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[whitespace] Ray Brown Kinds Words and Cornets: Santa Cruz musician and composer Ray Brown inspires students of jazz and fronts the Great Big Band.

Grand Big Band

Bandleader Ray Brown gets great big sounds from his Great Big Band

By Dan Young

JAZZ COMPOSER, bandleader and teacher Ray Brown is quick to point out the double meaning in the name of his Great Big Band. First of all, it's a great-big band. (With 21 players, it's considerably larger than most contemporary jazz big band outfits.) And, since Brown crafts the band's sound around San Francisco's first-call musicians, the Great Big Band is something of a Bay Area all-star band--only great players get the call to sit in for a gig.

Well, that's his pitch anyway.

Though his band is a relative newcomer to the San Jose Jazz Festival, Brown is not a recent arrival on the jazz scene. Earning his trumpet chops touring with the famous Stan Kenton Orchestra, he has played in a variety of groups, including bands fronted by Bill Watrous and Nat Pierce, and with Bill Barry's famed Los Angeles big band. Locally, Brown played with and conducted the Full Faith and Credit jazz band through three CD projects, and he also wrote most of the music. His Great Big Band debuted in 1997 with Impressions of Point Lobos, a beautifully written and executed recording of contemporary big band jazz.

For the past 30 years, Brown has also been a prolific educator and composer. As a jazz instructor at Cabrillo College in Aptos and at UC-Santa Cruz, Brown's acclaimed method for jazz improvisation is like boot camp for budding jazzers. As a composer, he pens outstanding big band numbers that tax even the most seasoned professional, and it's this challenge that drives musicians to seek a chance to play in Brown's ensemble.


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Despite his Kenton-band upbringing, Brown writes more for craft and color than for massive effect. His arrangements are tightly orchestrated, highly syncopated and punchy with counterpoints behind melodies. On everything, his sonic palette is richly hued and expressionistic with dense backdrops. Unlike most other big band composers, he demands that players improvise on solo section that are every bit as complex as ensemble parts.

Last fall, Brown teamed up with his wife, Sue Brown, also a music educator at Cabrillo College and an in-demand classical violinist, to work with young-lion trumpeter Roy Hargrove on a soon-to-be-released project, tentatively titled Hargrove with Strings. Sue Brown, concertmaster of the Monterey Jazz Festival's chamber orchestra, led the ensemble backing Hargrove while husband Ray conducted the recording sessions.

Ray Brown and the Great Big Band perform at the San Jose Jazz Festival on Saturday, Aug. 12, at noon, on the KICU-TV36 Big Band Stage, in downtown San Jose. Admission is free. (888.SAN.JOSE)

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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