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A TTG Vault Treasure: John Marks on 'Clifford Brown with Strings'

07-13-2016 | By John Marks | Issue 86

For John Marks' initial cross-publication to Positive Feedback of his Tuesday offerings on great recordings from The Tannhauser Gate (http://www.thetannhausergate.com), we offer the first of his columns:  Clifford Brown with Strings. As usual, John enriches our lives with recorded gems that we should all be aware of...and this time is no exception.

Read on!

Dr. David W. Robinson

Ye Olde Editor

Clifford Brown: Clifford Brown With Strings. CD Polygram 814 642-2

Clifford Brown trumpet; Richie Powell piano; Max Roach drums; George Morrow double bass; Barry Galbraith guitar; Neal Hefti arranger, conductor. Recorded New York, 1955.

J.S. Bach played the organ and the harpsichord; Beethoven played the piano. Therefore, Louis Armstrong (NB: nearly everything on this blog is "IMHO") holds the distinction of being the only person to have revolutionized Western instrumental music while playing an instrument capable of sounding only one note at a time. Jazz historian Stanley Crouch claimed that one of Armstrong's most important early musical influences was listening to phonograph records by Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. How's that for musical cross-pollination made possible by technology?

Of all the trumpet players who came after Armstrong, the one who phrased most like a vocalist was Clifford Brown. Following in the footsteps of alto-sax genius Charlie Parker, Brown recorded a "With Strings" album in January 1955. The set list reads like a "Best of the Great American Songbook" cheat-sheet, the first four tracks being "Yesterdays," "Laura," "What's New," and "Blue Moon." A precious moment in time, frozen in amber.

Clifford Brown's song-like phrasing and tasteful ornamentation make Clifford Brown With Strings a high point in 1950s song-form jazz. Brown, of course, could blow Bop with the best of them. But here, it's all about melody, phrasing, and tone. A witty musical friend of mine once remarked that Clifford Brown was "Miles Davis, but without the anger," and there's more than a grain of truth there. If you love Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, and Porgy & Bess, then you already love Clifford Brown With Strings.

Technically speaking, this monophonic recording is surprisingly good, given the 1955 recording date. You could hardly ask for a more plangent trumpet tone. Apart from its not being in stereo, the recorded sound lags behind more recent efforts only in the slightly tubby rendering of the upright bass, and in the strings' sounding a bit distant and thin.

My CD of Clifford Brown With Strings is a dawn-of-CD-era, Japanese-domestic-market CD. But I previously owned an LP reissue, on the "Trip Jazz" label. The entire album can be found on YouTube;  CDs are inexpensive new, and fairly cheap used. The only legal downloads are MP3.

I once played a track from the Clifford Brown With Strings POCD (Plain Old CD) at an audio-dealer "Dog-and-Pony Show" event. Co-presenter Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio Specialties, who had never heard it, was gobsmacked. The CD is small change; just buy it.

Clean-living and universally loved, Clifford Brown (along with pianist Richie Powell, and Powell's wife), died in an automobile accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1956. Brown was 25 years old.