Chris Heenan and Jeremy Drake scored a coup in landing master alto player Rob Brown for a solo performance at L.A.'s Salvation Theatre on August 4th. Not content to pull off that minor miracle, they also presented on the same bill the best Henry Grimes unit to appear locally so far. An overflow crowd and an August night turned the small black walled performance space into an airless oven. Brown and most of the audience sweated through their shirts before the first piece ended.
Brown came to prominence in the mid-'90s as a member of William Parker’s In Order to Survive band. Since then, he continued working with Parker in the Little Huey Orchestra, and on the bassist’s classic small group recordings like O’Neal’s Porch and Raining on the Moon. Besides recording a handful of albums under his own name, he contributed to essential collections by Whit Dickey, Matthew Shipp, and Joe Morris.
His alto sound taps into the old time sweetness of bandstand players, but his sensibilities keep Brown poised on the edge of tomorrow. He plays heartbreaking blues, articulate lightning runs, and leaps into the unknown with both feet and casual disregard. He easily stands among the most romantic instrumentalists, and few can touch his technique.
For the three improvised pieces, Brown was a fountain of ideas. He passionately created long, shapely melodic lines that endlessly spooled into compelling variations. He took the demanding art of solo improvisation and flexed it. On alto and flute, he played with enough intensity to make you believe he sweat this hard every night. Singlehandedly he used up most of the air in the room.
After a short intermission, bassist Henry Grimes played with Dan Clucas (trumpet) and Richie West (drum set). “Drum set,” not “drums,” because West utilizes more than just the heads. Sometimes he alters the heads with gongs, bells, found objects, all of which he shifts and replaces without missing a beat.
With Grimes bowing, Clucas played with his hand molding tones from his mute. West entered with mallets and sticks on rims. Grimes half-plucked, half bowed a duet with West, then Clucas returned using his hand over the mute. West continued unfolding a fluid percussion series using bells, scraping cymbals, knocking a can over his drum set. Clucas removed the mutes and played wide open until Grimes ended it.
The second piece had West and Grimes working a walking rhythm with Clucas playing clear toned runs. Clucas and Grimes picked up the pace in duet, then Grimes soloed arco. West resumed with rolling drums and extended techniques. Clucas played a melancholy melody muted. Their third piece stayed mostly a trio effort, with Clucas burning the trail.
Hopefully everyone playing and attending emphasized fluid replacement over the ensuing couple of days.