It’s not a straight date by his long running Portland, OR Sextet or Quintet (that'll have to wait). What he's assembled here is a sweet soul team. Saxophonist Renato Caranto, the only regular from the above mentioned Brown groups spars continually with Lloyd Jones Struggle organist Glenn Holstrom and guitarist Luther Russell while bassist Fred Trujillo keeps on top of Brown’s relentless drive and percussionist Bobby Torres contributes some rhythmic color. Guitarist Hank Swarn - who worked with the drummer in his first 60’s band Billy Larkin and the Delegates - and singer "Sweet Baby" James Benton - who gave Brown his first serious gig - both add cameos and a bit of historical context. To sweeten the sound, Stevie Wonder producer John Fischbach ("Songs in the Key of Life") tightens up the groove and lets it breathe.
All of this shows that Brown had an agenda going in - to explore on his own terms the music he’s been an integral part of for forty years. From the opening instrumental take on the Four Tops’ "Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)" to a closing cover of Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Happening Brother", we get a Groove 101 survey course by this Ph.D. of rhythm.
Caranto’s sax gets the lion’s share of solo space. New to most listeners outside of the Pacific Northwest, Caranto is an expert soul shouter in the King Curtis vein but can just as easily take on Blue Note's streetwise conversational tone as he slips and slides around the melody’s story line. The soul set-ups by the Temps, Gaye and the Impressions fit his bright honeyed tone to a "T" as he recalls the high-end soul of Stanley Turrentine’s best crossover work or the Motown-era Grover Washington, Jr. (who dug this material himself). Caranto’s rich tone goes down with the sweet bite of a good cognac.
Of course, Brown’s the true star here. Whether leading the charge on the El Chicano classic "Viva Tirado", bringing it down on the jazz ballad "But Not For Me" (where the under-appreciated "Sweet Baby' James Benton offers a masterful vocal) or stoking the flames of Holstrom's B3 on the studio jam "Leave It Alone", he’s like a funky metronome with too-much soul.
This is timeless soul jazz in the best late sixties Blue Note/Motown/Hi/Stax vein. If I didn't know Brown was a Portland-native, his churning rhythm n’ grit grooves could easily be taken for Detroit, Memphis or New Orleans' finest fare.