It's not so much that Ray Brown is still touring and recording at age 73. It's not even that, way back when he was only 19, he was hired by Dizzy Gillespie to play bass in the same group as Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Max Roach. It's that the music he makes now gets minds racing, toes tapping and heads nodding all over the auditorium of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla.
At the last of three concerts organized by the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library on Saturday Nov. 20, the Athenaeum's Dan Atkinson itroduced the man who needs no introduction by quoting a recent New York Times report that said Ray Brown "is still the man to beat, and no-one has come close yet."
Then Brown entered from stage left with his two proteges: Geoff Keezer and drummer Kariem Riggins. Speaking into the microphone sited upstage beside his bass, Brown seemed as comfortable as a neighborhood grandfather confiding to the audience, after a rendition of "Sunday," that he hadn't been here for a while and it was so good to come out of the rain on the way down.
Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" was followed by a superbly upbeat execution of Miles Davis' "Milestones," in which 24-year-old Riggins demonstrated the deftness and flair that fully justified the place he occupied at the right hand of the maestro. Indroducing "You Are My Sunshine," Brown mentioned his Pittsburgh childhood and alleged that he used to hear the song sung by some of the Italian people, "only we're going to do it a little different." And it was very different, different even from the comparatively sedate track he released on "Brown's Bag" in 1991.
He plucked a funky, hip interpretation over a piano-and-drums rhythm section and afterwards drew an appreciative laugh by confiding to the audience, "You know I didn't come up with that all by myself." The implication being that, in the tradition of Art Blakey, Brown's secret of eternal youth is achieved by recruiting the youngest sidemen from available talent.
Following with "Tin Tin Deo," he acknowledged his beginnings by pointing out that it was by "one of my ex-bosses, Dizzy Gillespie." Gillespie might have been smiling down from jazz heaven to hear the full-toned quality of Brown's Blanton-style bass accentuate the composition's Cuban flavors.
Twenty-nine-year-old Geoff Keezer rose to the occasion. Not content to play the keys, he reached into the strings and played keys-er; a feat of showmanship few pianists will pull off with such accuracy at that tempo.
The trio closed the first half of the evening with their contemporary take on a medley of classics from "The Ellington Organization."
Brown opened the second half by playing "America the Beautiful" as a sincere and moving solo before the trio joined him in revealing how the song's intrinsic qualities qualify it as natural ammunition for the jazz cannon.
"Honeysuckle Rose" bloomed under Keezer's green fingers in an interpretation that owed less to Fats Waller's stride style than that of Brown's former collaborator, Oscar Peterson.
"I would like to, at this time, do something I call 'Showing off the kids' ‹ starting with my oldest boy, Geoff Keezer," Brown said. "Geoff's going to play for you 'But Not For Me.'" Just as the little joke had a high shine from frequent use, the Gershwin standard dazzled in a similar way.
Riggins' skill on drums was showcased no less effectively in "Seven Steps to Heaven" and earned long applause.
Brown said the trio plays a different repertoire when it appears with symphony orchestras at concerts in countries such as Israel and Germany, and he introduced "The Ray Brown Suite," a Ray Brown composition arranged by his former student John Clayton Jr., but seldom performed in the U.S.
A tribute to "one of our heroes," Count Basie, called "Captain Bill" served as a fine finale although many seemed disappointed when the trio left the stage and declined to come back for an encore.
The evening was only marred by occasional distortion caused by faulty diaphragms in the loudspeakers but apparently nothing could be done to fix them on the night. This seemed painfully ironic, given that artificial amplification should have been eminently dispensible with the powerful acoustic qualities of the three instruments being played in an auditorium reputed to have the fines acoustic qualities in the country.
During the interval the sound engineer said, "I've got it just on the edge. When they play loud, it distorts."
For information about further concerts call the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, (858) 454-5872.