Jazz Album of the Week: Keith Brown's Comprehensive Yet Cohesive 'African Ripples'
In jazz, as in life, you are the company you keep. Perhaps unfair at times, it’s a truism that works out nicely for pianist Keith Brown. Casual jazz fans might not know him by name, but they might very well know him by sound; he played on acclaimed records led by big stars this past year—names like trumpeter Charles Tolliver, saxophonist Greg Tardy, and vocalist Jazzmeia Horn. With African Ripples, Brown’s third album as a leader, he’s again wisely chosen his company. Longtime collaborator Terreon “Tank” Gully reprises his role from 2015’s The Journey as drummer and co-producer, while playing on 11 of the 15 tracks, sharing the drum kit with Darrell Green. Russell Gunn (trumpet) and Anthony Ware (sax) constitute a small but mighty horn section over a small but mighty portion of the album (tracks 1, 5, and 12), while the consistently excellent Dezron Douglass (bass) anchors everything in the musical realm and Fats Waller anchors the spiritual essence of the entire production.
With “African Ripples Epigraph,” Brown kicks off with an amalgamation of stride piano and hip-hop meant to underscore the album’s conceptual theme of acknowledging Black music and the ways it has “rippled out in so many different directions” while remaining simply “different variations of the same impactful shared experiences.”
Musically, the partnership is another example of the winning combination of stride and hip-hop we saw pianist Emmet Cohen employ to great effect on the opener to his latest, Future Stride. Riffing on a Waller theme—you’ll notice variation on Waller throughout—Brown doffs a cap to ’30s stride then hops on the Fender Rhodes and sets the time circuits for the mid-90s, a basement house party, and a band with ties to the Native Tongues’ brand of thoughtful, jazzy hip-hop.
In this time travel fantasy, Douglas and Gully are keeping the dance floor packed and maximally sweaty, while looping, punching riffs from Gunn and Ware ensure that all hands are up and keeping time and feeding energy right back to the band. And while all that’s going on, spoken word artist Cyrus Aaron interjects, laying down thought provoking verses in a manner that calls to mind early-2000s André 3000. This music really does ripple through several generations; at times you may know where you are, but you may not know when you are.
A tune meant to expand listeners’ perspectives, “Truth and Comfort,” follows next. Brown says in the album’s press release that he wrote this one with the hope that people can “…open themselves up to truths beyond their comfort level.” My sense is that Brown is referring to the issues of systemic bias that we’ve been reckoning with all year long—the idea of considering that, perhaps, you don’t know all that you don’t know.
But the music—throughout the record but most especially on “Truth and Comfort” and “Nafid”— also reveals a second strata of truth: the dialogue between jazz and hip-hop is here to stay, as the younger generation of musicians is eager to communicate idiomatic fluency in both. Gully is the pied piper of that message here, the quintessential contemporary jazz drummer.
Perhaps the warmest tune on the album is “512 Arkansas Street.” Meant to give the listener a glimpse into gatherings of Brown’s extended family in Knoxville, Tenn., this one communicates the glow of easy summer days uncompromised by business or obligation.
Gunn and Ware return on trumpet and saxophone, respectively; collectively, they are a spot of sun shining through partially closed blinds and resting lazily on your cheek, a cup of mild coffee that gets you sitting up in bed but puts no pressure on you to get vertical. Cloaking you in safety, comfort, and nostalgia, this one compares favorably to Ahmad Jamal’s “Saturday Morning” or any number of the mild mood enhancers from Grover Washington, Jr.’s catalogue that prioritize relaxed contentment over strained striving. Add it to your weekend—or even weekday— morning routine as needed.
Also not to be missed are Brown’s two updated takes on Waller’s “African Ripples” that define the album’s core and permeate the record in every direction. Though quite different musically, Brown’s treatment of the Waller canon might remind some of Brad Mehldau’s approach to Bach on After Bach. As in Mehldau’s case, we’re talking about a nearly total recontextualization here—nearly. Brown’s additions are not empty adornments; they’re compatible with the evolution of the music’s soul.
That’s why for an album with seemingly disparate individual components, the whole of African Ripples is surprisingly cohesive, rippling out in all directions but true to its core.