The best thing about reviewing music is how much you learn from the experience. One lesson I should have learned long ago was that, no sooner have you made a proclamation about one subject or another, it's inevitable you will be swallowing those words the next day. It doesn't help that I'm occasionally given to spouting sweeping generalities in a field dominated by individuals.
In my defence I will offer up that it seems when it comes to music and musicians, the universe takes great delight in keeping humble. There's no way on earth I'd ever assume that I know even an iota of what there is to know about popular music, let alone a specific genre like jazz. However, on occasion it feels safe to say things because I'm speaking from the point of view of the uninitiated; the vast majority of people like myself who know so little about jazz.
Only twenty-four hours ago I was going on about the scarcity of flute players in the world of popular music, and jazz in particular, and I was feeling like I was on pretty solid ground. How many flute players do you know I asked – challenging readers to come up with a name aside from Eric Dolphy – as a lead in to a review of Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble. How was I to know that the very next disc that I would be reviewing would also feature a flute playing jazz musician?
How was I to know that Ari Brown not only played tenor and soprano saxophones but flute as well? I'd never heard of him before receiving the DVD Live At The Green Mill from Delmark Records in the mail. The cover is a picture of a man, who I assumed was Ari, playing two saxophones at once and gave no clue as to what other things he was capable of. I defy anyone to look at that picture, not knowing anything about the man, and know that he plays flute.
Well he does, making him and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame (I can't believe I forgot about him when I was talking about popular musicians who are flute players) the only male, non-classically trained flutists, I know of aside from Eric Dolphy. Of course once I started to find out a little more about Ari Brown, his ability to play multiple instruments made sense.
He has long been considered one of the most versatile jazz musicians in Chicago having played in the house band at the Burning Spear where he's backed everyone from The Four Tops, through Lou Rawls and B.B. King. At other times he's also worked with Lester Bowie, Elvin Jones, and is a member of Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
But Ari Brown is more than just a versatile sideman for other players. He is also a gifted composer in his own right, and judging by the quality of the music and his performance on the DVD Live At The Green Mill, and the CD of the same name, he deserves to be recognized for those qualities as much as the famous people he's played for are.
His compositions are a reflection of his diversity as a player, ranging from straight ahead be-bop free form improvisational, to haunting ballads. I suppose that most people will compose music that will showcase their strengths, but when you have as many strengths as Ari Brown appears to have that might actually present a challenge. The more jazz music I listen to and watch, the more I realize how little I know, but at the same time I doubt that there can be too many players that can be as comfortable playing tenor and soprano saxophone, and flute as Mr. Brown is.
First off the soprano saxophone is a notoriously difficult instrument to play – I saw a DVD of Coltrane playing once where because of temperature change he had to stop and re-start three times before he could get his temperamental soprano to respond – and not many people play it at all. On the track "Shorter's Vibe" – inspired by Weather Report's Wayne Shorter – Ari plays the soprano sax with the same confidence and style that he brings to his tenor.
Ari Brown doesn't seem to make a big deal out of his instrument selections, he's there to make music and that's what is important, not the instrument he's using to create with. Think about the word instrument for a second when its used as an adjective – it was the instrument of his downfall – for example, and you'll begin to understand the feeling I got while watching him play. The instruments are the instruments of his means for expression, and he uses them according to his need.
Ari talks about creating or recreating the vibration that he associates with another player when he's writing a piece of music. He's not talking about the sound when he says that, he's talking about the feeling the music generates. He obviously knows which of his instruments will be able to create the atmosphere he is after, and appears to use them accordingly.
So on "Two Gun V", written for his wife, when he plays the alto and soprano saxophones simultaneously in a wild explosion of exhilarating sound, he's telling us about the freedom and strength of her spirit and defining the feelings she is able to generate in him. Contrast this with either his flute playing on "Kylie's Lullaby" which is gentle and soothing, or the mournfulness of his alto playing on "One For Skip", a memorial to a friend who committed suicide, and you can see what I mean.
Of course Ari wasn't alone on stage for these recordings, and the band that plays with him, including his brother Kirk on piano, are equally adept at creating an atmosphere with their instruments. Over and over again I'm amazed at the number of talented men and women there have to be playing jazz in Chicago. Every single one of the musicians on Live At The Green Mill appear to have the ability to get up and be the front man instead of Ari Brown.
As for the quality of the DVD, Delmark Records continue to astound me with their ability to produce live music DVDs. Not only is the sound always great, but the camera work is superb. They not only manage to provide close ups of each musician during solos, but have also done their best to recreate the ambience of the venue. The Green Mill is one of the oldest night-clubs in America having opened its doors back in 1907, and the current owners have preserved many of the original features and fixtures. At times, you half expect a camera pan of the audience to show Al Capone holding court at a large central table, and it's a little disappointing to see your typical 21st century crowed wearing standard casual wear.
Ari Brown Live At The Green Mill is both a musical and visual treat, featuring some spectacular playing by a jazz musician who for some reason has never become the household name he deserves to be. If like me you had never heard of Ari Brown before now, do yourself a favour and get a copy of this DVD, you won't be disappointed.