Saturday, April 11, 2015

Clifford Brown With Strings

© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Beautifully repackaged and presented, the January 1955 sessions are, in retrospect, most remarkable for Neal Hefti's delicately nuanced arrangements which always seem to deliver up surprises. The 12 tracks are almost perfectly uniform in length and delivery, and it's all the more remarkable that they remain fresh and inventive. Brown sounds as bright as a new pin in this digitally remastered version, but he isn't artificially foregrounded in front of the strings; they receive their due share as well.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Clifford Brown was twenty-six years old when he was killed in an automobile accident on his way to a gig in Chicago.


He didn’t take up the trumpet until he was 15 so figure a couple of years to develop some chops [in his case, SOME chops], and what’s left; 7-8 years of performing and recording?

Thank goodness for the wise and generous people in the Jazz business who put that time to good use. As a result of their perspicacity and financial wherewithal, Clifford left behind a considerable recorded legacy.

Among my favorites is the recording he made in 1955, a year-and-a-half before his death in 1956, entitled Clifford Brown With Strings [Emarcy CD 814 642-2]. The string arrangements were done by Neal Hefti and they are perfectly suited to Clifford’s big, juicy, pellucid tone.

Kiyoshi Koyama prepared the following narrative about this recording, Clifford Brown’s career and the arrangements by Neal Hefti for the Japanese CD version of Clifford Brown With Strings and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be a fun way to begin a series of retrospective blog postings about some of the highlights of Brownie’s all-too-brief time in the Jazz World.

[Please keep in mind that Mr. Koyama’s remarks have been translated from Japanese into English and that the translator’s “skills” may be a little rusty in this regard.]


“This album features a collection of ballads in moving performances by Clifford Brown, the trumpeter of genius whose name will forever remain in the annals of Jazz history, and whose brief life came to an end after only twenty-five years, accompanied by strings.

Clifford Brown, who was always known by the nickname" Brownie" recorded this album between the 18th and 20th of January 1955. Brownie had just turned twenty-four, and six months had passed since, together with the drummer Max Roach, he formed the Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet. This was the time at which he was beginning to come into the limelight, and become the focus of attention throughout the world.

During the previous year of 1954, Clifford Brown had been chosen as the top new star in the trumpet section of the international critics poll held annually by Down Beat jazz magazine. With the appearance of Brownie, it was felt that a successor had at last appeared to Fats Navarro, who had died prematurely in 1950, and, together with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Daves, the greatest hopes were held out for his future development.

In contrast to Fats Navarro, Brownie was the very picture of health, and on account of his constant smile was known from early on as a"Sweet Guy" or "Sweet Brownie. He was looked upon with affection by all who knew him. Everybody was attracted by his warmth and thoughtfulness, and extravagant praise was bestowed upon him.

Brownie held out the promise for a brilliant future, and his work suggested that the possibilities he held in store as a trumpeter were virtually unlimited. Nobody could thus have foreseen that, only eighteen months after this album had been recorded, Brownie would meet with a tragic automobile accident which would put an end to his brief twenty-six years of life.

Given the magnitude of this tragedy, it seems nothing short of the grace of heaven that Brownie should have left us this album before he died.

Although Clifford Brown's career was only very brief, he produced a total of thirteen albums containing many great performances during his period with EmArcy between 1954 and 1956. The present album, in which Brownie took on the supreme challenge of performing ballads all alone to the accompaniment of strings, is a true classic which gives a full display of Brownie's genius as a trumpeter. While Brownie's blistering hot improvisations, as can be heard on "Study in Brown" and "Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street", are here absent here, what is present instead is Brownie's sensitivity and human warmth, in other words Brownie himself, as represented by the features which earned him the affectionate nickname of "Sweet Brownie".

Clifford Brown With Strings , in which the spotlight in constantly upon Brownie, also gives a full display of the trumpeter's consummate technical skill. Brownie thus had to give his all to these performances. He had to take on the challenge of investing his trumpet with the whole scope of his God-given technique and imagination.

On the surface he seems to be performing his melodic lines in a nonchalant fashion, but in actual fact it took eleven takes before he was satisfied with "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes". Not a single piece was completed after only one take. Brownie completed the album after a full three days at the rate of four pieces a day.

The pieces performed are entirely standard ballads of the highest quality, well-known to everybody. The performance of such pieces presented no mean challenge to this young twenty-four year old musician. Generally speaking, the ballad was a form of musical expression only tackled by musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz after attaining their full maturity.

A young and immature musician could scarcely be expected to cope with the highly exacting genre of the slow ballad. However, the total success of Clifford Brown in this genre was precisely due to the fact that his genius had allowed him to attain maturity at a young age. Brownie thus gave his individual, fully committed interpretations, with an astonishing display of technical mastery, of great American pieces, pieces of great beauty in themselves, such as "Stardust", "Yesterday" and "Laura". The warm trumpet sound combines with the impeccable string arrangements of Neal Hefti to move the listener deeply.

Brownie's natural genius as an interpreter of slow ballads is truly concentrated into this album. Listening now to the performances surviving on the original master tapes, one almost has the feeling that Brownie has come back to life. The superb recording breathes life into the superb performance, and one is left feeling grateful that we are still able to hear these performances today. Wynton Marsalis, the brilliant young trumpeter of this decade who has been hailed as the reincarnation of Brownie and for whom the highest hopes are held out for the future , holds this album in the greatest regard, and has set the attainment of the level reached therein as his own goal. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Clifford Brown is referred to as "Immortal".

The Career of Clifford Brown

Clifford Brown was born on 30th December 1930 in Wilmington, Delaware. He was given a trumpet by his father in 1945 when he entered high school and began to take lessons in trumpet, jazz harmony and music theory from a local musician Robert Laurie. After studying mathematics at Delaware State University, in 1949 he was awarded a music scholarship which enabled him to change to the study of music at the Maryland State University. This was the year in which his abilities came to the attention of Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie, and he thus came into public attention. He was seriously injured in an unfortunate automobile accident in June 1950, recovering and leaving hospital in May of the following year.

He performed with Charlie Parker immediately afterwards, and then began his career in earnest with the Chris Powell Rhythm and Blues Band, with whom he worked in 1952 and 1953. He then worked with Tadd Dameron in 1953, with Lionel Hampton between August and December 1953, going on a European tour with this group, and with the Art Blakey Quintet in 1954. He was chosen in top place in the Down Beat "New Star" category of the magazine's 1954 international critics poll, and great hopes were thus held out for his future. In March 1954 he formed the Brown & Roach Quintet with Max Roach, and thus became a figure of even greater importance on the jazz scene.

This quintet, with Harold Land, and subsequently Sonny Rollins, on tenor sax, was one of the top combos active during the heyday of modern jazz in the early fifties, and will remain in history for the series of great recordings it made for EmArcy. However, early in the morning on 26th June 1956, the car in which Clifford was a passenger went into a skid on a Pennsylvania highway, wet from the rain. It smashed against the protective wall and took away the lives of Clifford Brown, the pianist Richard Powell, and the latter's wife, who was driving the car at the time. Having blazed like a meteor, but with infinite possibilities still unrealised, the life of Clifford Brown came to an end after twenty-five years.

After Brownie's death, Quincy Jones remarked sadly that "We have lost a young genius who would have been the main force behind the generation to succeed Parker, Dizzy and Miles" and Sonny Rollins said that "Brownie was the musician I respected most after Parker and Lester Young". Benny Golson, who had been a close friend of Brownie, subsequently wrote the great piece "I Remember Clifford". Brownie's influence extended strongly over trumpeters of both his own and subsequent generations , this influence being clearly present in the work of Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, as well as in the work of trumpeters who have made their mark in the present decade such as Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard.

The Arrangements of Neal Hefti

The arranger and conductor of the strings on this album was Neal Hefti, who is well-known especially for having provided the Woody Herman and Count Basie Orchestras with many fine arrangements. The string ensemble consisted of six violins, two violas and one cello, and was supplemented by three members of the Brown & Roach Quintet, namely Richie Powell on piano, George Morrow on bass, and Max Roach on drums, together with Barry Galbraith on guitar. Hefti was also a trumpeter, and thus proved to be the ideal arranger for Clifford's string section. The ambitious sound of the strings, together with Brownie's classic performance, results in a recording that has lost none of its sparkle over the years.                                                     
(Kiyoshi Koyama)”

The following video features Clifford performing Neal Hefti’s beautiful arrangement of What’s New from Clifford Brown With Strings.

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