Alison Brown Quartet – Schubas Tavern (Chicago, IL)
Alison Brown arrived in Chicago just over a week after she (along with collaborator Bela Fleck) had won the best country instrumental Grammy for “Leaving Cottondale”, a cut from Brown’s sixth disc, Fair Weather. When Brown took the stage for a night of bluegrass-flavored jazz, there was an enthusiastic gathering of (drum roll, please) exactly 17 fans in the audience. On a Friday night. In perhaps the best roots-music club in the Windy City. After the third song, “Late On Arrival”, Brown quipped, “Welcome to the show. I’m glad you all got your invitations.”
Joined by her husband, Garry West, on bass, John R. Burr on electric piano, and Kendrick Freeman on drums, Brown displayed an amazing technical ability, a noteworthy willingness to improvise, and occasionally, an unfortunate penchant for flaccid, new-agey arrangements. Although the quartet was clearly dejected by the small turnout, these blue-chip musicians made sure the faithful got a solid show.
Brown’s stage demeanor was a refreshing blend of admirable humility, self-effacing humor, and old-school professionalism. Instrumental numbers such as “Daytime TV” and “The Devil Went Down To Berkeley” concluded in dramatic showbiz fashion, each musician halting on the same beat. No reverb, no sustain — just stopping on a dime. It was an initially compelling exercise in precision that the band would use too often.
Brown’s amalgam of jazz and bluegrass hit its peak on “G Bop”, from the 1996 album Alison Brown Quartet. At one point, with graceful fingers darting along the banjo strings, Brown stared down and smiled quickly, as though she herself was surprised what had just happened. Brown is an intellectual player, but one who still knows how to swing it.
The show lost momentum during “My Favorite Marsha” and “Coast Walk”, a couple of smooth-jazz atrocities that would be perfect background music in a retirement home game room. While Brown and Burr have a superb musical rapport, he can lapse into saccharine runs that accentuate her worst sentimental tendencies. But when the quartet locks into a muscular melody such as “Shoot The Dog”, the pianist and banjoist shine, the jazz riffs intertwine, and one is reminded just how unusual this quartet’s instrumentation is.