Finally, Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet has released the long-awaited sequel to "Gordon Blues," the 1989 sextet recording of the group who won Hennessy Jazz Search competition. In the end, 25 years was not too long to wait for such a splendid recording.
For well 15 years, Portland's Jazz audience has enjoyed Mel Brown's Septet every Tuesday night at the famed Jimmy Mak's Jazz club. With good food and a musicologist bartender, Jimmy Mak's is the place for Jazz in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, it is that bartender/musicologist, J.D. Stubenberg, who wrote the excellent liner notes for "Tuesday Night." He remarks that the original "sextet took to our stage in 1998, soon becoming a septet, and they have been burning down our stage every Tuesday since!"
Those live performances are incredible indeed and "Tuesday Night" is a great representation of what Portland audiences are privileged to see weekly.
The septet is heavy-laden with horns and is centered on the exquisite artistry of drummer Mel Brown. Gordon Lee, on the other hand, is the quintessential music director and has spent the last years composing music for the ensemble.
Eight out of the nine tracks are written by Lee with the sole exception of the opening piece, "Full Moon." The solo piano introduction is unmistakably and immediately recognizable as Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor. The piece quickly turns into the more swinging version "Full Moon (And Empty Arms)" which was a major hit for Frank Sinatra in 1945.
Mel Brown has taken this group in the direction of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with the hard-bop focus and with the personnel, he makes it happen brilliantly. The horns consist of the precise Derek Sims on trumpet, the versatile John Nastos on alto sax, the powerful Renato Caranto on tenor sax and the smooth trombone of Stan Bock. Andre St. James joins his bass with Mel Brown's drums for the rhythm section with Gordon Lee who plays partner to Mel Brown as the driving force of the group.
After the nod and wink to Rachmaninoff, Mel Brown jumps starts Gordon Lee's "Low Profile." It is a swinging piece that has piano, bass and drums surging to the front while the horns get brilliant solos. Caranto and Nastos are like telepathic twins exhibited by the marvelous flow between them.
"Sunset on the Beach" begins as a piano solo with the group then joining in a creation of beautiful imagery. The moments of corps unison are exquisite in themselves. Described as a tone poem, it is a colorful display of texture and tonality.
Brown opens "Machangulo" with deep toms leading the way for the soulful minors and cool horn arpeggios. The piano solo followed by the sax weave a film noir sound that is a fitting setup for the next track "Istanbul" which Andre St. James leads off with the bass.
The piano and bowing bass fashion a groove that is picked up by Brown and the horns. It is an intriguing piece that itself sounds like a film score sequel to "Machangulo." One almost expects to see Sidney Greenstreet strolling across a TV screen. Gordon Lee's outro is smooth stuff.
"Blue and Bluer" is a fine showcase for Caranto's tenor sax. The sweet blues shows the diversity of Lee's compositions. It all is made exceedingly clear that—with Gordon Lee—it's not just the ivories, it is also the charts. He expands those boundaries again with the Latin dance number, "Hey Veo."
John Nastos is at his versatile best on "Change Your Dreams." Lee's piano is mesmerizing against Nastos with Bock's trombone knocking out the background. It is a deliberately paced piece and flawlessly executed.
The album concludes with the hot tempo of "Urgent Message." Mel Brown's precision is riveting, as always, and Sims puts forth a blistering trumpet solo. The staccato chops of the horns are smoking. In fact, the whole piece just smokes. Lee is on fire on piano but the writing is just exemplary. Those compositions are interesting and exciting.
Gordon Lee and the Mel Brown Septet are an adventure in live Jazz performance and in Jazz recording. The music that has created a very long-standing residency at Portland's great Jazz venue is now available to a much wider audience. What was known only to the few is now accessible to the many. The beautiful swing and bold swagger of Mel Brown—who has performed and recorded for so many greats—is set center-stage alongside Gordon Lee for a recording which rightly features them both in stunning partnership.
"Tuesday Night" is a brilliant exposition of expanding composition and contracting cohesion, vivid performance and smooth professionalism. In other words, these cats can throw it down on any night of the week but Tuesday nights belong to them.