Once again the Lithuanian NoBusiness team has unearthed a jewel from the archives, this time an unissued live recording by two masters of the 1960s New Thing who thrived thereafter. Alto saxophonist Marion Brown, a participant on John Coltrane's legendary Ascension (Impulse, 1965), and pianist Dave Burrell, a stalwart of Archie Shepp's outfits, combined on a number of releases under Brown's name, such as Juba-Lee (Fontana, 1967) and Three For Shepp (Impulse, 1967), but after that time had only collaborated sparsely until this 1981 duet.
The reunion at the Black Musicians' Conference, held at the University of Massachusetts, demonstrates that the duo's relationship had lost none of its zing. In tandem they foster an intimate affectionate vibe from a mixture of five originals and two Billy Strayhorn classics. Although boasting serious fire-music credentials, you wouldn't know it from the tuneful, often swinging, blues-inflected interpretations which offered on this 75-minute program.
Brown's coolly bittersweet tone and wavering human-cry on alto saxophone creates a sense of pathos and vulnerability which he exploits to the full. He insistently develops his ideas as if recounting stories. Burrell has always been unique in his ability to simultaneously look backwards and forwards and he takes a skewed approach to the tradition, particularly manifest through the ragtime-informed rhythms with which he underpins not only his own pieces but even the standards.
A wistful feel surfaces more than once, first apparent in Brown's unaccompanied introduction to his own "Gossip," where the emotional outpouring comes freighted with an austere beauty, and then later in his delivery of Burrell's "Crucificado." However that same song also showcases one of Brown's most intense performances on the disc, where he gives hints of his pedigree as he runs his notes together into a chirruping stream, accented by staccato leaps in register.
Burrell's main outlets for extended expression come on intros, like the tumbling cadences which open Brown's Latin-infused "La Placita," or as part of longer cuts such as his own propulsive "Punaluu Peter," the first of three titles which originate from his jazz opera masterwork Windward Passages (hatArt, 1980). While at times both men almost seem content to let the splendor of the tunes speak for themselves as during a tender rendition of Strayhorn's "My Little Brown Book" and a charming reading of the pianist's "Pua Mae 'Ole," they are not beyond taking insouciant liberties as the closing "Lush Life" proves.
While Burrell is still with us, and indeed was the honoree of the 2018 Vision Festival in NYC, Brown died in 2010. This album presents a wonderful opportunity to renew acquaintance with a gripping voice who should not be forgotten. What's more, with a carefully cleaned up sound source and immaculately detailed liner essays, the label provides a blueprint for how such projects should be tackled.
Gossip/Fortunado; La Placita; My Little Brown Book; Punaluu Peter; Pua Mae ’Ole; Crucificado; Lush Life.
Marion Brown: alto saxophone; Dave Burrell: piano.
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