Out of the Blue
Alison Brown QuartetCompass 742482
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Out Of The Blue is the title of The Alison Brown Quartet's fifth CD release, and what an immensely listenable album it is! Former Canadian National Banjo Champion, Alison Brown started out playing the guitar as a child, but eventually switched to the banjo. Since that time, and after extensive and notable touring stints first with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and then with Michelle Shocked, Brown has emerged as one of today's hottest contemporary banjoists. Aficionados of the banjo will readily acknowledge the contributions which Bela Fleck and she have made in expanding the musical boundaries of the banjo. With the huge success of her preceding four albums, which tackled traditional bluegrass as well as classical, pop, jazz and Latin styles, Brown's fifth CD has been greeted with much excitement.
The Quartet is comprised of a group of very talented musicians. Joining Alison on banjo are John Burr on piano and keyboards, Gary West on bass, and Rick Reed on drums. Before forming the Alison Brown Quartet, all of these individuals came from backgrounds well-versed in the blues, country and jazz genres. Their versatility and breadth of exposure easily enabled them to explore a lot of common ground as well as venture further afield into Latin and Caribbean musical stylings. Throughout this recording, the Quartet functions like a true jazz ensemble with each member receiving ample opportunity to display their improvisational wares.
Out Of The Blue comprises ten songs. The title track, "Out Of The Blue" is a mellow bossa/samba jazz tune perfect for easy listening and relaxation. Alison does most of the lead work here, utilizing octaves very extensively in this piece. I was reminded of the work done by the late jazz guitarist, Wes Montgomery.
On Dante's Paradise, another Brown composition, she pulls out her nylon-string banjo to handle the melody. Alison paints a somber melody over a canvas of uptempo and syncopated rhythms. Pianist John Burr does some fine work here, too. The support provided by Gary West and Rick Reed on bass and drums respectively, is quite exceptional. I especially enjoy the way West makes his bass swing in a way that conjures up memories of the great bass walkers while projecting something of a more contemporary, funked-up attitude. These musicians all play very accurately.
This precision is amply demonstrated on Four For Launch. As the title suggests, this quick-paced, happy number provides just the right launching pad for each member of the Quartet to take off on a solo flight. They all converge periodically to do some very cool unison work. It is during those moments that one is really able to appreciate the tightness and excellent timing of this band. The last four songs on the CD are my favorites. Samba Del Rio is a passionate samba that really gets me moving. It really highlights how this Quartet can handle just about anything. Like everywhere else, Rick Reed displays some great percussive versatility on this song and really contributes to that simmering, jaunty Brazilian rhythmic energy. John Burr shines brightly on this one, too, with a nice solo outing.
Sands Of Sound is simply a gorgeous song. Medium paced and lush in sound, it conjures up images of seashores, waves, gentle breezes and tender moments. This tune along with Alison's playing is so reminiscent of the kind of work typically associated with guitarist Earl Klugh, that it might just as well be an unstated nod to him. This is followed by Return To Pelican Bay, another of my favorites. It is a very happy tune with just a hint of a calypso feeling with a hook line that brings to mind the famous jazz standard, St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins. Brown plays a beautiful traditional banjo on this one, and she gets sweet support from Burr on piano.
The last song, Rebel's Bolero, not Ravel's Bolero mind you, is a very intelligent composition and perhaps the most interesting of Brown's compositions on the CD. It is a duet with Brown on traditional banjo and John Burr on piano. Brown takes the lead on this one, with Burr providing great accompaniment filled with counterpoint. Alison's fondness for classical music shows here as she illustrates how naturally the banjo fits into this setting. Rebel's Bolero also allows Alison to showcase her ample technical facility.
Out Of The Blue is not an exceptionally daring album. The Alison Brown Quartet takes no risks here, nor do they cover any terrain previously unexplored on their earlier albums. What they have done is produce good, highly accessible and enjoyable music that anyone, regardless of musical preferences, can enjoy.
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz (firstname.lastname@example.org)