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Bebop was still alive in 1955, despite the deaths of figureheads like Navarro and Charlie Parker. Gillespie still played “Night in Tunisia” as if it were his last night there, and the harmonically rich Powell style was still in full swing. But a newer music began to evolve, built on similar changes to bop’s, but without the reliance on the popular repertoire. Inspired by the soul of R&B, hard bop put the reins on hellbent speed in favor of catchier, though still tough-minded, melodic motifs.
Clifford Brown moved away from bebop’s slurred phrasing by tonguing his mouthpiece; he fired crisp rounds of musical ammunition which targeted the feet, while more pronounced melodies flowed from his bell. Navarro had initiated this melodic shift, but where Navarro was content to caress a newly discovered melody until it was just right, Brown worked liked a pivoting basketball playerrevolving around a planted position, but able to dodge, weave, and fake until his band was exhausted. (Fellow trumpeters were exhausted as well. Marcus Belgrave, though fond of Brown, said he had to quit listening to him because Brown’s technique made him feel inadequate.)
Brown’s debt to Navarro is most apparent in his buoyant style, in which displays of technique were downplayed (though Brown surely could cut anyone in a bandstand showdown) in favor of warmer timbres and more soulful statements. And Brown didn’t shy from the comparison to Navarro. In interviews, he named Navarro as his main influence, and eagerly recalled when the elder trumpeter had encouraged him as a teenager.
While their musical styles were related, Brown and Navarro’s lives couldn’t have been more different. Where Navarro had led an addict’s life all too familiar to those in the jazz scene, Clifford Brown was straighter than a desert highway. Yet all Brown’s roads weren’t so smooth; he had two horrible car crashes within a six-year span. His first, in 1950, left him convalescing for a year, and the second killed him. Brown died in 1956, at age 26.
Blue Note’s box set contains some of Brown’s earliest recordings. Since he recorded very little for either label as a leader, two very popular (and widely available) Art Blakey-led albums featuring Brown, A Night in Birdland Volumes One and Two, are included in their entirety. Another session is led by trombonist J.J. Johnson, while the other three are led or co-led by Brown. (The original 10-inch albums are collected on the still-available Memorial Album.) Padding out the four discs are nearly a dozen alternate takes. But because Brown, like Navarro, died so young, these truly complete sessions are welcome.
Brown’s Blue Note box is packaged as a miniature book, small in size but lavish in design. Though the liner notes are at times effusive in their praise, the high-contrast photographs are beautiful in their simplicity. But for the cream of Brown’s achievement, the material on Emarcy/Mercury’s 10-CD box set (much of which is still in print on individual albums) carries the bulk of his best work and showcases his ability to switch between vocal and string sessions outside a strict bop format, whereas the Blue Note/Pacific work is exclusively in the hard bop idiom.
“Cherokee,” “Cookin’,” “Carvin’ the Rock,” and “Wail Bait” are all sinuous hard bop classics and spark the first disc’s fire. Disc 2 is a strange affair mixing two sextet sessions by very different bands: Brown’s June 22, 1953, session with trombonist J.J. Johnson features the Modern Jazz Quartet’s rhythm section bouncing through some pleasant bop, while the July 11 or 21, and Aug. 12 or 13, 1954, sessions feature Brown as leader playing arrangements by Jack Montrose. Such classic Brown originals as “Daahoud” are placed next to “Blueberry Hill.” It was a West Coast session with players generally steeped in the cool craze, such as Zoot Sims and Russ Freeman, but Brown’s capacity to adapt to a more relaxed styleas well as his enthusiastic interpretations of such drivel as “Hill”highlight his uncanny ability simply to playwhatever the situation, whoever the players, whatever the material.
The Blakey-led sessions on Discs 3 and 4 are the most famous here. From Blue Note’s house MC, Pee-Wee Marquette, screaming “Art Blakey!” in his famously squeaky voice to Blakey himself saying “Wow! First time I enjoyed a recording session,” it’s all giddy energy. From “Night in Tunisia,” to Parker’s “Confirmation,” to the straight romp, “Blues,” the heat on these two discs could melt a Russian winter. CP