John Coltrane’s lucrative deal with the Impulse label in mid-1961 was a game-changer for the community of improvisers known as the New Thing. Coltrane would come to use his clout to forward the careers of peers, advancing recording dates and exposure to a degree that none of them had access to previously. Altoist Marion Brown was among this cadre and a handful of albums for Impulse under his leadership followed, but his notoriety never seemed to scale the heights of other Coltrane-endorsed players like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders amongst the record-buying public. That difference in relative esteem in no way reflected a disparity in talent and was rather the result of a restless spirit that took him first to Paris and then into an extended career as an educator. Most importantly from a posthumous perspective, Brown still found plenty of opportunities to perform and record. Live at the Black Musician’s Conference, 1981 captures one such occasion and is even more valuable for the unfettered context it supplies his horn.
Brown teamed with pianist Dave Burrell for a series of seven twilight duets on an Amherst stage as part of the titular conclave. Their partnership, first one of mentor and pupil, dated back nearly two decades to Brown’s Impulse debut, Three for Shepp, with subsequent collaborations gracing the intervening years. Pianist Hilton Ruiz was originally slated as Brown’s foil, but upon his cancellation Burrell gracious stepped in. The pair opens with an eighteen-minute medley of two Brown originals “Gossip/Fortunado.” Free from both studio constraints and larger ensemble considerations, the altoist soars in an untrammeled expression of melodic extemporization. Burrell initially hangs back, stamping stark chordal punctuations on his colleague’s phrases to frame them. His own solo exploration is ripe with ringing declensions and rhapsodic righthand flourishes. Brown seems to internalize it all in silence before a shaping a majestic response that is equal parts melancholic introspection and mellifluous effusiveness. It’s an incontestable show-stopper and the show isn’t even a quarter over.
“La Placita,” also by Brown, allows for an extended expression of the duo’s Latin interests. After a beautifully-syncopated Spanish Tinged prelude by Burrell, the altoist once again tables brevity for a full-blown improvisation steeped in dryly playful repetitions that make the most of the aerated angularities of his reed en extremis. Two Billy Strayhorn ballads, “My Little Brown Book” and “Lush Life,” test the pair’s mettle on inviolable standards to commendably cumulative effect, but the series of three Burrell originals in-between starting with the quarter-of-an-hour “Punaluu Peter,” which features them both apart and at their most telepathically synergistic. The divisions where one begins and the other ends effectively blur in spots to point where the overlay of active intellects feels almost seamless. Burrell’s “Crucifacado” is similarly wrought with ambiguity, particularly in its opening minutes where the pianist neglects the melody almost entirely, before priming another alto moonshot from Brown that leaves the audience weightlessly airborne. Ruiz’s absence that evening was mostly theirs and our gain.
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