Alison Brown Quartet- “Replay” [Compass Records 743212]

Swinging Into Fall
                                                                                                                          Nelson Brill

November 2004

     
When you want genuine music - music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey, go right through you like Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pinfeather pimples on a picked goose - when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!” - Mark Twain

Today in the Northeast, we had a day that felt like the last breath of summer, with tourmaline skies and a sweet breeze that swirled around whispering the words: “Fare ye well til Spring.” When finally the sun had set on this fleeting day, I retreated to hear one of my favorite seasonal instrumentals: “The Promise of Spring” by the Alison Brown Quartet from their disc, Replay. If you are a lover of acoustic music spanning the quadrants of jazz, bluegrass and even samba, this audiophile recording is your ticket to heaven. First, the recording itself propels the listener into a spontaneous, live-feel recording session that Brown and her Quartet created over just two days in a Nashville studio. The sonics capture this live feel perfectly, with a wide and accurate soundstage crackling with precise image resolution, where the players should appear before you with lots of space and air surrounding their artistry. I love to use this disc as a reference for listening to how a system delivers proper tone color, particularly in reference to the hard to capture instrument, the banjo. In this recording, Alison Brown’s banjo is recorded with a wonderful rich tone color, making her creative and nimble finger rolls up and down its neck a joy to behold. Take a listen to “Without Anastasia”, a selection that begins with the fragile runs of Brown on her solo banjo, singing with a sweetness that conjures up the delicate falling of leaves in a soft, autumnal breeze. Every note is crystalline perfect, with a richness of tone that decays naturally into the recording space. Contrast this to her frenetic, whimsy on “Late on Arrival” and “G Bop,” where all sorts of double thumbing, rhythmic variations carry the day, challenging your system to keep up with her licks. The great thing about this recording is that even at a pace more furious than Scruggs could conjure, the accuracy of Brown’s instrument remains focused and precise, with no harshness or stridency. Her acoustic guitar on several cuts is also recorded with a wondrous warmth of tone, which a system should be able to flesh-out and seduce you further with her cloyingly melodic lines.

One of the other great qualities of this recording gem is the stellar artistry of the supporting cast to Brown. I particularly marvel at the varying brushwork of Kendrick Freeman on drums, as the recording captures his techniques with fine sizzle and decay. My favorite cut on this disc, “Red Balloon” opens the set with a splash of Freeman’s brushes on snare that starts the melody right out of the gate. (I warn readers that the melodies of this disc are highly contagious and you will be humming them in the shower, guaranteed.) The keyboard work of John Burr is also noteworthy, as he strides from Cajun romps in “Etoufee Brutus?” to great twinkling swing solos, like on “Daytime TV.” The artistry and aesthetic span of this disc should have you out of breathe by the time of its pensive conclusion in Brown’s acoustic guitar finish of “The Promise of Spring,” bringing us full circle. It was Pete Seeger who said it best: “The Banjo surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Peace.

We welcome readers’ comments or suggestions for other audiophile CD favorites for upcoming Stereo Times reviews. Please contact NelsonBrill@stereotimes.com