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One Bass Player, Please

Ray Brown’s Last Recording is a Tuneful Slice

By Allison C. Lewis

Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Russell Malone

Ray Brown


Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Russell Malone is Ray Brown’s final statement, his last recording, made in New York City in March of 2002.

He’s got this cool little jazz trio thing going: Ray Brown on bass, Monty Alexander on piano, and Russell Malone on guitar. The three play well together; like they’re playing one instrument -- a piano-bass-guitar -- and it’s a pretty big instrument. They make a huge sound for three little old guys. It’s enough to fill a room, a big room, an auditorium, and maybe even have some leftovers.

It’s mostly simple tunes and old favorites: “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” for instance -- songs that are light, yet beautiful and emotional. This music is good for me. I can think to it. It’s a good remedy for writer’s block. My imagination isn’t so blank anymore; suddenly, it’s going, like, a hundred miles an hour, and my fingers can’t keep up on the keyboard.

The music is smooth, like the kinks have been worked out in the studio, and I wonder, does it sound this good on stage? These tunes are more or less simple, and the musicians are amazing. I take it for granted they know how to play the stage, and would I would love to hear this recording played live. But, just playing this CD in my dorm room is great. It adds a little life to the stillness.

This music really has life -- a kind of movement and personality that’s important in jazz and important in music in general. Otherwise, why would we listen? It begins, slowly and sweetly, and it picks up excitement. All at once, it’s calm and upbeat, soothing and thrilling.

On piano, Monty Alexander plays one song delicately, with soft fingers, then, for the next song, he jabs and races. He plays confidently, effortlessly, like he knows he’s good but he doesn’t try too hard to steal the show. He’s just as content being the piano player -- the efficient beat-backer. But, listen closely, he throws in a few surprises.

And Russell Malone on guitar is dark and quietly beautiful. He plays like he could be Clapton, but he knows his own thing is better. He makes the guitar speak for him. On his solos, he really takes command, not loudly, or in-your-face, but laid-back, like a king just sitting and smoking.

Of course, Ray Brown is a real delight, plucking away and being one hardcore bass dude. Brown does more than mark and punctuate the beat. He lets loose just a little, giving way to subtle improvisations -- just enough to give these jazz standards an edge and some flavor.

An added bonus is the limited edition CD, Producer’s Choice, that comes with it. It’s a collection of Ray Brown’s “best” recordings chosen by his producer, Elaine Martone. It’s a cute little collection -- not the best jazz I’ve heard, but well worth the listen. My only complaint is that it ends with “Mysterioso,” this crazy, choppy-sounding piece that’s more like a chordal piano exercise than anything else. But overall, Producer’s Choice is good, groovy jazz.

Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Russell Malone is fun, great to listen to, and perfect for setting a mood. It’s not the most violent, intelligent, or forward-thinking music. It’s simple and really understated. That’s the way these guys play, and it works just perfectly. It sets a whistling, walking mood and makes you happy. It’s all you need to smile.

Some people in jazz think the crazier the better: the more weird improvisations and atonal chords, the more cacophonous noises, the better the music. Sometimes this works; sometimes I’m in the mood for it. Not always. Personally, I’d be content with Ray Brown always. He could be, like, my steady-state of background music, what I’m always humming and singing in my head.

Admit it -- everybody loves bass players. Everybody wants a bass player to call his own. Make Ray Brown yours.