Essays

Clifford Brown

Core Collection part 3: Clifford Brown on Blue Note as exemplified by Memorial and A Night at Birdland Vols. 1 and 2

night at birdland coverClifford Brown left an outsize legacy for his short career. Brown died tragically at the age of 25 in 1956 in a car accident that also killed Richie Powell, the pianist younger brother of the more famous Bud. Brown left behind only three or four years of recorded material, much of which hadn’t even been published yet at the time of his passing. There is not one, but two albums of his as a leader titled ‘Memorial’, both comprised of material recorded in 1953 but released only after his death in 1956. One was released by the record label Prestige while the other was released by Blue Note, and finds its way onto the Penguin Core Collection by way of a much later box set rerelease of all of the Blue Note tracks Brown recorded. 

You can listen to the entire Clifford Brown discography in a day, including work as a sideman with musicians like Sonny Rollins, and it would only take that long because of the alternate takes that have been released. Still, in those few years Brown earned his place in the canon of jazz greats with an unmatched lyricism. You can find the hallmarks of Brown’s playing, the long, polished phrases and the sharp rhythmic divisions, in the work of his own trumpet models, Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie, but Brown’s own sensibility shines through. Brown had a lighter touch than Dizzy, whose playing could be sharp and incisive. Dizzy reveled in the upper registers of the horn. Brown had a mellower tone and an easier melodicism; he could turn up the tempo when he wanted – see, for instance, two takes on the classic burner “Cherokee” in the Blue Note material– but he rarely gave the sense of seeking speed for its own sake. The Penguin Guide to Jazz actually describes the pace of Brown’s “Cherokee” as “dangerous”, and I suppose, strictly speaking, as measured on the metronome it is, but to my ears there’s an easy quality to Brown’s playing that masks the speed.

The Penguin Guide makes some curious choices curating Clifford Brown material for the core collection. So enamored are the authors with Brown that two discs of material grace the list in two places. Brown appears in drummer Art Blakey’s quintet in live sets originally released as A Night at Birdland Vol.1 and Vol. 2, which is a vital record of an early Blakey band, from before he started using the label the Jazz Messengers for his bands, with Horace Silver on piano. The Penguin Guide agrees and urges the collector to consider both of those albums both as standalone discs (with an excellent Rudy Van Gelder remaster) and as part of the Blue Note box set. Strangely, given this enthusiasm for the Blakey tracks, they haven’t included anything of Brown’s work with drummer Max Roach, which is otherwise regarded as the best of the Clifford Brown material.

Max Roach was the consummate Clifford Brown foil, with a subtlety that matches Brown’s own. Take, for instance, their classic take on “Jordu”. Clifford’s soloing is suitably slinky, even with the bebop flourishes and Roach is understated behind the drums; he introduces the change back to the A section with a roll on the floor tom that manages to be both driving and soft and light beneath the trumpet.

Roach takes a drum solo later on in the same sort of dynamic mode: swinging, clear and easy.

By contrast, Art Blakey is harder hitting and as a leader on the Birdland sets he commands the band from behind the drums. On burners like “Quicksilver” and the Charlie Parker tune “Confirmation” he lights a fire beneath Brown. There is actually a take of “Quicksilver” on both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the first played fast and the second played very fast. They show Clifford Brown as something more like a bebop prodigy than elegant melodicist. “Quicksilver” might actually be dangerous. Brown shows grace under fire, but you can tell the fire is there. Art Blakey takes his own drum solos and they are loud, frantic affairs, full of passion and energy.

 Blakey was certainly capable of dialing it back; indeed Vol.1 of the Birdland material includes “Once in a While”, a fabulous ballad feature for Brown in which Blakey starts off with subtle brush work instead of pounding toms. Still, in this setting, Brown can’t resist a few intense bop licks. This side of Brown, spurred to fast, passionate heights by the band, are part of what makes A Night at Birdland so interesting.

The myth of Clifford Brown undoubtedly owes something to his untimely passing; it’s irresistible to imagine what could have been. Sixty years on, the Blue Note tracks still shine; they really do feel necessary.

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