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Rob Brown Trio - Round the Bend

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Artist: Rob Brown Trio

Album: Round the Bend

Label: Bleu Regard

Review date: May. 11, 2003

The Clark Kent of Free Jazz

What’s in a name? The modest moniker Clark Kent concealed the guise of a superhuman son of Krypton. In like fashion saxophonist Rob Brown’s unassuming name hides a powerful figure when it comes to creative improvised music. Brown’s been at the game for going on two decades and during that time he’s paid his requisite share of dues in the hard scrabble streets of New York City free jazz. Longstanding partnerships with fellow heavy-hitters like Matthew Shipp, Joe Morris and William Parker, who joins him on this latest voyage, served ideal settings for him to hone a highly individual sound. His ever-evolving discography brims with nary a miss and Round the Bend circulated the French Bleu Regard label largely sustains the stellar track record.

Along with bassist Parker and drummer Warren Smith, Brown delves enthusiastically into a program dominated by original material, but with room for one ringer. As the lone standard of the date, Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” receives a lengthy and polychromatic reading. It’s an unexpected, but welcome choice considering the trio’s energy music credentials. Channeling the tune’s delicate melody through a toast-dry reed Brown affects a swaggering hollow rasp that contrasts convincingly with Smith’s clattering sticks. Parker starts with bow, but quickly shifts to the steady throb of thrumming fingered strings shaping the track’s rhythmic ebb and flow alongside the drummer. He later hoists the horsehair once again in a short solo that slips too far into near inaudible harmonics. Brown eventually opens the mood up to more empathic hues, hardening his tone to a flinty sharpness but never straying into easy screams. Smith’s restrain during the final minutes belies the militant cast of much his work on the rest of the date. His most bombastic work transpires on the opener “Lampost Ring” where he regularly threatens to drown out Parker’s pizzicato vamps, not any easy task by any stretch and something to be admired for the audacity alone. Brown sounds unbothered by the brittle bedlam of his colleague, sailing expressively above the din in swiftly-arcing streaks.

Titles on most of the Brown-scripted pieces suggest a preoccupation with motion. These kinetic properties carry directly over into the music. “Ripples” undulates on the simple thematic progression more ripe for Brown’s experiments with pitch and tone than compositional complexity. Annexing the opening minutes acappella, the saxophonist slides lubriciously through legato phrases for an absorbing distillation of his signature alto sound. When Parker and Smith eventually enter it’s in a surprisingly sparse and restrained mode that continues through the remainder of the piece. Parker’s solo, which incorporates tension-building string snaps and a predilection for the bottom regions of his fingerboard, is the sole exception to the prevailing sensation of gradual release. “Unwind” juxtaposes thrillingly and is the first true blow out of Round the Bend. Commencing at full bore, the three players kick up a deafeningly dense sirocco of sound. Smith seems right in his element, pummeling his skins and stomping out a bracing racket that thrillingly ratchets up the intensity. Brown bites the bait, wailing and careening against the harmonic trampoline of Parker’s pulsing strings, which later turn severe under a spate of arco sawing. Terse by comparison, “A Whirl” is not much more than a tightly wound tone poem centering on Brown’s breath constricted blowing, Parker’s scything bow scrapes and Smith’s malleted shadings. The altoist’s surname may do little to elicit awe in the ears of the uninitiated, but as the generously packed music on this disc bears out, beneath his breast beats the heart of a free jazz superhero.

By Derek Taylor

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