in performance: norman brown

norman brown.

norman brown.

The voice came from the upper decks of the Opera House early into smooth jazz guitarist Norman Brown’s 85 minute set. “Hey Norman,” it cried. “Where’s the saxophone?”

The abundantly good natured Brown looked initially stymied by the remark but quickly offered the most honest answer he could muster. His band, he stated, didn’t need one.

And without question, it didn’t. Sure, smooth jazz, the genre that favors predominantly instrumental music that owes as much to R&B and pop as it does to actual jazz, is known for laying on the glossy jams, both on record and onstage. Last night, Brown operated only with a quartet of two keyboardists, a bassist and drummer behind him. And while his recordings have increasingly promoted vocal tunes, the Opera House show relied heavily on instrumental works that favored thickly strummed melodies over conventional picking solos (although there were also a few of the latter, as well).

The trim band was seldom offered solo spots. They instead provided efficient, orchestrated and even brass inspired backdrops (as on BWB) so that Brown’s guitar work could flourish.

Comparisons to George Benson, which have commonplace throughout Brown’s career, were still unavoidable. The majority of his singing was in the form of scat vocals that matched the darting, rhythmic patterns of his guitar playing – a trick that was a Benson trademark. Brown even admitted as much during a medley where he played fractions of tunes by his influences. Benson was one. So was Wes Montgomery, which only made sense as he was as obvious an inspiration to Benson as Benson as been to Brown.

During the more rugged compositions in last night’s program – the lyrically propulsive Any Love and the modest tropical flow of Lydia – a touch of the keenly rhythmic sound of the great Montgomery came alive. The crowd simply grooved happily to the sunny cheer of Brown’s music. But under the summery exterior, a serious jazz heart – one that wasn’t always smooth or sleek – beat away.

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