Ray Brown Trio with guests:
Dee Dee Bridgewater, Etta Jones, Nancy King, Diana Krall, Kevin Mahogany, Marlena Shaw
What does a bass player do when he's recording an album as a leader? Surely not an hour's worth of bass solos! Ray Brown solved the bass player's dilemma with a series of recordings under the Some of My Best Friends Are... heading. This 1998 release is the third in the series, following the earlier ...Piano Players and ...Saxophonists albums, and it's a gem. Featuring a sextet of fine vocalists, ranging from the well-established to the unknown, this CD is a class act from beginning to end. The rising jazz vocal superstar of the late '90s, Diana Krall, is showcased to great effect on "I Thought About You" and "Little Boy." Well-established female vocal veterans Etta Jones, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Marlena Shaw deliver superb performances, soulfully giving master lessons in the art of singing. The lone male singer spotlighted here, Kevin Mahogany, wraps his smooth baritone around the ballad, "Skylark," and swings gently on "The Party's Over."
The one unknown in this collection is Oregonian Nancy King. This veteran of the San Francisco and Pacific Northwest scenes shows she has a fine way with a ballad on "But Beautiful," and scats her way across the upbeat Brown original, "The Perfect Blues," that closes this set. Both of these songs also feature Antonio Hart's alto saxophone. In addition to Brown's trio mates Geoff Keezer and Gregory Hutchinson, musical support includes guitarist Russell Malone on two tracks and tenor saxman Ralph Moore cooking alongside Ms. Bridgewater on "Cherokee."
All Music Guide
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If there were such a title as "Gentleman of Jazz" then surely Ray Brown would be a strong contender for the position. Generally speaking, Ray is modest. More often than not he attempts to temper the many compliments he receives, seasoning them with a touch of humor and self-deprecation. "I don't know, maybe they never heard of me," he said about the public at large in conjunction with discussing this latest project. In truth, the fact remains that he stands as a jazz industry pillar, one of the "hardest working men in show business," one of the most consistent performers. In effect, Ray Brown serves as a kind of prototype and role model for anyone who wants to know the secret of how to sustain a successful fifty-plus-year career in jazz - or, for that matter, in any profession.
Despite Ray's kidding, he is about as close as we have to someone being a pan-generational household name in jazz. Yes, there are more popular musicians. Still, few, save a couple of his peers - Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, and Milt Jackson among them - have cut as wide a musical swath as Ray without compromising their respective musical essence or styles.
And the beauty of Ray is he's remarkably aware - in a positive rather than an egotistical way - of his stature within the jazz community. That's why in part he came up with the idea of doing this series of recordings for Telarc, each showcasing a single instrument. The Some of My Best Friends Are... projects allow him to zoom in on, explore, explain, and examine a section of what amounts to Ray's impressively expansive musical pastures.
First it should be noted that Ray, as always, continues to surround himself with extremely talented sidemen. He has for years now we can almost say decades - worked as the leader of a trio, exploiting the format as his core group. The most recent incarnation has, to put it mildly, jelled. Drummer Gregory Hutchinson has now been with Ray for nearly four years. Upon letting his most recent pianist, the wonderful Benny Green, fly the coup, Ray attracted Geoff Keezer, perhaps the most talented - and without question the most experienced - keyboardist of his generation. "Doctor K," as many of his colleagues like to call him, joined Ray well over a year ago and fit in just about as perfectly as anyone could. If you don't believe me, then give a few listens to Summertime (Telarc CD-83430). Geoff's work on that disc will, shall we say, underscore the point.
On this latest Some of My Best Friends Are... sojourn -which follows Ray's 1994 display of piano players (including Geoff) and a 1996 look at saxophonists - Ray addresses his infatuation with singers. It's no secret that between 1948 and 1952 Ray was married to one of the greatest ever Ella Fitzgerald. He says that in addition to the inevitability of exchange and closeness that takes place within a marriage, he and Ella impacted each other professionally. "Musically I rubbed off on her, and vocally she rubbed off on me." Additionally, Ray is quick to point out that in addition to Ella, he's worked with a distinguished list of vocalists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughan. "Singers trust me," says Ray matter-of-factly, in his all-business frame of mind. He's most assuredly correct in his assessment. "I've been around a lot of singers in my time. They know that I know a lot about singers."
As a result, Bay says, Some of My Best friends Are... Singers was a pleasure to undertake. "One thing I noticed," reiterated Ray, speaking specifically about this session, "is the singers trusted me when I made suggestions." They also accepted Ray's song selection, much of which he has done and continues to do intuitively. Often, Ray says, he doesn't know exactly what he's going to ask his accompanists to do until right before recording. Simply, he doesn't like to write or arrange too far in advance. "What happens to me is that I sit around (and start thinking). It's like painting. It's like putting the names to pictures." It's also the way Ray chose this particular group of vocalists. Each offered Ray a glimpse of what he was looking for and, says Ray, "All these people know how to interpret a song."
Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ray have now worked together quite a bit during the past few years, especially in Europe where they tour, most recently in trio and with symphonies. "She's a seasoned vocalist," says Ray. "She's done Broadway on top of Broadway; she sang with Thad [Jones] and Mel [Lewis]. She's just a great singer - in the 'legit' fashion."
"Marlena [Shaw] is another veteran," says the bassist, remembering the first time he heard her some ten years ago in Minneapolis at a festival. "After I finished, I sat in the audience with my wife," recalled Ray, saying how much he liked the way Marlena sang. He introduced himself and asked her if she wanted to collaborate, which the two have now done on several occasions. "She's more of a raw jazz singer with real natural jazz qualities. With her attack, she gives the feeling of a horn."
Then there's Etta Jones. "Oh boy," chimes Ray enthusiastically. "Here's another pro. She's been doing it a long time. She's a specialist in the blues mode." Then citing one of his old piano partners, Ray sums up Etta's contribution this way: "She's the Gene Harris of vocalists."
The newcomer in this compendium though certainly someone who's not short on recognition these past two years - is Diana Krall. "She's loaded with talent," notes Ray. "She's not a veteran, but she's continually improving. She can sell a song. She can take an old song and make you love it. On top of this," says Ray, "She's a jazz piano player and that helps her keep great time when she sings." Simply, says Ray, "She's a true musician."
The true wild card among this talented collection of vocalists is Nancy King, an Oregonian. "She's an unknown quantity who has been around for close to forty years," says Ray who met her more than twenty years ago on an obscure recording project. "She's an unbelievable scat singer, the feeling she gets.... The other ladies all know her." "In every town there are some musicians who are talented but do not receive proper recognition. I try to put at least one person on each of the Some of My Best Friends Are... recordings who should be heard. On the piano recording it was Dado Maroni; on'the saxophone project there were some newer guys who haven't been around for twenty years. This time it's Nancy King."
The sole male entry here is Kansas City native Kevin Mahogany, yet another rising star. Again, it was what Ray heard that first attracted him to Kevin. "I hadn't worked with him, but I did listen to him. I knew this was going to be a great hook-up once we got together in the studio." Trying to assess Kevin's niche, Ray summed it up this way: "He's the space between Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams," concluding without hesitation, "He's going to bridge that gap."
To augment this date Ray chose a trio of key instrumentalists, each who enhances specific selections. Tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and Ray met nearly ten years ago when the two served as members of the Phillip Morris Super Band. In the past fifteen years, the London native has recorded several sessions under his own name as well as worked for such noteworthy bandleaders as Roy Haynes, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutchinson, Jimmy Knepper, and Claudio Roditi. On this session, he contributes admirably to Dee Dee Bridgewater's rendition of the anthematic bebop classic Cherokee.
Meanwhile, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, who has distinguished himself in a relatively short period of time, can be heard on But Beautiful and on Ray's own The Perfect Blues, both sung by Nancy King. Having been exposed to the likes of saxophonist and fellow Baltimore native Gary Bartz, Antonio then studied at the city's School For The Arts. After he headed to Boston and Berklee College of Music where, before he moved to New York, he met and played with a number of peers including Roy Hargrove. In 1991, after a series of sideman dates, Hart released For The First Time. Thus, at twenty-two, he had already began a jazz career in earnest. Not surprisingly, he crossed paths with, and duly impressed Ray.
As for versatile guitarist Russell Malone, his stock remains on an upswing. A five-year stint with Harry Connick, Jr. led to a major label recording contract as well as to a multitude of diverse opportunities gigs that ran the gamut from a five-guitar ensemble playing the music of Charles Mingus to his latest long-standing assignment, as music director for Diana Krall. Ironically, Russell is heard here not with Diana, but alongside Kevin Mahogany during a reading of Skylark and in support of Etta Jones on her interpretation of (There Is) No Greater Love.
Some of My Best Friends Are... Singers represents yet another in a seemingly never-ending stream of cohesive, well - constructed and tightly orchestrated Ray Brown documents. Each entry in Ray's prolific career attests to the bassist's ability as a bandleader, an arranger, and one of the most musical and technically proficient bass players in jazz history. And he's been amazing us for more than fifty years.
- Jon W. Poses (A music columnist with the Columbia, Missouri Daily Tribune and a freelance writer)