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Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet: Tuesday Night

Jack Bowers By

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For more than sixteen years, jazz fans in and around Portland, Oregon, have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing drummer Mel Brown's hard-blowing Jazz Messengers-style septet each Tuesday Night at Jimmy Mak's nightclub. Among its mainstays is pianist Gordon Lee who has been writing and arranging for the group almost since he enlisted shortly afterward and in fact much earlier, as the then-sextet recorded an album of his music, Gordon Bleu, in the late 1980s, a brief time before Brown's ensemble vanquished some seven hundred other groups to win the 1989 Hennessy Jazz Search competition sponsored by Playboy magazine.

Even though Tuesday Night, the group's first recording since Gordon Bleu, is advertised as "Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet," Lee is an indispensable part of the team, and without his presence at the keyboard this would be a sextet: trumpet, trombone, tenor and alto saxophones on the front line backed by drums and bass. A pretty good sextet, it should be noted, but one that is not only enlarged but considerably enhanced by Lee's burnished piano (not to mention his engaging charts). Besides arranging everything, Lee wrote all but one of the album's nine songs. The exception is the melodic opener, "Full Moon" (handsomely introduced by Lee's luminous piano), which is based on Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 and was a mega-hit for Frank Sinatra back in 1945 as "Full Moon (And Empty Arms)." Tenor Renato Caranto and trumpeter Derek Sims add fluent solos.

Brown's drums usher in the first of Lee's themes, the prancing "Low Profile," which precedes his colorful tone poem "Sunset on the Beach." After mastering the minor-key "Machangulo" the group is off to "Istanbul" for some beguiling Middle Eastern fare before returning home "Blue & Bluer," a somber mood underscored by Caranto's melancholy tenor. "Hoy Veo" is a throbbing dance, "Change Your Dreams" an even-tempered showpiece for Lee's piano and John Nastos' nimble alto sax, "Urgent Message" a dashing throwback to the animated themes once favored by drummer Art Blakey's renowned Messengers.

Based on this sample, it's easy to discern why Brown's group has had a steady gig for so many years. Soloists are consistently bright, the ensemble trim, the rhythm section (Lee, Brown, bassist Andre St. James) alert and supportive. And thanks to the decision to produce an album, enthusiasts need no longer wait until Tuesday Night to share the excitement.

Track Listing: Full Moon; Low Profile; Sunset on the Beach; Machangulo; Istanbul; Blue & Bluer; Hoy Veo; Change Your Dreams; Urgent Message.

Personnel: Gordon Lee: piano, composer, wooden frogs; Mel Brown: leader, drums; Derek Sims: trumpet; Renato Caranto: tenor sax; John Nastos: alto sax; Stan Bock: trombone; Andre St. James: bass.

Title: Tuesday Night | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: OA2 Records

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