Ray Brown is a master musician. He has the unhurried attitude of a jazzman who really knows his instrument, and the unfazed attitude of the bluesman toward wrong notes. Brown on bass is as fun to watch as he is to listen to, as he incorporates fun and humorous bits of melody into his harmonic duties.
Rhythmically, Brown is famous for "laying back" slightly behind the drum beat, to give the music a bluesy swing feel. This works fine for Riggins, who is dead-on no matter what the tempo. He knows his set with his eyes closed -- skipping the wirebrush handles on the side of the cymbal, or clacking the drumstick against the cymbal stand. Though he hasn't recorded, Riggins is an excellent young player to keep an eye out for.
On Wednesday, Brown treats us to an Ellington medley featuring bits of "Lush Life" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Sunday's wrap night features much of the same music as earlier in the week, and the house is packed for both sets. The trio opens with an energizing rendition of "You Are My Everything" followed by a sleepy "Lament" by old-time trombonist J.J. Johnson. Brown's bass glissandos lend expression to simple 2-note piano chords. He lets his arm fall to his side after every beat, then swings it up easily in time for the next beat, not working too hard since he knows there is a lively Ellington number coming up next.
"Whirlybird" starts fast and then picks up into a killer speed. It is a fun ride. In the breaks during the intro, Riggins drops hints of the pending quadruple-time. When it hits, the piano is breezing through a blur of 32nd notes, the bass is playing 16ths. Clever accents in the drums keep these rhythmic runs looking ahead. At one point the band gets quiet with a tick-tocking tradeoff, and then the piano dives into dissonant chord clusters. Ruddy-cheeked Brown is smiling the whole time, but at the end he is visibly tired and jokes, "People my age shouldn't be playing that fast."
The next piece is an original by drummer Riggins, who could use a course in composition. (Brown says he was swayed by Riggins' request to "do something fun.") Amateurish unison piano and bass lines and a repetitious melody are not redeemed by a loud and funky drumbeat. And in "Wes' Coast Blues" following, Riggins is too wrought-up and drowned some of Fuller's talent-rich piano improv.
"Now we'll do my kinda tune," promises Brown leading into the Fats Wllaer classic "Honeysuckle Rose." The audience cheers the opening piano notes, played in a tantalizing half-speed. Brown seems to swell to four times the volume with a strong walking bass sound to underscore Fuller's blues-y thirds. Free-thinking rubato slowdowns and syncopated accents make things interesting before triplets and shaking tremolos finish off the piano part. The bass slows things to half-note speed until the drums shhhhhhhush us to a close.
Fuller plays a blurrily pedaled piano solo ("I Should Care") in which his riffs seem too classically stuffy, but in other tunes he shows himself to be a talented jazzman. Riggins' feature is next, "Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." Brown introduces it as a familiar piece with a new character -- a rock beat, a minor key, and some counting by the audience ("1! 2! 3! 4!"). Seeing this veteran bassist rocking out with a wily drummer and bespectacled pianist is a little jarring.
Luckily Brown's dedication to Count Basie, "Captain Bill" breathes some swing back into the evening with a long, expressive solo supported by a kick-a-choo drum beat. "If you stick around and have a couple more drinks, we'll sound better," promises Brown, inviting us to join him for a second set.
The next set offers a wider range, including more wonderful ballads and some wackier numbers. "You Are My Sunshine" is played in an ironic minor with a rock beat. "Mona Lisa" lets Brown reach into his deepest low notes and highest pizzicattos. A thrumming tribal tune shifts through pentatonic melodies and different rhythmic styles, most of which were drummed too heavily. (Oddly, the pieces Riggins shows most enjoyment in are not those that showcase his talents best.)
The trio ends with "Ja-da," excellent for improv because of its very simple melody. Ten minutes of applause bring the band back onstage for an encore, though Brown jokes humbly, "I don't think we know but one more tune."