I was concerned when I saw the front of the CD, "Paquito D'Rivera Presents Alex Brown, Pianist." It's nice for a big-name musician to help out the new kid, but does he really need an endorsement? Is he that bad? Fortunately, I was dead wrong. Brown is one of the finest young pianists I've come across, and this debut album is nothing short of outstanding.
Alex Brown has managed to get around, having worked with Rivera's band since 2007, but also performing with Miguel Zenon and Wynton Marsalis. He studied with Danilo Perez and Charlie Banacos at the New England Conservatory and won some Young Composer Awards. He sometimes fronts his own group, and is poking around in classical music on the side. So, he has no dust on him, but what does he sound like?
The first word that comes to mind is "complex." His arrangements fill the ear, but not needlessly so. Brown plays fast, but can slow it down when he wants to. He works with a fair number of musicians, as you might expect when playing Latin jazz, but he puts them to good use with everything carefully constructed, while leaving plenty of room for improvisation. His choice of Latin styles range from Cuban to Brazilian, having absorbed a lot from his mentors. Forces vary on each track, and when Brown goes for a mainstream sound, he pares down to a quartet or trio. The second word is "strong." Brown has no timidity in his playing. He can be gentle, but that's very different from weak, and he knows where he is going and what sound he wants.
Lastly, I would use the word "generous." The pianist is out front a substantial portion of the time, but so is Vivek Patel on flugelhorn, and Warren Wolf on marimba. D'Rivera makes an appearance on three tracks, "The Wrong Jacket," "Lamentos," and "Buleria," getting some time in on both alto sax and clarinet. Patel is often where D'Rivera is not, supplying different colors and variety to the tracks. Everybody gets solo time, but for much of the rest Brown has the musicians playing in combinations, trading phrases and keeping the music moving.
The recording was produced in two days, with the larger group on Day One, the smaller quartet/trio work on the next day. The only musicians who play on every track are Brown, Ben Williams, and Eric Doob. The three are by themselves for two tracks, "Waltz," and "Just One of Those Things," the latter one of the two tunes not written by Brown. The first is a slower piece, contemplative and warm. The second starts in similar fashion, but speeds up quickly, with lots of fine work by Williams on bass. Days
One and Two are mixed on the album, lending even more variety from track to track.
As a debut album, this is as good as one is likely to find. The playing is superb, with Brown everywhere but not overwhelming. My interest never flagged, because with every minute came something new, a combination of instruments, a set of colors and tones, a new rhythmic direction. This is great Latin jazz combined with great mainstream jazz, and I recommend it highly.