We don’t hand out stars with our reviews at All About Jazz, but if we did, this spectacular tribute to legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown by the Mark Masters Jazz Ensemble would easily earn five of them—or a solid ten on the oft-quoted “scale of one-to-ten.” Some albums are good, some are better than good, while others, like this one, are quite simply in a class by themselves.
For starters, we have the superlative compositions of Brownie himself, many of which have found their way into the standard jazz repertoire. All of the selections save one (Benny Golson’s poignant “I Remember Clifford”) were written by the prodigious bop pacesetter who died in an auto accident in 1956 at age twenty-six. Next, there are the superlative arrangements by Jack Montrose (“Joy Spring,” “Daahoud,” “Bones for Jones”) and Masters himself, which capture brilliantly the essence of Clifford’s musical purpose. Montrose was the arranger in 1955 on the marvelous album The Clifford Brown Ensemble Featuring Zoot Sims, in this reviewer’s opinion one of the greatest small-group recordings of that decade, if not of all time.
Last but by no means least, there’s the blue-chip eleven-piece ensemble that Masters has employed to breathe life into the charts, which they do with notable awareness and passion. One needs an outstanding trumpet section to honor one of the greatest trumpeters of them all, and they don’t come much better than the foursome of Kye Palmer, Ron King, Marc Lewis and Ron Stout—and, as a bonus, featured trumpet soloist Tim Hagans.
Besides arranging, Montrose plays tenor sax (so good to hear him again), adding his special solo voice on four numbers. Cecilia Coleman also caught my ear repeatedly, comping and improvising wonderfully throughout and crowning the session with a lovely solo piano treatment of Brownie’s “Joy Spring.”
The album opens with Montrose’s buoyant ensemble version of that same blissful “Spring,” which encompasses robust solos by Smulyan, Hagans and Coleman, plus Brownie’s original statement, meticulously reprised by unison trumpets (a device used persuasively elsewhere, especially on the fast-paced “Sweet Clifford,” which follows). Hagans and the rhythm section have “I Remember Clifford” to themselves with the full ensemble weighing in on “Minor Mood,” “LaRue,” “Sandu,” “Bones for Jones” and “Swingin’.” Montrose and the four trumpets (sans Hagans) solo on “Sandu“ and “Bones” while almost everyone trades fours on “Swingin’.”
Had Clifford Brown lived, who knows how much he might have accomplished or how venerated his name would be today. Masters and the American Jazz Institute’s Clifford Brown Project deserve a hearty round of applause for reminding us in such a delightful way how extraordinary Brownie’s music really is. This is a thoroughly agreeable album, and all one could possibly wish for would have been the inclusion of a few more of Clifford’s spellbinding compositions such as “Tiny Capers,” “Gerkin for Perkin” or “Blues Walk.” But one can’t have everything...
Personnel: Mark Masters, leader, arranger; Tim Hagans, Kye Palmer, Ron King, Marc Lewis, Ron Stout, trumpet; Jack Montrose, tenor sax, arranger; Gary Smulyan, baritone sax; Dave Woodley, trombone; Cecilia Coleman, piano; Putter Smith, bass; Joe LaBarbera, drums.