Ray Brown Walks On

Ray Brown Walks On

by Leslie Gourse

copyright © 2003 Leslie Gourse

Ray Brown went to heaven when he died last year and was given a big house on a hill. A Pope protested to St. Peter, saying "I've been a Pope all these years, and you give a bass player the big house on the hill!?" St. Peter said, "We've had all the Popes up here, but we only have one Ray Brown."

This heavenly release by TelArc of two disks recorded in the 1990s and 2000 called The Ray Brown Trio: Walk On shows why. Born on Oct. 13, 1926, he was 19 when he started playing with Dizzy Gillespie, the foremost proponent of bebop. Brown then married and accompanied Ella Fitzgerald and went on to the more adventurous role as an explorer in instrumental music with the Oscar Peterson trio. It toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic, a leading showcase for musicians, and recorded such great albums as "The Trio Live from Chicago" at the London House in 1961 and " . . . At the Stratford Shakespearian Festival" in 1956.

Brown won many polls and Grammy Awards and countless salutes from other musicians, critics and fans. The depth and resonance of his sound provided a standard by which other bassists still measure themselves. His only peer in his generation was Oscar Pettiford. Dizzy said Brown "was the strongest, most fluid and imaginative bassist in modern jazz at that time with the exception of Oscar Pettiford."

Brown played with catgut strings and without amplifiers, stringing his bass high over the bridge. Unlike Pettiford, Brown, perenially inquisitive about music, studied with symphonic players as he toured the world. Young bassists such as Rufus Reid and Dave Holland, choosing Brown as their role model, went on to win honors, too.

He moved to play in the studios in Hollywood beginning in 1966 for important, popular projects, such as "Killer Joe," the film "Bird," and Natalie Cole's album "Unforgettable," which elevated her career to its greatest heights. With bassist Andy Simpkins, he played chilling, suspenseful, eerie music for the murder scene of the Clutter family on the soundtrack of "In Cold Blood." Brown could play any style of music as well or usually better than anyone else.

The 10 tracks on Disc 1 of "Walk On," recorded in 2000 with the electrifying pianist Geoff Keezer and drummer Karrim Riggins include "America The Beautiful," which accelerates to a thrilling fast pace. The trio goes on, always rooted firmly by Brown, with Jule Styne's swinging "Sunday" and Victor Young's warm, romantic ballad "Stella By Starlight." There's an original Brown suite among the more familiar songs, all of them played with dazzling virtuosity.

Brown traveled the world with trios made up of talented young players who vied for the chance to play under his wing. His fascination with the foundation of the music is clear; he not only propelled a rhythm section such as this one, he had a balanced approach to his instrument's capacities and the strengths of his sidemen. He knew exactly when to showcase the mezmerizing Keezer and when to bask in the limelight himself. He kept the men glued together, and they played with one voice.

With other sidemen on Disk 2, such as pianist Monty Alexander and Benny Green, and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Lewis Nash (Brown chose wisely and well, the way he placed his notes), and arrangers Christian McBride and John Clayton in the 1990s, Brown brought out the beauties and swung through the diverse pieces Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" and "The Nearness of You," in a Latin mood, Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," and "Down By The Riverside." Not even Monk, famous for criticizing the way other musicians played his chords, would have argued with Brown. The spiritual "Down By The Riverside," which Brown ends with the word "Amen," will probably always stand as a fitting cap to his career.

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