The BassMaker

When bass legend Ray Brown speaks, he takes long pauses between thoughts. At first you might interpret these silent intervals as an unspoken cue to move on to a new subject, especially if you're anxious to keep the continuity of an interview. Before you have uttered barely three words of a new question, however, he continues right where he left off, in a gesture of the knowing indifference of his aged experience to the impetuosity of your youth. This only has to happen once or twice before you learn to submit to the tempo of his conversation, which is as rhythmically impeccable as one of his bass lines. When questioning a man renowned the world over for his flawless sense of time, you'd do best to let him make his own pace.It would be a mistake to read his deliberate manner and his careful assurance as lethargy; Ray Brown's pace is a marvel after fifty-some-odd years of making music. The 72-year-old has recorded nearly ten albums in the past five years alone and continues to keep a touring schedule that would be considered rigorous by any standards. When I caught up with him, he had just returned from Europe the night before, although his lucid and engaging talk never belied a hint of jet lag.Brown is one of the few living jazz musicians who had a role in the music of the be-bop era. When Brown arrived in New York in 1946 at age twenty, Dizzy Gillespie immediately hired him for the legendary group that also included Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Recalling the excitement of that period, Ray says: "I think we knew it was something special ... Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie really had something going, and it consumed everybody."After leaving Diz's group in 1948, he formed his own trio with Hank Jones and Charlie Smith, and soon became a member of the Jazz at the Philharmonic big band. During his 18 years with the band, he played in every major club and concert hall in the United States, Europe and the Far East. On one of those tours, Brown met piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson, with whom he established a musical and personal rapport that continues today. His work with the Oscar Peterson trio is probably the Ray Brown we know best: the huge sound, the solid consistent rumbling of his bass lines, in short, the epitome of swing. Until the trio disbanded in 1966, Peterson, Brown and various drummers pioneered a style that fused a propensity for up-tempo madness and complicated arrangements with the poignant honesty of the blues.Since signing on with the Telarc label in 1989, he has hit a particularly productive stride. His most recently released album, "Summertime," with his current trio of Geoff Keezer on piano and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, has all the consummate Ray Brown elements we love to hear: some classy arrangements, forward-looking soloing and gritty swing.Forthcoming in September is the third in the series he began in '95 with "Some Of My Best Friends Are ... The Piano Players" and followed up with "Some Of My Best Friends Are ... The Sax Players" (1996). This time it's the singers that get the spotlight, and the album features the seasoned faculty of Dee Bridgewater, Marlena Shaw and Etta Jones, the young talent of Diana Krall and Kevin Mahogany and the obscure-yet-stunning Nancy King. "It's a concept album," Brown says. "What you have to deal with is how to make them sound as good as they can sound, in a way that's different from what they've been doing with their own band. I just try to set them up by taking a tune and doing something different with it." The album not only features the singers in some shining moments -- Diana Krall's scatting on "Little Boy," Kevin Mahogany's tender treatment of "Skylark," and Oregon-native Nancy King trading fours with piano and sax on "The Perfect Blues" -- but also underscores the Brown group's utmost competence in the supporting role.Yet Brown says the secret to playing behind a singer is not necessarily always about support, but sensitivity. "On one hand you have to just listen," he says "but I think some singers really want players ... like a Nancy King ... she feeds on chord changes, but Etta Jones knows what she wants, too: you've got to supply her with the right feel and let her do her thing ... that's the challenge." Brown and his trio of Keezer and Hutchinson (with guest appearances by Antonio Hart and Ralph Moore on saxes and Russell Malone on guitar) rise to the challenge to produce an album that for all its disparate feels and voices gels exceedingly well.Always the humble gentleman, when asked about his practice habits he'll reply that "when you get older you practice just to stay limber so that you can play what you used to play good." But not only do Brown's fingers sound as limber as ever, his approach to the music grows more graceful and urbane with each new undertaking.


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