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December 2008

Ray Brown Jr.
Friends and Family
SRI Jazz

If you’re expecting any vocal similarity between Ray Brown Jr. and his mother, Ella Fitzgerald, you’ll be disappointed. Brown is, after all, not her natural son, but was adopted by Fitzgerald and Ray Brown in 1949, midway through their six-year marriage. But if his parents’ acute musicality isn’t in his genes, then he must have absorbed it, because Jr. is a first-rate performer with a deep, slightly raspy sound that suggests a blend of Bobby Short and Michael McDonald, plus a soupcon of Billy Eckstine.

The 59-year-old scion started out in the music business in the ’70s, toying with rock and then country before setting into a pop/soul groove. Friends and Family is his fourth album, but the first that inches toward jazz. The “friends” are an eclectic bunch, spanning young (Jane Monheit, Sophie B. Hawkins), old (septuagenarian David Somerville, one-time lead singer of the ’50s group the Diamonds), iconic (James Moody, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Dionne Warwick), obscure (little-known but impressive jazz chanteuse Kim Hoyer) and unexpected (Oscar-nominated M*A*S*H actress Sally Kellerman).

The results are generally excellent—particularly a funky “Memphis” featuring both Smith and Dr. John, a slow and sexy “Too Close for Comfort” with Maria Muldaur and a scorching “I’m Beginning to See the Light” with Melba Moore and Terry Gibbs. Unfortunately, the “family” portion of the program proves less rewarding. Brown teams with daughter Haylee for a rendition of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” that zooms way past cute toward cloyingly sticky-sweet. Most disappointing is the disc-closing attempt at a family reunion, with Jr. awkwardly wedged into the middle of a muddy, old recording of mom and dad performing “How High the Moon.”

Originally published in December 2008
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