The name Ray Brown is synonymous with much of jazz history, as we know it today. Ray Brown "The World’s Greatest Bass Player" as he is often called, has played in every major night club and has recorded with the likes of Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, as well as his former wife Ella Fitzgerald just to name a few. As a child, Ray Brown was an accomplished pianist by age eight, but hated to practice. Ray only picked up the bass in high school because there was an open spot in the high school orchestra and he thought that it would be easier to play than the piano. After learning to play it by ear, he begin gigging around town and by age 20, he was on his way to New York to try and make it as a professional.
On his first night in New York, he was introduced to Dizzy Gillespie whom had already heard about this great bassist. Dizzy asked Ray to stop by for rehearsal the next day, where Ray put on a show that landed him the bassist spot in Dizzy’s band playing along side of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. The rest is history, and in years to come Ray Brown’s reputation as a great bass player would be known around the world.
This year the Hal Leonard Jazz Series offered 51 students and faculty of the jazz program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music the opportunity to experience Ray’s sound check warm-up as well as having a unique question and answer session with the great bassist. Ray shared many words of advice to the aspiring student musicians as well as sharing some great jazz history that only this legend could tell. The trio put on a great sound check performance that led into a stellar performance that night.
This performance was Ray’s first time back in Milwaukee since playing here in the 40s and 50s with Milt Jackson, Cedar Walton and Oscar Peterson. Let’s hope its not another 50 years before we see Ray here again, however he and his trio put on a show to remember. In his trio Ray is accompanied by two young virtuosos that are definitely making a name for themselves in the world of jazz. Karriem Riggins wowed the crowd with his timing and control on the drums and Larry Fuller showcased his masterful tenure of the piano.
The trio lead off with an up tempo version of "The More I See You", where Fuller carried the group down the path to an emotional thrill ride. Larry Fuller plays the piano with such intensity and emotion that the song sinks deep into your heart, filled with all the meaning and feelings of the lyrical version. Later in the set, Brown explains that sometimes his world of composing is so deeply engrained in Basie and Ellington that every once in a while his two young bandmates ask, "When are we going to play some funk?" Hearing this, Ray composed some funk into this next tune to satisfy this funky itch in his bandmates. During this piece Karriem’s face lit up with the biggest smile I have seen on a jazz drummer since Art Blakey. The trio always gave the audience 121%, however, you could tell that Karriem and Fuller especially enjoyed playing this piece. There were a few moments that highlighted Karriem’s drum solo talents that were so encapsulating that even Fuller had to stop and turn around to admire the playing of this talented young drummer.
The seventy-six year old Ray Brown played as though he were 20 years old again playing in Dizzy’s band. They don’t call him "The World’s Greatest Bass Player" for nothing. Ray played with such a polished direction while stepping out to experiment and improvise when the moment was right. This trio has a tune selection of over one hundred songs in their repertoire and demonstrates through their outstanding showmanship that jazz is alive today as much as it was in the 50s and 60s. With their exceptional performance, this trio made history in my heart that night.