|Although Rob Brown's early recordings as a leader were highly energetic, free-blowing affairs, he's gravitated in recent years toward a refinement of his compositional approach, particularly in his writing for quartet. Yet for someone with Brown's tremendous talent and knack for surrounding himself with similarly gifted collaborators, the recorded output under his name has infrequently transcended the sum of its parts. However, his latest release on the Paris-based Marge label dispels that feeling in one fell swoop of eloquence, as Brown teams up with trumpeter Roy Campbell and the intuitive rhythm section of William Parker and Hamid Drake for The Big Picture.
The extent of Brown's triumph is immediately obvious on "Dawning", which is not only one of the most graceful themes in his discography, but it also brings out a deeper melodicism in his alto playing as Parker loosely defines the tune's harmonic parameters. That sentiment carries through the session, particularly in the two slower-paced pieces, "Wyoming Song" and "Blues Thicket", the latter of which is a feature for Brown's masterful flute work. Yet there's no shortage of fiery episodes whatsoever, as Brown takes advantage of Campbell's absence on "Trio Unsprung" to blow profoundly over the rhythm team's elemental swing, engages with Drake in the thrilling duo section of "Islands of Space", and leads the entire quartet to freebop nirvana on the closing "Legroom".
It's also worth mentioning that Campbell's contributions to this session are remarkable as ever. He's one of the few trumpeters who embrace the instrument's unruly lowest register; his solo on "Islands of Space" provides all the evidence necessary to show his command of the horn's buzzing, valve trombone-like nether region. And his relationship with Brown has quickly developed into a state of telepathic correspondence, whether it's the saxophonist plucking out choice phrases of Campbell's solo and volleying them back into play on "Wyoming Song", or Campbell altering his flugelhorn lines to blend in with Brown's flute on "Blues Thicket" until the unison passages sound like they're emanating from some mutant chord-enabled horn.
But this disc's greatest success is the way in which Brown has finally reconciled the polarities of structure and freedom in his music. Where in the past his compositions have been well put together but almost too rigorously adhered to, the outcome here is fluidity incarnate. Although it would be easy to attribute it to the Parker-Drake rhythm section's seemingly incontrovertible magic, the developmental traces on Brown's previous recordings are far too apparent to deny—making The Big Picture a most significant achievement that will hopefully be looked back upon as a major transitional point in future evaluations of his work.