January 2008

Brownman Electryc Trio with Randy Brecker
January 11, 2008 Lula Lounge Toronto
Report by Daryl Angier with photos by Mike Colyer
Early January brought the International Association for Jazz Education convention to Toronto, bringing with it a number of jazz luminaries to light up the city’s denuded jazz scene. The conference marked an opportunity for some local players to spread their wings a bit in once-in-a-lifetime shows with some of the visiting dignitaries. Toronto trumpeter and bandleader Nick “Brownman” Ali made good use of a visit by his mentor, trumpeter Randy Brecker, to set up a show featuring Brecker and his own Brownman Electryc Trio, plus a few guests.

Brownman has been on a roll lately, filling the trumpet chair — in the recording studio and on an extensive summer tour — formerly occupied by Donald Byrd and Roy Hargrove in rapper Guru’s jazz-meets-hip-hop outfit Jazzmatazz, and winning a fan-voted National Jazz Award early last year for Electric Group of the Year for his Brownman Electryc Trio, without even having released an album. Although they’ve finally recorded one, it’s still not out yet. Thus, this show, which was recorded for future broadcast on CBC radio, had two facets: providing a showcase for the tunes on the forthcoming disc; and serving as a rare Toronto appearance for ‘70s jazz-rock fusion icon Randy Brecker, almost a year to the day after his brother, saxophonist Michael, succumbed to cancer. Brownman prepared arrangements of a number of Brecker’s compositions especially for the occasion and much of his own work is written in a similar sophisticated-funk vein. The two and half hours of music the musicians presented was a highly rewarding blend of funky, electrified jazz distinguished by mature compositions and arrangements as well as top-flight improvisation. It’s a rare event in Toronto to have a famous musician visit, whose name isn’t Springsteen, participate in such a rewarding marathon-length show.

The core trio consists of Brownman on trumpet, and Humber College music program graduates Colin Kingsmore on drums and Tyler Emond on six-string electric bass, both of whom provided a solid bedrock of rhythmic support but were given sparse opportunities to solo. Added to the bill this night were Brownman’s brother and frequent collaborator Marcus Ali on alto saxophone, rapper MC Enlight on a few tunes and pianist Adrean Farrugia on keyboards. Notwithstanding the presence of a master musician like Brecker on the bill, the inclusion of Farrugia was a particularly pleasant surprise. There’s no question that Farrugia deserves recognition alongside David Braid and Robi Botos as being among the best the city has to offer on his instrument. His propulsive style on the Fender Rhodes piano, which piles notes on top of each other in a tumbling race to the last bar line, reveals the influence of Chick Corea and evoked comparisons between this unit and Return to Forever at their Light as a Feather best.

Nick “Brownman” Ali

Randy Brecker
The show started with “Scrunch,” a funky, mid-tempo Brecker original transcribed and arranged by Brownman that was highlighted by a lengthy exchange of four-bar phrases between the two trumpeters. Thus began a running dialogue that they picked up several times throughout the evening during different tunes. Brecker was clearly chuffed at the opportunity to engage in some friendly one-upmanship with his most devoted pupil, and at times the byplay between master and apprentice became so heated I half expected David Carradine and Philip Ahn to stroll up to the bar and order drinks.

Brecker’s improvisational style falls somewhere between edgy hardbop and complex funk, which is no doubt what made him equally desirable to groups like Blood Sweat and Tears and Horace Silver’s Quintet in the ‘70s. Brownman’s aesthetic is similar, eschewing easy licks and well-worn phrases for unpredictable hip-hop-influenced motifs of rhythmic repetition, in the same way that rapper MC Enlight would make three consecutive rhymes on words ending in “iddle.” Still, Brownman’s style is obviously heavily influenced by Brecker and it would have been nice to hear a little bit more differentiation in approach during their battles, but this is a niggling complaint given the level of talent that was on display during the friendly competition.

The group continued in the genre-straddling, ‘70s vein with a version of Joe Henderson’s “Recorda Me,” featuring a bouncy, wah-wah-pedal excursion by Brownman and streaming cascades of notes in solos by Brecker and Farrugia. Other highlights included the dark-hued, and rhythmically challenging (i.e. marked by a false start) Brownman original “Catholic School Girls.” Not surprisingly, Brecker sat this one out while the brothers Ali demonstrated why many have compared the two of them to the Brecker Brothers at their height. Marcus, in particular, dug deep into a bag of soul licks in an edgy, impatient solo that recalled the hard-bitten style of Kenny Garrett and was marred only by a too-heavy layering of synth effects. The tune ended with a humorous quote from “The Girl from Ipanema” that brought a laugh from the whole house.

Perhaps ironically, given the forward-looking nature of the band’s approach, the largest applause of the night came after a highly contemporary re-working of the old standard “Yesterdays.” The whole band was clearly having great fun with it as Brecker hit piercing high notes and Farrugia contributed a rollicking solo. For my money, the tune of the night was the Brownman original, “Ache of a Memory.” The wistful, major-key mood of the piece was driven forward by a mid-to-fast tempo that mimicked the forward rush of time away from the remembered event. Brownman brought the song to a breathless halt with a beautifully lyrical solo featuring sparingly-applied reverb. The tune is convincing evidence that Brownman has achieved a certain level of maturity, not just as a player, but as a jazz composer of a high order. Brecker and Brownman indulged their shared love of master trumpeter Freddie Hubbard with a boogaloo-esque romp through the latter’s “Red Clay” for an encore.

I have written elsewhere that Brownman and his many groups have distinguished themselves on the Toronto jazz scene by appealing to the visceral instincts rather than just the cerebral. His goal always seems to be to engage the audience in a fun-loving atmosphere rather than just musical didactism. That attitude was clearly in evidence on this night as the all-ages crowd that filled Lula Lounge clearly cared more about funky beats than artificial genre distinctions between jazz and funk. Given that another show featuring Brownman and Brecker is unlikely in the near future, it’s a good thing that this was one was recorded for posterity.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Daryl Angier
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Mike Colyer
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The Live Music Report
Daryl Angier is a writer and editor who lives in Toronto. He is the former editor of CODA, Canada's long-running jazz magazine.

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