Otis Brown III
Drummer Otis Brown III is a well-known, in-demand sideman and the founding drummer in Joe Lovano's Us Five. The Thought of You, his debut as a leader, was co-produced with Derrick Hodge. Pianist Robert Glasper, saxophonist John Ellis, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and bassist Ben Williams -- the only one of these men who was not Brown's classmate at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music -- are the core of this lineup. Bilal Oliver (another schoolmate), Gretchen Parlato, and Nikki Ross all make vocal appearances. Hodge and Brown obviously share a love for the classic Blue Note quartet and quintet sounds of the late '50s through the middle '60s: tight, crisp, clean. But that doesn't mean the music is retro; it's anything but. Opener "The Way (Truth & Life)" commences with a punchy bass vamp before Brown enters with a kinetic Afro-Latin groove and Glasper offers his signature elliptical piano line. The horns counter with an urgent, melodic head with labyrinthine asides. Ellis moves toward the outside and Glasper follows. Brown lays down hip fills and rolls and cymbal washes. The title track, written by Oliver, is quizzically done in three parts spread over the record -- though they were obviously edited from one longer cut. The first part -- the single -- has a knotty piano and horn intro before his breezy vocal claims the center briefly before the tune evolves into driving, fingerpopping post-bop. Parlato's reading of Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" is smoky, spacious, nocturnal, and understated. The hook is there, but in her phrasing and Brown's cymbal ticks and snare and tom-tom syncopations, its margin blurs and almost alchemically transforms into jazz. "Stages of Thought" and "The Two Become One" are instrumentals that offer differing sides of Brown's musical vision. The former is tumultuous, with layered dissonant harmonics. Glasper's piano alternates between inquisitive and declamatory as the horns engage in swooping dialogic call-and-response solos. The rhythm section prods and provokes with accents, feints, and dekes. The latter cut employs spoken samples from the tune's (literally) speaking subject (Brown's wife) during their wedding ceremony. It's a spacious, ethereal, open-ended ballad. Ellis' bass clarinet and Glasper's electric piano surround the rhythm section, which lays down a lithe, atmospheric groove. "I Love You Lord/We Exalt Thee/In the Beginning" is one of two fine Ross vehicles here. This one reveals the perfect intersection between gospel and contemporary jazz. Glasper's piano accompanies her on the melody, adding dimension and lyric harmony amid guest Shedrick Mitchell's organ swells. The singer soulfully and elegantly commits to the lyric yet never over-emotes. Brown's playing is like a chorale as he and Ross engage to develop an improvisational dialogue. The Thought of You is ambitious in its musical reach and affirmative in its themes of spiritual faith and family (actual and relational). It is a thoroughly classy, sophisticated, at times provocative offering by a top-notch talent.