LP REVIEW: Oscar Brown Jr. – Sin And Soul

Oscar Brown Jr. – Sin And Soul
(Speakers Corner/Columbia CS 8377. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Not just a singer, Oscar Brown Jr. was also a reformer, civil rights campaigner and aspiring politician (standing unsuccessfully for congress). He was additionally an actor, playwright and a significant songwriter, with over a hundred songs published in his lifetime from an oeuvre of more than a thousand. His first sale was to Mahalia Jackson and it was both as a songwriter and a performer that Brown had a significant impact in jazz. In 1959 he collaborated with Max Roach on Roach’s Candid Album We Insist! and in 1960 Brown recorded Sin and Soul his debut album for Columbia which consists of a potent blend of his solo compositions and existing jazz themes for which he wrote lyrics, notably the classic Dat Dere by Bobby Timmons. However, it is worth pointing out that — despite whatever you may read in Wikipedia, or elsewhere on the internet — the song called Watermelon Man on this record is purely the work of Brown and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Herbie Hancock composition, which wouldn’t appear for another couple of years. (Indeed, it’s not entirely implausible that Brown’s track might have had some inspirational influence on Hancock.)

Nat Adderley’s Work Song is given a stunning interpretation, instantly intoxicating and dynamically swinging with a percussive, punchy, vibrant bounce. Oscar Brown’s lyrics clothe the tune like a coating of high gloss paint on a Jaguar XK-E. It’s hard to believe that such a bleak tale ("The judge says five years hard labour…”) can be conveyed so joyously and with such an infectious hip-swaying pulse, but a lot of that is down to Adderley’s splendid original. In any case, it swings like a rock-smashing hammer and is the most exhilarating chain gang tale since Sam Cooke. The raucous trumpet is either by Billy Butterfield or Joe Wilder — rather a tasty choice, and one which emphasises the stellar quality of the musicians on this record. The neat sax coda is courtesy of Phil Bodner, Walt Levinsky or Joe Solde (place your bets). The original album cover is maddeningly vague about who plays on what tracks, but other luminaries on these sessions include George Duvivier on bass while one of the three pianists is the soul legend Floyd Morris.

The slow and slinky But I Was Cool is an Oscar Brown original, reminiscent of a Bo Diddley number or one of Leiber and Stoller’s sardonic story songs. Inhabiting a doomed hipster persona with considerable psychological acuteness Brown moans, sobs and brags to hilarious effect, with moseying guitar (Don Arnone, Everett Barksdale or A. Chernet) and drums (Panama Francis, George Devens or Bobbie Rosengardner) keeping pace. Brown lets rip in a swirl of mad laughter, accompanied by a muted trumpet unfurling endlessly like a novelty snake springing from a can of nuts.

In an utter change of pace Bid ’Em In is an unnerving vignette of a slave auction (“Don’t mind her tears, that’s one of her tricks… Make a fine lady’s maid when she’s properly whipped”). Conveyed purely as vocals and gavel-slamming percussion it is a short, pugnacious and chilling polemic. Whereas 12 Years a Slave ran 134 minutes and Django Unchained clocked in at 165, this song manages to compactly convey as much impact in a cool one minute and twenty eight seconds.

Written in collaboration with Norman Curtis, Rags and Old Iron sees Brown singing in a high, soulful, heartrending wail which is a kind of male equivalent of Nina Simone — an apt parallel not just because of the singers’ shared civil rights concerns but because Simone would later cover Work Song. The bounding, punctuating piano is by Alonzo Levister, Bernie Leighton or Floyd Morris.

Brown’s lyrics for Bobby Timmon’s Dat Dere cemented its status as a standard and it’s one of the highlights of this fine album. Piano and guitar escort Brown’s vocals into the spotlight. It’s both a touching portrait of childhood and a bravura demonstration of matching coherent syllables to a writhing, complex jazz instrumental. The closely entwined piano and bass and pattering drums support the singer’s magnificent performance. Hip, cool, moving and intellectually impressive. A neat trick, if you can pull it off. Which pretty much sums up this lovely album, now available again on state of the art vinyl from Speakers Corner.

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