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Get to know Ray Brown's "Best Friends"


I am, it turns out, a sucker for series.
Not so much the broadcast kind, though I certainly have my favorite shows (“Sherlock”), and most particularly not when it comes to film. Face it, 99% of movie sequels are cynical, superfluous Hollywood enterprises that exist merely to extract money from an unwitting and generally taste-challenged public by trading on the goodwill generated by the original picture.
I do like series in music, however, in particular collections of albums bit around a single theme. Perhaps my favorite is Ray Brown’s “Some of My Best Friends Are…” series.
I count myself fortunate to have been able to see the legendary bassist live about 15 years ago at Yoshi’s in Oakland. A musician of depth, subtlety and soul, Brown possessed a distinctive style that influenced many other bassists, Christian McBride perhaps chief among them. In the decade preceding his 2002 death, Brown released a series of near-valedictorian discs on Telarc that paired him and his band with some of the top players in jazz on a variety of instruments.

Ray Brown
Ray Brown

“Some of My Best Friends Are ...The Piano Players” (1994): Jazz standards dominate here (“Bags’ Groove,” “St. Louis Blues,” “St. Tropez”) and Lewis Nash holds down the other end of the rhythm section. It is, naturally, the pianists who shine and Brown has collected quite a diverse group, from youngsters Benny Green, Geoffrey Keezer and Dado Moroni to elder statesmen Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal.

“Some of My Best Friends Are ... The Sax Players” (1996): The trio of Brown, Green and Gregory Hutchinson (drums) anchor this collection. The saxophonists, suffice it to say, are among the best in jazz –Joe Lovano, Stanley Turrentine, Ralph Moore, Jesse Davis, Joshua Redman and Benny Carter. Standards predominate (“Fly Me to the Moon,” “How High the Moon,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”) and the disc includes Brown in conversation with each guest.

“Some of My Best Friends Are ... Singers” (1998): The vocal firepower collected here is impressive and (with the exception of Kevin Mahogany) all female –Diana Krall, Nancy King, Marlena Shaw, Dee Dee Bridgwater and Etta James. Even with the distaff dominating, the disc features plenty of variety with vocal styles ranging from blues to scat to ballad. There is also one purely instrumental track as the Brown trio takes on “Cherokee.”

“Some of My Best Friends Are ... The Trumpet Players” (2000): Brown’s trio this time out includes Keezer and Karriem Riggins (drums) and the disc follows the series’ pleasing pattern. The trumpeters include Clark Terry, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargove, Terence Blanchard, Jon Faddis and the comparatively obscure James Morrison from Australia. Faddis is particularly fine on “Bags’ Groove.”

“Some of My Best Friends Are ... The Guitar Players” (2002): A stellar cast of six-string guests is assembled. The players include Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Russell Malone, Ulf Wakenius, Bruce Forman and John Pizzarelli. Brown was in his mid-70s at the time of recording but he fits seamlessly in with Keezer, Riggins and the guitarists. The disc ends on a note both somber and celebratory with the tracks “Blues for Wes” and “Soulful Spirit (Dedicated To Billy Higgins).”

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