Flash forward a few years. 1993. I’m a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. My roommate Steve, lucky for me, turned out to be a great person and friend, and also a musician and music freak like me. Steve was hip to this (not so) new technology called the compact disc. I, on the other hand, for some backwards reason, thought that CDs were a passing fad and I was content to own all my music on cassette or LP. Well Steve convinced me to go music shopping. Down to Third Street Jazz and Rock (RIP). That fall day in 1993 I bought my first CD, Clifford Brown’s “Study In Brown.” To this day it is still one of my favorites. And I would recommend it to anyone.
Ever heard someone recommend Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” to people who don’t know jazz but want to buy an album but don’t know what to get? Well that album is certainly one of the best albums ever recorded, regardless of genre. And I would certainly recommend it to people. But for some reason, I feel like it’s not really all that representative of “jazz” like some other albums might be, and maybe therefore is not a great “jazz primer.” Trane is so deep and can confuse people. Miles and Bill Evans are moody. Really, the album as a whole is moody. Whereas “Study In Brown” is just straight ahead, no nonsense jazz. Yeah the arrangements are thought-out and deliberate and often deceptively intricate, but the music is what it is: swinging and badass. The front line of Clifford Brown and Harold Land is classic. Both play virtuosically but not at the expense of swing or phrasing. Clifford’s solos are a work of sonic architectural mastery. But even if you don’t recognize that (and most non-jazz-aficionados wouldn’t), they still feel good. Max Roach’s playing is a study in percussive spontaneous composition. He’s as melodic as any horn player. And for fast tempos, you can’t get much better. Bud’s little brother Ritchie Powell sounds a little Horace Silver-ish at times which gives the band a nice funkiness. And George Morrow (who else did he play with??) on bass has a beautiful tone and down-the-middle drive that glues everything together. They are an amazing band. Plus, all of the tunes, standards and originals, are all singable. It really is a great primer into the world of jazz.
But that’s not what I like about this album. I like “Study In Brown” so much because each time I listen I hear something new. And I get inspired. That’s Clifford’s lasting legacy. Inspiration. History tells us that he was a good, clean-living person who died way too young through no fault of his own. His was one of the saddest and most senseless losses in all of jazz. But his music, his trumpet playing, his sound, his compositions, his clarity of purpose – those things are inspirational. You don’t want to put the horn back in the case and give up. You want to try again. Maybe in the hopes of being able to play like him. Tough goal to shoot for. Clifford set the bar ridiculously high. He had everything – a beautiful, huge sound in all registers, the most amazingly concise articulation, power and endurance, frightening speed, lyricism, an ability to thread changes (king of the wrap-around) like no one else before him (and not many since), a unique compositional gift. And he swung at all tempos. He could burn you at 300 bps or melt you on a ballad or get you feeling good on a blues. The complete package. It’s all on display on “Study In Brown.” You gotta get it!
Illinois trumpet Jeff Helgesen has a nice collection of Brownie articles on his site. And Nick Catalano has written the only full-length biography on Clifford. At times it’s a little like reading really long liner notes but it’s still a fun read.