, dynamic bass player, I’m going to see about latching on. You never know who the next Ray Brown is going to be, but I do know one thing: He’ll need a piano player. And one more thing I know: I play piano. (Kind of.)