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Otis Brown III - 'The Thought of You'

J.D. Swerzenski
Staff Writer

I had the chance to catch Maxwell with NextBop editor Anthony Dean-Harris a few weeks back. Good timing too, as after listening to a lot of Otis Redding the week before, I was on one of my periodical ‘they just don't make bands like they used to trips. It took Maxwell and his 7-piece backing crew about three songs to wipe those thoughts right out of my head. These dudes were fierce: navigating start-stop tempo shifts on a dime and subtly showing flashes of their individual sound without overshadowing the band.

Come roll call time at the end of the show, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize a couple names from Maxwell's backing band: bassist Derrick Hodge and organist Shedrick Mitchell, both of whom feature on Otis Brown III's excellent Blue Note debut The Thought of You.

So what significance does this have on Brown or his new record? Quite a bit actually. A scroll through the liner notes reveals that beyond Hodge and Mitchell, just about every musician the drummer recruited for this release seems to have recently come off the road with an R&B or pop superstar: trumpeter Keyon Harrold played with Prince and Erykah Badu, saxophonist John Ellis with Sting, guitarist Nir Felder with Esperanza Spalding's Chamber Music Society, Robert Glasper with...about everyone.

Brown has made a jazz album, no question. But it's impossible not to hear the influence of each musician's day job in The Thought of You's 12 tracks. Let's start with the title track, a piece split into three parts throughout the album. The opening, formed by a stuttering left-hand groove laid down by Glasper, sounds like a shard of some obscure Herbie Nichols record that Madlib already cut a sample from. 30 seconds later, Bilal jumps makes his entrance, and band shifts into a charging 4/4 swing. Then stops. And starts. And then goes back to the opening riff. The ground never really stops moving from there , with Brown leading his rhythm section through a dozen or more tempo changes and chord progressions. Even when things ostensibly settle for the Keyon Harrold to solo, Brown and Williams refuse to comp, forcing the trumpeter to react and keep his footing. Four minutes later, Brown slams on the breaks, leaving one with nothing left to do but try and figure out what just happen.

Clearly, this isn't the kind of music a Joe Lovano or Cyrus Chestnut is releasing. But then Brown and his band's style is not born of the jazz bandstand, but from hours spent in band rehearsal working solely on group unity, on locking into a groove together. This still being a jazz record and all, every musician sounds like they're enjoying the chance to cut up in a way that their more pop-oriented employers would never allow, but crucially, they never indulge.

For his part, Brown occupies the same turf as fellow hyper-kinetic drummers Jonathan Blake and Kendrick Scott, and his tendency to never sit injects the 50-min set with a constant stream of energy. He's about the only one here guilty of occasional showiness, but his undeniable talent for spurning his players on from behind the kit mostly overshadows this. The album's other big individual highlight comes from hearing Glasper in take a more straight-ahead jazz approach on tracks like "Stages of Thought" and opener "The Way", further making me hope that he'll cut another acoustic record sometime soon.

For a release that so values band interplay over individual spotlight, it's worth noting that The Thought of You's biggest issue is when it leans too far from jazz, and shoots for straight up pop. The Gretchen Parlato-sung cover "Still The One" is without a doubt the most egregious offender, its slight re-arrangement by Glasper doing little to wash the terrible late ‘90s adult-contemp taste out of it. (And call me elitist, but I will fight any and all efforts to turn the Shania Twain songbook into standards.) Other vocal efforts skew closer to Brown's comfort zone, including an effectively inspired turn on "Lord We Exalt Thee", which leaves the album on (a) high.

Though just about all of The Thought of You's tracks warrant commentary, it's worth leaving a last work on "The Two Have Become One", slotted right at the album's mid-way point. The beautiful, wilting ballad accentuated with biblical passages courtesy of plays polar opposite to the high-strung title-track. Yet both tracks work for many of the same reasons: again in the selfless performance approach from each player and in the careful blend of gospel, R&B modern jazz this yields. The sound is not an altogether new one; bandmates Derrick Hodge and Robert Glasper, along with like-minded drummers Eric Harland and Kendrick Scott, have steered their sound in a similar direction. But there’s a consistency and adventurousness in The Thought of You that endears it even among such impressive company.

J.D. Swerzenski is a staff writer for Nextbop at Art of Cool and a contributor to the San Antonio Current and Red Bull Music Academy Magazine.