The world of Jazz music since the end of the Second World War seems to be dominated by a few figures. Giants such as Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakney and Eric Dolphy through force of personality, talent, and reputation overshadowed many a man or woman as skilled, if not better than them. That's not meant to cast aspersions on any of those great players but merely to point out reality.
Not everyone is meant for or seeks out the limelight. In fact many of those who have found themselves in the spotlight probably had had no desire for it. You set out to play music and sometimes by a fluke what you love playing ends up being what people just happen to want to listen to. Or there's something about you personally that captures people's imaginations and you become a person of renown.
There are also those who somehow or other have never received the recognition they deserved. Brilliant sideman who got lost in the shuffle while playing for more illustrious band mates might have received the recognition of their peers, but the public never heard of them. Any sideman who was able to keep up with and match Coltrane note for note would have been showered with accolades if he had been soloing, but Marion Brown has become America's greatest Jazz secret.
To honour Brown's music, the Michigan-based performance troop His Name Is Alive had conceived the idea of a one-off concert at the University of Michigan's Museum of Art.
Members of Nomo and Antibalas, two other contemporary music groups, joined them for the evening. Reaction was so positive to the concert that they committed to the process of recording Sweet Earth Flower almost immediately and the result is an amazing tribute to not only the creative powers of Brown, but the performance abilities of His Name Is Alive
Somehow passing under everybody's radar, Marion Brown has quietly gone about the business of creating introspective and intelligent jazz music in relative anonymity. Perhaps it's because his vision of music is more akin to the composer of full orchestral pieces than that of a jazz musician. Instead of focusing on expressing a theme within the parameters of the 20-minute song, his work was in terms of albums.
He also eschewed the idea of the individual performer in favour of the collective composition. Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun, an obvious nod to Stravinsky's La Pres-midi a la Faun, was created with three amateur "assistants" who played what Brown referred to as little instruments including the Brown invented Top O'Lin. (Pot lids fixed on a board and bowed like a fiddle). The instrumentalists on "Georgia Faun" worked independently of each other in an effort to create what Brown referred to as "interchangeable discourse"
I'm not quite certain what he meant by that, but the obvious inference is that it didn't matter how and where individual performances were incorporated into the whole. It would be like taking people talking about the same subject, recording them, and then piecing that together. With music, you have more of a chance of that sounding comprehensible than with dialogue, sequence not having the same importance.
On Sweet Earth Flower the trick facing His Name Is Alive and their friends was how to recreate that ethos of collective creation on pieces that had already been created. How do you manage to imbue them with the freshness of spirit that accompanies the performance of newly minted pieces without changing them thematically or marring the integrity of the original creations?
It's the same problem faced by actors who try to remount a piece of theatre originally created through a similar process. While all the words are there and the characterization has been developed something is missing from the presentation. It's as if the script needs the spark of creativity that had been its genesis to be complete. Without re-writing, or re-imaging, the script there's not much you can do that will change that.
His Name Is Alive appears to be able to eat such challenges for breakout. Not having heard Brown's originals of the pieces they perform on Sweet Earth Flower I have no basis for comparison. But to my ear they sounded as fresh as if they were being performed for the first time ever. Instead of faithfully reproducing the music note for note they have used the same improvisational techniques that went into the music's creation to offer up interpretations that appear to remain faithful to the original's intent.
From the opening of track one, "Sweet Earth Flying," where we are ushered into a mystical world with the tinkling of finger cymbals and bells, through to the gut wrenching growls of guitar feedback that duets with a saxophone solo further on, they show not only an empathy for the music, but an understanding of the original creative process. The spontaneity of creation that is so important to the vitality of Brown's music is preserved through their discovering new ways to recreate the sounds and tonal qualities of the original.
Who knew, I sure didn't, that you could bend a guitar's feedback in such a manner that it makes you think of a saxophone solo? Allowing yourself to think outside the box is key when it comes to attempting a project like this because it gets you onto a wavelength similar to the one the composer and the original musicians were on when they entered the studio years earlier.
The fact that His Name Is Alive was able to do that is amazing enough, but then to go out and play with the virtuosity that is on display in Sweet Earth Flower is astounding. Less anyone think that it's the safety net of the studio that makes this possible, three of the tracks on this disc were recorded live; the only way you can tell is through the audience reactions at the end of those pieces.
"I thought we should do it while he is alive…" said Warn Defever's, front man for His Name Is Alive, and you know I couldn't agree more. Marion Brown is someone who deserves to be recognized for a brilliance that was even too advanced for the likes of an avant-garde jazz scene used to John Coletrane. After listening to the pieces on Sweet Earth Flower I understand why he hasn't received the accolades and acceptance of his contemporaries; his music moved beyond the limitations posed by expectations of what Jazz should be.
When there's no one else performing the type of music you create, the world can seem awfully lonely. Marion Brown has moved beyond music now, and works mainly in his other love education, specializing in African musical and linguistic traditions. Not very surprising, for the man who once said he wanted to be a compose music that reflected the experiences and lives of African Americans.
If, like me, you had never heard of Marion Brown before listening to His Name Is Alive's Sweet Earth Flower you'll be amazed at brilliance of his music. Not only does that say something about the quality of his sound, but it also speaks volumes as to the abilities and attitude of His Name Is Alive. They were quite content with being the vehicle that carried the message of Marion Brown to a new generation, and to all those who had missed him the first time round.
Buy this CD and then begin pressuring those holding onto the rights of Marion's work to get it out on CD, properly, not just some half assed job, where it belongs, in the ears of the people it was written for. If there was any justice in this world Warn Defever and company will have taken the first step in bringing about the renaissance of this highly talented and gifted American composer