Chicago-based saxophonist Ari Brown‘s been performing since the ’60s, but he’s only released three studio albums and one live disc as a leader. He began his career in R&B and soul bands, making the move to jazz in the early ’70s, when he joined the AACM. During the ’70s and ’80s, he worked as a sideman with everyone from Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton and Von Freeman to Sonny Stitt and McCoy Tyner. He’s been a member of percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio since 1989, making six albums including the new Follow the Sun. His first album as a leader, Ultimate Frontier, came out in 1996, and his latest, Groove Awakening, was released in October.
Like many tenor players, Brown doubles on soprano; unlike all but a very few (Rahsaan Roland Kirk being the most obvious example), he occasionally plays both horns at once. He’s also a more than capable pianist, as he demonstrates a few times on Follow the Sun. On Groove Awakening, the keys are manned by his younger brother, Kirk, while Yosef Ben Israel handles the bass and Avreeayl Ra plays drums. This is the same band that’s been heard on each of Brown’s previous recordings, and they’re clearly an attuned and sympathetic ensemble at this point. Groove Awakening is a burly album. Ra slams and rocks the kit, blasting his way through opening cut “One for Ken” like he’s been listening to John Bonham. The mix is bottom-heavy; Ra and Ben Israel get plenty of room, forcing the Brown brothers to work for the listener’s attention. They do so. Ari Brown’s playing is thick and slightly fuzzy around the edges, and steeped in the blues, almost like if Pharoah Sanders was a bar-walker in 1962. When he puts both horns in his mouth for the first time, three and a half minutes into the title track, the effect is startling, as the horns seem to waver on the edge of out-of-tuneness and get much more distorted, like they’re not miked properly. (He also briefly vocalizes through the horn toward the end of the 11-minute “Enka,” which is substantially weirder-sounding.) This album lives up to its title, letting the band groove at length; Kirk Brown‘s piano solo on “Veda’s Dance” breaks things down to the point of sounding like Isaac Hayes on “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” from Hot Buttered Soul, and they graft John Coltrane‘s “Lonnie’s Lament,” from Crescent, onto a reggae rhythm that works surprisingly well. Though Groove Awakening runs over an hour, and its middle stretch is taken up with four tracks lasting between eight and 11 minutes, it never turns into a slog; its pleasures are pure ones, with everyone involved playing straight from the heart. [Buy Groove Awakening on Amazon]
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Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio originally featured Malachi Favors of the Art Ensemble of Chicago on bass; when he passed away, Yosef Ben Israel filled the vacant position. The group has welcomed guests many times in the past, recording albums with Pharoah Sanders, Billy Bang, and David Murray. On Follow the Sun, they add two names to that list: vocalist Dwight Trible, and saxophonist/bagpiper Duke Payne. Yes, that’s right—jazz bagpipes. Payne is one of two bagpipers I know of in jazz, the other being the late Rufus Harley, who recorded four Atlantic albums in the mid ’60s now anthologized on the intermittently interesting Courage: The Atlantic Recordings. With a vocalist and second saxophonist present, Ari Brown is free to move to piano. He’s got a lighter touch on the keys than his brother, giving a dance-band feel to the album-opening title track even as Trible grunts and wails in a manner slightly reminiscent of Leon Thomas, minus the yodeling. Disappointingly for those who don’t like vocals, he dominates much of Follow the Sun; he’s present on six of nine tracks, only stepping away on versions of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” (on which Payne and Brown both play saxophone), “Inner Heart” (on which Brown returns to piano in extremely heavy/free fashion, almost recalling Matthew Shipp‘s work on David S. Ware‘s Surrendered), and “Our Journey,” another, more blustery two-saxophone piece possibly inspired by African music that reminds me of Archie Shepp‘s “The Magic of Ju-Ju.” Payne’s bagpipes, by contrast, are only heard on one track, “Great Black Music,” and Payne plays them in a manner that’s more desert than Highlands; you’re more likely to think of the Master Musicians of Jajouka than Scottish pipers. This isn’t the strongest Ritual Trio disc, but it definitely has its moments, and any excuse to hear the undersung Ari Brown is a good one. [Buy Follow the Sun on Amazon]
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