Saturday, October 11, 2003

Alison Brown Quartet

Alison Brown7pm, October 9, 2003, Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall, Asheville, NC. I backed into a premium spot in the parking lot of the Grey Eagle Music Hall with great eagerness to find the lot empty but for two others and the lobby darkened, silent and inactive. I hate being too early. But tonight the Alison Brown Quartet would play to the small audience that the Grey Eagle would allow and I thought I might chat it up with a few fellow fans before the big crowds would gather for the 8:00 show.

As I sat in silence for a moment, a rather non-descript van pulled in to sidle up to the front door. A man with long brown hair stepped out to open the rear doors of the van. It was John R. Burr, keyboardist extraordinaire for the Quartet. I’d recognize that stringy mane anywhere.

Soon after, bassist and hubby Garry West joins Burr and drummer Kendrick Freeman to help unload odd bits of equipment in the hushed parking lot. A strikingly slender, blondish woman emerges from the front passenger seat. It is Alison Brown in faded jeans. Business-like, she opens the side door of the van to reveal a small child in a car seat who begins to utter a few baby-squeaks as she manages to dive forward and release the child into her arms and then into a stroller.

So, the band is all here -- and baby makes five. And, for tonight at least, the famed jazzy, grassy foursome is become the Alison Brown Quintet.

As the band quickly sets up to compensate for their late arrival, I take a plate in the club’s unpretentious Sassafras cafĂ©. An even less pretentious barkeep serves a taste of stale coffee. The occasional thump and pluck from beyond the divider curtains tells me that the assembled music-makers are making progress. But 8:00 comes and I have seen two, perhaps three couples dribble in to the theater. Is the Asheville community too nonchalant to arrive on time? Are the band’s fans so jazzy and cool that they insist on arriving fashionably late? The club owner explains that “some ads say 8:30.” Very well, 8:30 it is.

By 8:30 a few more couples and others saunter in to the auditorium to take their seats. The crowd now totals just under twenty; myself included. Whatever has happened here?

Not to appear despondent, drummer Freeman coolly and cheerfully steps onto the stage and takes his perch at the cornered drum-set. The remaining three-quarters of the band soon followed on and began the casual rumble of tuning and testing. At times betraying a new composition.

The band is ready; with Burr on a small electronic keyboard unit, Brown with her banjo in hand and a guitar at the ready, West on electric bass and Freeman exposed behind a smallish set of drums, congas, cowbells and cymbals. Little Hannah is never far in her closely-attended stroller.

The always chipper Alison Brown approaches her microphone to thank everyone for coming to the show. Light laughter ensues and Brown apologetically informs us that tonight’s show will be “intimate.”

And intimate is was. The Alison Brown Quartet are professionals and craftsmen of the highest order and they quickly laid into their set with superb renditions of those favorites found on their recent Compass Records release entitled Replay, described in the liner notes as “playful, swinging and sweet . . . The musicianship, of course, awesomely accomplished . . . These are exquisite celebrations of simple pleasures.”

And the pleasures were all mine. The mastery and creativity gushed out into the audience like a waterfall of joyful noise.

In between the spray and mist, Alison would pad the set with bits of background. She reminded the spare audience of her former stuffy occupation in the Wall Street bond market and of her easy conversion to bluegrass babe as an early Alison Krauss banjoist. She explained the curious origins of the Wonderful Sea Voyage of Holy St. Brendan who set out for the Americas in a leather boat. She found a relaxed moment to introduce the fifth member of the quintet: Hannah, her toddling daughter. And she was proud to speak about her reciprocal tribute to astronaut Marsha Ivans entitled My Favorite Marsha. (It was Ivans who carried a tune of Alison’s into space on the shuttle and later wrote to tell her of it.)

Brown visited her own upper atmospheres in an oh-so-jazzy version of The Spiderman Theme along with a sprightly and energetic Leaving Cottondale. And the rest of the band joined her way up there in tune after glorious tune. This modest but powerful ensemble does indeed seem to hail from “out of the blue.”

Midway in the set, Alison graciously allowed pianist John R. Burr to showcase a little something from his own recent solo effort Piedmont Avenue with a lovely introspective piece entitled A Christmas Lullaby which he played on a baby grand piano without a spotlight. The mood was delicious and Burr emerged quietly from the shadows to beckon his band-mates to return and finish out the set.

The mood quickly returned to excitement as the Quartet rounded out the evening with several showstoppers that highlighted their soaring talents individually and as a tight, well-suited unit. Particularly impressive was the subtle, appropriate and sparkling percussion provided by newest band member Kendrick Freeman whom Brown described as probably the best bluegrass drummer around. Agreed.

The evening was an unquestionable success despite the poor turn out. CD’s and T-shirts were available out front to help make up the deficit and I can happily report that Burr’s Piedmont Avenue, featuring Paul McCandless, is brilliant. (Note: Burr and McCandless make for a perfect marriage of musical sensibilities.)

Leaving the music hall at the close of the show was easy. Everything had been done. And there was no bottleneck at the exit. The evening was pleasant, musical and fulfilling.

Sitting in my car ready to pull away I glanced into the lobby and noted that husband, father, bassman, producer and business partner Garry West had taken over the till. I slipped Piedmont Avenue into the CD player and drove off with Burr’s masterful eloquence finishing the night like a smooth glass of port. I remember thinking, “I am happy.”

For the several scores of others who obviously could not make it to last night’s performance, I truly hope you can overcome future obstacles and make an evening with the Alison Brown Quartet a priority.