Marion Brown is often referred to as America's greatest unknown musician and this he very well is. His output has been small, but his wonderful alto horn can be heard on some of the finest records madenotably on Archie SheppFire Music (Impulse, 1965) and with John Coltrane on Ascension (Impulse, 1965). And then there have been his own fine recordings for ESP Disk, including Why Not? which is being re-released on the forward-thinking label for the first time since it was originally released in 1966.
It is a joy to hear the bright and clear sound of Brown's alto all over again. Clearly his understanding of the altissimo voice and its vibrant tone is unprecedented. He traverses its range often and with wide latitude, giving himself plenty of air. As a result of this he may play fewer notes, but these are so often chosen to highlight the resonant brightness of each character. Brown also plays with a deeply spiritual sense of music. This may not be as obvious as it was in the case of Coltrane, whose song titles spoke to the spiritual side of things, but when Brown chose notes to play they are often heraldic and echo with praise of human condition.
This is what makes Why Not? not simply a harking back to the path breaking music of the '60s, but also a deeply sensitive recording with an enduring quality all its own. "La Sorrella" based on a simple, rapidly ascending scale sets a delightful mood that is reflected in the playing of the entire quartet, especially in the harmonically advanced solo of Sirone as well as in the sunny splashes of Rashied Ali on the cymbals. "Fortunato" is more meditative and has a distinct melodic line that is repeated often by Brown with deeply expressed feelings. His emotions are echoed by Stanley Cowell piano.
"Why Not?" stretches more freely along melodic lines. Its elastic structure suggests unlimited harmonic possibilities to Brown, who responds by driving the song often into celestial regions of his horn, incorporating shrill notes, phrases, and complete thoughts and ideas. Ali also responds to the challenge of time in this song, with brilliantly off-beat phrases and rapid rolls of the wrist. His solo is colorful and melodic, while remaining loosely timed. Sirone builds up his solo with a series of spectacularly annunciated triads. Despite its freely espoused melody, the song has a definite beginning and end as well.
"Homecoming" is an emotional piece reflecting all the temporal and spiritual separations that Brown may have encountered in his life up to that point. The distinct pauses in the opening melody suggest speak to the thoughtful, almost ponderous nature of the song. Like "Why Not?" this song too has a certain elasticity to it and this is wonderfully expressed by both Brown and Cowell with clusters of notes and block chords. The release of this record is sure to find newer legions of listeners for Marion Brown.
La Sorrella; Fortunato; Why Not?; Homecoming.
Marion Brown: alto saxophone; Stanley Cowell: piano; Norris "Sirone" Jones: bass; Rashied Ali: drums.
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