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A Ray of Strings

Ray Brown
Fiat Tux: The ever-elegant Ray Brown shows off his fingering technique on the bass.

Bass great Ray Brown brings his unbroken beat to the Stanford Jazz Festival

By Andrew Gilbert

RAY BROWN turned 70 last October, but he doesn't need to worry about forgetting the names of the musicians in his band. "I don't change sidemen often," the jazz bassist says. "I've had two piano players in my trio in the last 10 years, and I've had two drummers." The third incarnation of the Ray Brown Trio will take part in the Stanford Jazz Festival and Workshop next week.

Just as Brown is celebrated for the propulsive, unfailing groove he provides any group he plays with, his trio is one of the steadiest gigs in jazz. Since his days in Dizzy Gillespie's mid-1940s bebop groups, Brown has had a knack for long-lasting associations, from his 15-year stint with pianist Oscar Peterson to his almost equally long collaboration with guitarist Laurindo Almeida, saxophonist Bud Shank and drummer Shelly Manne in the L.A. Four.

In his own groups, Brown has shown the same passion for continuity, so it was big news this year when rising star Geoff Keezer took over the piano chair from Benny Green. Greg Hutchinson, a brilliant young drummer who has worked with Joshua Redman and Roy Hargrove, joined the trio about three years ago, replacing Jeff Hamilton. "Geoff's just been with me now on a regular basis for about six months," Brown said. "Most of the time when you get a new guy in, you wait awhile to see how he plays and then you start writing new material, based on what he does. I do most of my writing at the end of the year, so the next series of arrangements will be written in January." Keezer, already known as a soulful hard-bop player from his time in Art Blakey's last version of the Jazz Messengers, has eased into his role, establishing his own identity while playing charts written for Green.

Brown himself was shaped by some of the most powerful musicians of the century. While still a teenager, he joined Gillespie's band, playing alongside saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and drummer Kenny Clarke. But Brown was never content to rest on his laurels. "When I joined Oscar Peterson, I had to study the bass more, because the parts were much more demanding," Brown said. "I had to go back and woodshed some more, which was good for me." His penchant for trying something different can be heard on Super Bass (Telarc), which features two of his protégés, bassists John Clayton and Christian McBride, along with Benny Green and Greg Hutchinson. The unorthodox three-bass front line plucks and bows its way through some amazing music. Harry "Sweets" Edison's tune "Centerpiece" is given a supremely soulful reading. "Mack the Knife" features Brown and Clayton playing the melody arc while McBride thumps in harmony. At 70, Ray Brown is still at the top of his game--and game for new musical situations.

The Ray Brown Trio performs Aug. 4 at 7:30pm and Aug. 8 at 8pm at the Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford. Tickets are $22/$20. (415/725-ARTS)

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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