Long As You’re Living: The Songs & Poetry of Oscar Brown Jr.
When Oscar Cicero Brown Jr. died three years ago, at age 78, he left behind a wife, one son, three daughters, 17 grandchildren, four great grandchildren and one of the most gloriously multifarious songbooks in the history of American blues, soul and jazz. He wrote muscular tunes with plenty of grit and moxie, yet his lyrics most strongly echoed the great women among his songwriting peers, rivaling the unyielding activism of Nina Simone, the gut-level urbanity of Laura Nyro and the keen social observation (not to mention sly wit) of Joni Mitchell. In a New York Times obituary, Peter Keepnews noted, “Mr. Brown was often described as a jazz singer … [but] preferred to call himself an entertainer, although even that broad term did not go far enough.” Indeed, he was as consummate an actor as he was a singer and songwriter, and it takes as fine an actor as Brown to do proper justice to his songs.
So, it seems altogether fitting that a female cabaret performer (the best of such artists renowned for their superior ability to act more than sing songs), particularly one as gutsy as Linda Kosut, should pay album-length tribute to Brown. Kosut opens with a song about death that celebrates life (“A Tree and Me”) and closes with another that advises living life to its fullest (“Long As You’re Living”). In between, she touches upon all the dominant Brown themes, including his passion for reinterpreting black folklore (“The Snake”), his appreciation for the urban landscape (“Summer in the City,” “The Call of the City”), his flirty way with women (“Hazel’s Hips”), his tireless campaigning for equal rights (the brilliantly forcible “Bid ’Em In”), his devilish discernment of sin’s appeal (“Mr. Kicks”) and his childlike fascination with everyday miracles (“A Column of Birds”).
Given the vast magnificence of Brown’s output, Kosut could, of course, have gone deeper; she could easily have doubled these 14 tracks, adding such masterpieces as the ebullient “Dat Dere,” the magnificently frost-tipped “It’s October,” the near-suicidal “World Full of Gray” and the funky panhandler anthem “A Dime Away From a Hotdog.” But that just means there’s plenty of material for a second volume.