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07/26/13

Oscar Brown Jr. & Maggie Brown
We're Live
ESP-Disk

While there’s no faulting the quality of Oscar Brown Jr.’s recordings, it’s a shame that so remarkably gifted a performer—as celebrated for his theater and TV work, poetry and songwriting as for his forays into jazz and blues—left behind so paltry a legacy. His lifetime output totals just a dozen albums. Only one, 1965’s Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington, captured the verve and effervescence of his live appearances.

Fortunately, with the unearthing of this 2001 gig, featuring Brown alongside eldest daughter Maggie in his hometown of Chicago, that tally of concert recordings now doubles. Fans of Brown’s brilliant wordplay might be surprised to discover that the 13-track playlist does not include such guaranteed crowd pleasers as “Dat Dere,” “The Snake” or “Work Song.” But Brown was too cool to settle for simply a greatest-hits recital. Instead, the bi-generational pair splits the bill into two equally interesting parts. The first provides a series of cunning jazz portraits, with Brown crafting vocalese tributes to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Duke Ellington is also saluted, albeit indirectly, as Brown transforms “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” into a clever ode to aging.

The balance of the evening is more personal, with youngest daughter Africa joining in for an all-blues medley and the poignant “Insight” (written by Maggie and Africa’s brother BoBo, who died years earlier in a car crash), and the elder Brown cooing “My Little Maggie.” But it is Maggie who delivers the standout number: She shapes a majestic “A Tree and Me” in honor of her sister Joan, who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and died just four months later.

Originally published in July/August 2013
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