Tenor master Ari Brown plays homage to John Coltrane

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 Ari Brown

Ari Brown (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / February 16, 2013)

Chicago tenor saxophone master Ari Brown first heard John Coltrane perform live when Brown was 19 years old, and several times thereafter.

He has never forgotten the experience.

"It was actually overwhelming," recalls Brown, who will be playing a major tribute to Coltrane on Wednesday evening at the DuSable Museum of African American History, on East 56th Place.

"It was so powerful, and you knew that he was the only force," adds Brown. "To me, he was the strongest horn of anyone who was trying to delve into their creativity.

"He epitomized the whole thing. Just to see him playing those low notes and jump way above the (musical) staff, back and forth. … Trane, he just had it."

So Brown is an ideal choice to lead "A Tribute to John Coltrane: 'Celebrating 50 Years of 'A Love Supreme,'" as part of the DuSable Museum's summertime jazz series "The Sounds of History."

It was in December of 1964 that Coltrane recorded "A Love Supreme," which remains one of the most revered of all jazz albums. Released in 1965 – two years before Coltrane's death at age 40 – the recording stands as a searing expression of faith expressed in the language of jazz. As such, it defied conventional thinking – then and now – of jazz as an idiom better suited to conjuring sensuality and carnality.

That a music as complex, challenging and fervent as "A Love Supreme" should attain wide popularity attests to the eloquence of Coltrane's vision and the uniquely charismatic nature of his sound.

For Wednesday's tribute, Brown and his band – featuring such estimable players as bassist Yosef Ben Israel, drummer Avreeayl Ra and pianist Kirk Brown (the saxophonist's brother) – will take on selections from "A Love Supreme." They'll also address works from elsewhere in Coltrane's discography, including classics such as "Giant Steps," "Naima" and "My Favorite Things," plus lesser known pieces, such as "You're a Weaver of Dreams" and "Moment's Notice."

To Brown, Coltrane stands as the musician who influenced him most, and continues to do so.

From Coltrane, Brown learned "to really be serious, keep learning, never sit back," he says. "And the thing about Trane: Even though he was adventuresome, he was also very melodic. He embodied the different (historical) periods he played in.

"I listened to something the other day where I could hear the Dexter Gordon influence," adds Brown, referring to the tenor saxophonist who famously appeared in the great jazz feature film "'Round Midnight."

Coltrane "just gave me something to strive for, to keep on plugging away. … His spirit is always with me."

You can hear as much whenever Brown picks up his horn, the intensity of his delivery and majesty of his lines reflecting Coltrane's model. But Brown brings his own esthetic to bear, as well, the dark, luxuriant nature of his tone easy to get lost in. Like Coltrane, Brown pushes into experimental sounds, and you never know where any improvisation is going to take him.

There's a searching, questing quality to Brown's work, in other words, that underscores the depth of Coltrane's impact on him.

Listening to Coltrane's music through the decades "made me not want to settle for just playing what was going on (stylistically) at the time," says Brown, who also applauds Coltrane for having championed the soprano saxophone at a time when the instrument had fallen out of fashion.

"This Coltrane evening is something good to do," adds Brown. "It makes me review a lot of things about Trane. I'm looking at different tunes of his, trying to pick what I want to do.

"His spirit is always with me, though. … He's the epitome for any kind of music. He achieved the highest level. He did the work.

"Years after his death, he's still alive and strong."

And likely will be during Brown's forthcoming tribute.

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