Wednesday, April 6, 2011

April 6: Clifford Brown, "Joy Spring"

Artist: Clifford Brown
Song: "Joy Spring"
Album: Clifford Brown & Max Roach
Year: 1954

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One of the biggest hurdles within the world of jazz music is the ability of listeners to move past the two or three "big" names, and give ample time and listening to the large group of performers who were just as important developmentally, but for one reason or another, have not achieved the same name recognition.  Within every jazz style and on every instrument, one can find a number of such musicians, and perhaps understandably, it is rarely more obvious than when one looks at the great jazz trumpet players.  Most are content to stop after the names of Davis and Gillespie, and yet it is impossible to deny the massive amount of talent and impact that was achieved in just a few short years by the great Clifford Brown.  Though many are unfamiliar with his work, there is no question that he was one of the masters of the "hard bop" style, and he was already on pace to surpass the other names, as he had a reputation for avoiding many of the vices that plagued his peers.  Having honed his skills with some of the finest band leaders in history, in the mid-1950's, Brown teamed up with fellow legend Max Roach, and they formed one of the finest jazz ensembles in history.  Though this group would only record a handful of times before Brown's tragic passing in a car accident in June of 1956, they were able to record what remains an absolute standard of jazz, and one can quickly appreciate the sheer genius of Clifford Brown within his 1954 composition, "Joy Spring."

Truth be told, there are actually two "major" recordings of this piece, both featuring Brown on trumpet, but the later recording is nearly twice the length of the first.  The central musical theme is the same, and the second, longer version is the one in question, as it fully explores every facet and is musically superior to its predecessor.  Furthermore, just looking at the lineup on the longer recording makes it clear just how well respected Brown was, as he was able to pull some of the finest musicians of his day for these sessions.  The core of the sound on this recording of "Joy Spring" comes from the superb rhythm section of the great Max Roach, alongside bassist Georges Morrow.  The way these two seem to almost predict where Brown is going to go musically is a testament not only to their exceptional talents, but to the chemistry within the group.  Both are given ample space to show their own talents, and the drum solo in the latter stages of the song remains one of Roach's most sensational recorded moments.  The addition of pianist Richie Powell is one of the key aspects to the overall sound, and the way in which he seems to duel with the horn players is what helps the song to quickly become one of the finest hard-bop recordings in history.  There is a flow and finesse that runs throughout the entire song, and it is this uniquely loose sound that leaves one wondering just "what could have been" had this group had more time to work with one another.

Yet even though this trio cannot be overlooked on "Joy Spring," it is the two horns that retain the spotlight for a majority of the composition.  Working in perfect harmony, tenor sax master Harold Ladd rarely sounded as amazing as he does here, and in terms of both speed and tone, he seems to match Brown note for note throughout the first section of the song.  There is a certainly spring and bounce within his solo in the early stages of the song that pushes the overall mood even higher, and one can argue that without this performance, the rest of the song would not have taken the shape that it did.  This solo leads into one of the handful of moments on the track where Clifford Brown and his trumpet step forward, and one can almost instantly feel just how distinctive and captivating his sound was, and one can easily argue that it is this recording that was his definitive moment.  Though Brown works all over the musical scale, clearly letting the song and mood dictate his sound, he never gets too far away from his bandmates, and it is this proximity that helps the entire composition to attain such an impact.  It is the way in which the lead on the song is so seamlessly handed from one musician to the next that shows just what a fantastic band leader Brown was, as it is often passed mid-bar, and the fact that there is not a missed beat anywhere is a testament to the concentration and exceptional skills of each of the players.

Over the decades, there have been a vast number of recordings of Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring," and yet none have been able to attain the level of mood or musicianship found on the original 1954 version.  This is almost entirely due to the presence of Brown on the track, and even after only hearing it once, one can quickly understand just why his passing was so tragic to the world of jazz.  Even at only twenty-six years old, it is clear that he was already equaling the skills of the biggest names in jazz, and the fact that he was known for avoiding the vices that brought down so many jazz greats only adds to the "what could have been" discussion.  Yet it is likely due to his early demise that relegated him to a more cult-like status, even though one can hear such brilliance within nearly ever piece he recorded.  Within his catalog, it is easy to argue that it was his work with Max Roach that was his finest, and the interplay between these two musicians easily makes them one of the greatest jazz duos in history.  Filled with seemingly endless twists and turns, Brown's "Joy Spring" is without question one of the most enjoyable jazz compositions of all time, and his ability to bring out the best in the musicians around him was clearly the key to the song quickly becoming one of the most iconic pieces in jazz history.  Though the other players on the recording are absolutely at in top form, it is the stunning trumpet work of Clifford Brown that stands out most, and there are few moments in jazz that remain as powerful and beautiful as his 1954 recording, "Joy Spring."

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