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Ari Brown: Live at the Green Mill

Ari Brown may be best known these days for his relentlessly exploratory work with his colleagues in Chicago’s AACM, but over the years he’s also played in plenty of blues, R&B and mainstream jazz contexts, and he obviously embraces it all. This gig, recorded in one of Chicago’s most famous clubs, features him in a relatively straightahead setting on tenor and soprano saxes as well as flute, propelled by the lithe swing of Avreeayl Ra’s drums and Yosef Ben Israel’s deep-pocket bass, along with Pharez Whitted on trumpet and Brown’s younger brother Kirk on piano. Conguero Dr. Cruz also lends his dancing polyrhythmic textures to the proceedings.

Perhaps wisely, Brown tempered his more aggressively free tendencies for the savvy but relatively conservative Green Mill crowd, but that doesn’t mean he insisted on working with a net. He’s adept at coaxing a swinging, melodically centered idea into free directions, creating solos that lay down a solid, linear foundation and then spinning outward in tightly wound concentric spirals before shooting off into Blakean flights of nightmare-tinged delight. But he always returns safely home. Whitted provides an eloquent foil here, tracing intricate aural patterns with a fiery tone that often, apropos of the AACM spirit, bespeaks a militant striving for liberation. Kirk’s keyboard melodicism, rich but never syrupy, makes clear that he understands, as Larry Kart has put it, the essential difference between the “beautiful” and the merely “pretty.”

The selections, all composed by the leader, are uniformly superb. Highlights include the soul-jazz strut of “Two Gun V” (dedicated to Brown’s wife, Veda) on which he blows tenor, then soprano, and finally both, creating a raucous juxtaposition of voices fussing and signifying at each other to invoke the jubilant, tough-minded male/female point/counterpoint at the heart of the musical tale; “Shorter’s Vibes,” a tribute that might have been titled “Take the Shorter Trane,” which feature’s Brown’s soprano sax at its most relentlessly probing; and the ballad “One for Skip,” with a melody line that evokes a Strayhorn-like world-woundedness: meditative but not maudlin, brooding yet affirming. Brown, on tenor, alternately toughens his tone into a bluesy wail and softens it into a velvet whisper; there’s a sensual grace to his performance here that adds to the palpable spirit of redemption, even forgiveness, that resonates throughout.

Originally Published