Last week I saw something that's far more common on screen than in real life: the absolute fulfillment of a dream. Nope, nobody triggered the casino lights and buzzers, got surprised by the Prize Patrol, or found Prince(ss) Charming on the Internet. This particular triumph is portable, permanent, and capable of delighting complete strangers Anita Brown's terrific first CD, 27 East,
which emerged eight years after she morphed from veteran music teacher and first-call copyist to serious composer and bandleader. Brown wrote and arranged every track, conducting the superb Anita Brown Jazz Orchestra (ABJO) through a journey full of power, depth and imagination. Recorded in March 2003 and released on August 11, it's a stunning debut although "debut" seems the wrong word for an artist whose vision is this fully realized. Brown's music is so evocative that it's nearly visual.
For one thing, she manages to describe the ocean in jazz. Three pieces were directly inspired by her beloved Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island: "The Lighthouse," "Shifting Tides of Montauk", and the title track, which refers to the road that leads there, and signifies its continuing role in her life as a spiritual touchstone. "The Lighthouse," written at its base on a chill February day, conjures the watchful protectiveness of that ancient structure, complete with its steady, searching beam. Its melody continues to haunt me, as does the soaring, crystalline trumpet of Greg Gisbert piercing the gloom and conquering the crashing waves.
So far this all sounds very serious. Well, it is, in the sense that Brown is dedicated and immensely talented, but it leaves out one of the crucial elements that make her music so enjoyable: her exuberance. When I first met her briefly at IAJE two years ago, I was impressed with her intelligence, humor, and open-hearted energy. Today, watching her conduct her ABJO performing her own music is to witness joy in its purest form, as well as a distinct challenge to the laws of physics for I do believe her feet occasionally left the ground as she danced her people through the music.
I saw all this recently at Brown's CD release party at the Hudson House in Nyack, New York, a fine restaurant and jazz club which used to be Town Hall. Today the former jail cells are used to hold the liquor, while music pours out from the old courthouse upstairs. The room has ornate tin walls and ceiling, many windows, about a dozen generous tables, and a small bar at the back; it's carpeted and cozy, with excellent acoustics. The band files in, relaxed and joking (Brown says her third criterion for selection, after musicianship and tone, is humor). They fit pretty comfortably on the stage, all sixteen men and one woman, Theresa MacDonnell, on French horn. (Mary Ann McSweeney, who plays a fine bass on the CD, was not available; there were a number of top-level subs who performed admirably).
Also in happy attendance were Brown's parents: Ted Brown, the multirecorded tenorist and leader, and pianist Phyllis Terrazzano Brown, who met when both were studying with Lennie Tristano. Brown's relatives, all musical, used to sing six-part harmony in the car. "I was always interested in the notes between the bottom and top," says Brown, which helps explain the intricate inner lines that characterize her compositions. Other influences came later. "I flow straight from Thad [Jones] to Gil [Evans] through Maria [Schneider], then Gil and Jim McNeely," she explains. This two-time BMI finalist also studied the voicings of Stravinsky, especially his "Rite of Spring": "The man really knows how to write dissonant harmony - it comes forth with such clarity, it's analogous to 3D, visually." Echoes of Stravinsky are clear in the brilliant, driving "Add Venom, Shake Well," which translates a festering nyaah-nyaah into music you can dance to.
The ABJO opens with the energizing "Pete's Feet" by Jim McNeely, who is also co- producer of 27 East. Next on the program (and opening the CD) is "Wake Up," a witty self-spoof about the time Brown fell asleep in the front row of a Carnegie Hall Jazz Band concert, and Jon Faddis got 3000 people to shout "wake up!" at her (Note: it didn't work). In a strong, clear soprano, Brown sings a hip version of Brahms's Lullaby over the swinging band. This is followed by the intricately textured "Prelude and Transfiguration," which didn't fit on the CD, but which clearly pleased the ABJO, which was full of smiles.
I could only stay for the first set, and I'm glad I didn't miss the "Shifting Tides of Montauk" tour-de-force, which took 11 months to write. It takes the listener from low to high tide, with hints of menacing undertow and a gleaming, expanded trumpet section building into exciting R&B, Tower-of-Power-meets-Stravinsky moments. (The ever-meticulous Brown checked its descriptive validity by taking her disc player to Montauk and conducting the piece to the ocean). Then there's the luscious "The Touch of You," a grand, swelling film-noir ballad in the "Laura" tradition, the gentle, lilting "Alexander's Lullaby Waltz" and finally, 27 East, the summation and serene homecoming, complete with soothing waves at the end.
Like the music, the CD package is unusually well-designed and gorgeous, with beautiful beach photography, many candids of the players, and a long list of contributors who helped pay for the project. Always the educator, Brown wrote the informative liners, articulating the intent, structure, and splendid solos on each track. 27 East is Brown from start to finish: conceived, executed, and (ouch) slowly financedwhich brings me back to my initial point about fulfillment.
Anita Brown is popping-proud that her CD is precisely what she wanted it to be, produced without interference or compromise. Her long, rough road made her victory that much sweeter, and purified the joy I saw at Hudson House.
And how was the rest of the night? "Slammin'!" she said, starting that levitation thing again...
Track listing: Wake Up!, The Lighthouse, Alexander's Lullaby Waltz, Shifting Tides of Montauk, The Touch of You, Add Venom, Shake Well, 27 East
Personnel: Dave Pietro, Todd Bashore, Tom Christenson, Jason Rigby, Ed Xiques (reeds), Jon Owens, Evan Barker, Scott Harrell, Greg Gisbert, Nick Marchione (trumpets), Theresa MacDonnell (French horn), Mark Patterson, Pete McGuinness, Bruce Eldern, Mike Christianson, Jeff Nelson (trombones), Mike Holober (piano), Mary Ann McSweeney (bass), Tim Horner, Lee Finkelstein (drums), Anita Brown (vocals), Anita Brown and Jim McNeely (co-producers), James Farber (engineer), Dave Pietro and Ben Kono (production assistance)