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Ray Brown: A Jazz Odyssey

C. Andrew Hovan By

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I think the music changes about every fifteen to twenty years. You get a new wave of musicians and they have different ideas. But the basic core of the music remains the same.
While it seems that things have come to a point in the history of jazz when many of the music's elder statesmen are leaving us and there are fewer and fewer masters left to pass on the proverbial flame, 75-year-old bassist Ray Brown continues to champion the mainstream cause while inflecting his own music with the breath of experiences that have enriched his diversified career. From the early development of bebop to his current trio, which has served as an incubator for such piano talents as Benny Green and Geoffrey Keezer, Brown has seen and done it all and he continues to share his music with appreciative audiences around the world while touring up to seven months out of the year.

Brown's current group includes drummer Karriem Riggins and pianist Larry Fuller, the threesome working regularly now for about two and a half years. His latest Telarc release, Brown's 14th for the label, is due out on June 25th. Some of My Best Friends Are Guitarists continues the "Best Friends" series that has featured the trio with guest pianists, trumpeters, saxophonists, and singers. Such masters as Kenny Burrell and Herb Ellis are on hand to take part in the festivities, while Russell Malone and John Pizzarelli speak for the latest generation of plectrists.

From his home in California, Brown recently sat down to chat about his current activities, past experiences, and thoughts the jazz music's future fortunes.

All About Jazz: Thanks for taking the time to chat this evening, Ray. So tell us about your current trio.

Ray Brown: My current group is Kariem Riggins on drums and Larry Fuller on piano.

AAJ: How long have you been together as a trio?

RB: About two and a half years.

AAJ: Over the past ten years, you fostered some great groups that have been proving grounds for such pianists as Benny Green and Geoff Keezer. How do you scout out new talent for your groups?

RB: Well, you hear these people as you travel around. They're playing at different places and you go out and listen to them and make notes and file that away for future reference.

AAJ: Tell me more about Larry Fuller.

RB: I like the way he plays. He's got good jazz chops, but he can get those blues like Gene Harris sometimes, so it's a nice combination.

AAJ: Why does the piano trio best suit your needs?

RB: We don't call it a piano trio, that's what you guys call it. It's a bass trio.

AAJ: I stand corrected. So why does the bass trio appeal to your musical tastes?

RB: That instrumentation can play all kinds of music and all kinds of tempos, everybody can get solo space, and they can sound like a real soft trio or they can sound like a big band. So you can get all kinds of sounds out of three people like that.

AAJ: So you're on the road quite a lot with your trio. How do you put up with all the trials and tribulations?

RB: For starters, I like it. If you like what you do, you can do it for a long time and enjoy it. I think the problems come when you have a job you don't even enjoy.

AAJ: Let's go back a bit in time. You were fortunate enough to have a long run with Norman Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic." Tell me about that experience.

RB: When I first joined that organization it was a thrill of a lifetime. They had all the people that I had records of at home and used to read about- guys like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Roy Eldridge. When you're young and you're playing you imagine that you're playing with some of these guys so to get there and play with them is the ultimate thrill. It was a big massive jam session, but you had to do your homework and learn all the tunes. They didn't ask you if you knew it, they just said, 'we're going to play such and such,' and if you're good enough to be in that band you ought to know the tunes.

AAJ: Through that work you ultimately hooked up with pianist Oscar Peterson for an extended run. How did that experience differ from those JATP jam sessions?

RB: Oscar wrote arrangements and we rehearsed. It was a very fine tuned organization with a lot of rehearsal and a lot of intricate arrangements to get through.

AAJ: Going back even further to your early experiences with music, I've read that you started out playing piano, but then switched to the bass in high school.

RB: They had so many piano players that you didn't get to play very often. The school provided basses and the class I was in had two bass players and there were three basses. So there was one lying on the floor everyday. So I asked the guy, 'If I were playing that would I get to play everyday?' He said, "Yeah, I need another bassist." That was an open door right there.

AAJ: You've been around long enough to see jazz go through many stylistic changes. Do you have any particular style that you listen to more than others?

RB: I think the music changes about every fifteen to twenty years You get a new wave of musicians and they have different ideas. But the basic core of the music remains the same.

AAJ: So do you feel confident about the current state of jazz?

RB: I think the future is in great hands. These kids are playing very well. They have a good understanding and they play their instruments better than we played them when I was that age.

AAJ: But these young guys have technology and the history of the music to draw on more than what your generation had.

RB: As a lot of time goes on, the more you have to draw from. But, we don't have another Einstein yet. That's strange, but then maybe it isn't strange because maybe Einsteins don't show up but every 250 years.

AAJ: So, how would you like to be remembered in terms of your place in jazz history?

RB: I'm not going to sit here and talk about what I contributed; that's for somebody else to do. But, I just want to be remembered as a guy who gave his best and I hope that whatever few good ideas I had that they grab them and develop them and do better.

Photo Credit

Jose Horna


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