Having performed in Paquito D'Rivera's group since 2007, Alex Brown (The Pianist, as his album title declares) appropriately records his first album under the aegis of The Clarinetist/The Saxophonist. Indeed, Brown records on D'Rivera's label, Paquito Records, thereby receiving a no-doubt much appreciated boost from his mentor. Though top-notch jazz musicians from Jane Bunnett to Jon Faddis have worked with Brown, not to mention Brown's involvement with D'Rivera's Grammy-Award-winning album, he has escaped wide-spread public awareness. He shouldn't remain under-recognized much longer.
After receiving national honors even before graduation from the New England Conservatory of Music, Brown found his calling with Latin music, particularly when he studied with Danilo Perez and Charles Banacos there. Brown's background in classical music serves him well as he meets the shifting demands of various jazz groups, and his compositional work in college, some of which appears on The Pianist, was already at a highly professional level. Brown's album includes, with two exceptions, his compositions since then as well. While D'Rivera contributes to three of the tracks—and as exuberantly as ever—it turns out that Brown's own group of young musicians can bring to life his music not only capably, but also with much exhilaration and camaraderie.
Brown starts the album with his "Prologue," understating his talent as he and vibraphonist-attaining-much-recent-acclaim Warren Wolf exchange dialogue of four-note patterns, Wolf descending on marimba and Brown ascending on piano over an initial two-chord progression. Gradually, with thematic repetition, the piece reveals itself as drums, percussion and bass ground it with force and a more aggressive drive.
But still "Prologue" provides but hints of Brown's talent as it remains contained within its compositional boundaries. Even the second track, "Warm Blooded," stays subtle and implicit with straight-ahead rhythm while the warmth of Vivek Patel's flugelhorn enters. However, it's Brown's complex solo, full of unexpected twists and turns and build-ups and releases, that completes the performance, making a low-key melody into something much more. Brown's characteristic affinity for the spirit of Latin music begins actually with the third track, "The Wrong Jacket," as Pedro Martinez's percussion percolates and animates the flow of the melody, which leads to abrupts stops and starts. D'Rivera joins the celebration after Brown's rippling solo, elevating the joy with unrestrained excitement, as does Martinez's singing. Finally, the album hits its stride.
Pixinguinha's "Lamentos," of straightforward melody and restrained formality, showcases Brown's flowing technique, as well as his understanding of D'Rivera's musical personality, this time expressed on clarinet. However, after the separate statements of theme on piano and horn in moderate tempo, "Lamentos" picks up speed, becoming in the process a "prestissimentos," swirling and taunting, as mentor and protégé trade choruses of ever-accelerating celebratory buoyancy. "Buleria" brings back D'Rivera , this time on alto sax with his accustomed brightness of tone, for the medium-tempo composition of six-eight ebullience, enlivened in no small part by Martinez's rhythmic undercurrent. Wolf too contributes forcefully to the track with percolating marimba work that convinces listeners that the excitement about Wolf's performances as a leader is entirely justified.
Brown, determined to give acknowledgement to one of his influences, performs a scampering, dramatically introduced "Elektric," as he presents his own interpretation on elements of recognizable Chick Corea technique, like his florid Spanish-tinged references or his energetic winding themes of indeterminate changes that keep the listener on edge. Brown's "Leaving," slower and more contemplative over long melodic lines, shows that he can craft a fine composition without the ignition found in other tracks, allowing the changes to unfurl as they will in minor-key understatement. As a finale, Brown decided to culminate his first album with his variations on the changes of "Just One of Those Things," with the rhythmic elasticity that stretches familiar changes until they snap with abrupt release of tension, not to mention his reharmonization veering between major and minor roots in the repeats.
Though Brown is just starting on his recording career, he deserves much attention not just for his technical abilities in accompaniment and in crafting ebullient solos, but also for his compositional imagination that he invests in a wide range of music energized by feel of Latin percussiveness.