Ari Brown

by Lofton A. Emenari, III

Room 43, Chicago,IL
Dec. 20, 2009

Ari Brown
Ari Brown (Bryan Thompson)
Ari Brown
Ari Brown (John Broughton)

Story by Lofton A. Emenari, III
All file photos below by James Walker, Jr., Copyright 2009

As a genial smiling Ari Brown sat in a chair on stage after a deeply engaging, full bodied tenor sax solo my mind floated back to when it was that I first heard him. Flooded with so many memories - on a off stage I'd come to know the saxophonist as a friendly, warm and often humorous man with a ready smile. Articulate on any area of life 'Big Brown' as friends would dub him would always take interest in conversation - be it with the casual jazz fan or friends and family. He is known as 'well rounded'. One can be staggered by his encyclopedic saxophonic skill which commands attention immediately. Some have linked him sonically to a who's who list of bygone saxophonists yet I'd be hard pressed to compare him to anybody living or dead. Browns gutsy brawn is uniquely his own and not beholden to aping cliches of those now gone. This is not to mention his unflappable humility, oft times disarming considering a long storied career and status as amongst the elite of not only Chicago's music community but the world at large. Duly recognized as a world class musician Brown naturally interacts with the crowd, intuitively feeding from its reactive give-and-take, just as any artist worth his salt would. A showman without pretense Brown can work a room - from very soles of his feet to the top of his head his magisterial  presence and authorial musicianship reveals he's been rightly schooled.

Ari Brown I first heard Richard Ari Brown in the many AACM big bands of those now legendary sessions led under the tutelage of Muhal Richard Abrams at the Transitions East, out on south Cottage Grove. He was then being hailed as a hip new up and comer by the small coterie of media that sought to recognize him. And rightly so. Almost simultaneously came a seminal break through - a new role, along with pianist Ken Chaney of the group, 'The Awakening'. It's visionary purposeful mark was the stuff of jazz lore. In fact he and Chaney have reprised the group once again with the additions of younger talents in trumpeter Cory Wilkes; bassist Josh Ramos and the dynamic drummer Yusef Ernie Adams. It is a 're-Awakening'.

Calling to mind those bombarding memories was the night he accompanied an seemingly endless litany of poets such as Siddha Webber, a gaggle of thunderous hand drummers along with vocalist Sherry Scott in a (jam) session honoring John Coltrane, annually held at the home he shared with the late Oshun Mugwana. Brown would fire impassioned solos that seared the very souls of all within earshot. Never letting up for a moments rest or respite the music and poetry at one critical juncture became so intense that Ms. Scott whirled uncontrollably in the middle of the floor collapsing into a hypnotic trance much akin to the rituals and rites of the Cuban Santeria/Voodun. She'd shake, eyes rolling in the back of her head totally absorbed by unknown spirits of the musical and spiritual atmosphere. And Brown served as the incessant Shaman high priest, using his snake charming saxophone to conjure and call down the very gods. It was an indelible moment mixed mystery and joy. Ari Brown

Then came to mind the week spent with Coltrane's very apostles Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner. The pianist oft hiring Brown in town and on the road. And the protean drummer positioning Brown right next to the enigmatic and reclusive saxist Andrew White. Their stark styles often clashing and blending into a relentless yet weirdly fascinating cachaphonic wind storm for the ages.

And what about Brown's nearly two decades of being Kahil El Zabar's lead horn voice for several of his afro-centric groupings. With the percussionist having the fore sight to match Brown up with Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp and Chicago's Ernest Khabir Dawkins (himself a young master). This is not to overlook his value to trumpeter Lester Bowie's groups and his being the regarded as the 'sixth' man of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, often subbing for Joseph Jarman. Dare we forget to mention his skills as a more than able pianist. Holding his own on the keys Brown can give the average pianist cause for pause. He along with saxists Joe Henderson and Archie Shepp, as well as drummer Jack DeJohnette are damn good pianists in their own right as well.

Lest I forget the well timed night a couple of years back that Brown hooked up with another Chicago legend saxophone and bagpipe practitioner Duke Payne. It was a stroke of genius pitting them together out at the now boarded up Berniece's Lounge. If you weren't there, well you missed it!  

But for all his bountiful trails and adventures in music Ari Brown's recording as a leader is relatively thin considering his contribution and tenure. The Delmark issues, Ultimate Frontier, Venus and 2007's Live at the Green Mill along with the 2008, now out-of-print, self produced 'Live at the Velvet Lounge' are all we have at hand. That's one reason perhaps Brown works steadily as a leader in town. Never resting on supposed laurels throw out the over used axiom, the "hardest working men in show business" Brown is none the less quite busy working in any number of venues as we speak. Ari Brown

So when on the night of December 20th, 2009 Brown brought his well oiled group into the music friendly Room 43 (out on the south sides' Kenwood neighborhood) we knew we were privy to the highest of standards. The fashionable new club brimmed with clamoring fans wall to wall, holding, clinging, swaying to every nuance, every beat, pulse and groove. With his regular working group of the deft pianist, brother Kirk Brown; the nail-it-down bass bottom thump of Yosef Ben Israel; to drummer Avreeayl Amen Ra, who summons forth the spirits of Billy Higgins and Art Taylor along with the crisp, penetrating hard core rhythms of percussionist Dr. Cuz this is a group that elevates the bandstand. Brother Kirk can weave lyrically intense swirling solos; Ben Israel is a no nonsense rock and Amen Ra has to be one of the most educated, improved and well versed drummers anyone can ask for. No wonder he works as a first call musician. All are masters of the art making this perhaps the premier jazz ensemble in town. Interesting enough some Chicago writers have hoisted upon Brown the red herring tag of, "local saxophonist", thereby marginalizing him to the woefully drab heap of the unrecognized, therefore regrettably somehow strangely insignificant.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Is it any wonder that at several jazz festivals throughout the city this past summer on sale at many a vendors booth were 'Ari Brown' T-shirts? That signifies arrival.

Just as those giants who've come before him, the Johnny Griffins, the Clifford Jordans, the Eddie Harris's of the world reached the pinnacle of recognition in jazz poised and working is Ari Richard Brown. He is historically hoisted upon their shoulders as a master more than worthy of recognition. Something he so justifiable deserves. Whenever and wherever Ari Brown and cohorts appear, make it your business to catch them. Maybe, just maybe, it will begin the process of getting more recording opportunities. We can only hope and pray. Lord knows we only need it - and right now!

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