JazzTimes: “A Night Like No Other; Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet release “Tuesday Night”"

After a 25 year wait, finally the sequel to “Gordon Blue”
Finally, Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet has released the long-awaited sequel to “Gordon Blues,” the 1989 sextet recording of the group who won Hennessy Jazz Search competition. In the end, 25 years was not too long to wait for such a splendid recording.

For well 15 years, Portland’s Jazz audience has enjoyed Mel Brown’s Septet every Tuesday night at the famed Jimmy Mak’s Jazz club. With good food and a musicologist bartender, Jimmy Mak’s is the place for Jazz in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, it is that bartender/musicologist, J.D. Stubenberg, who wrote the excellent liner notes for “Tuesday Night.” He remarks that the original “sextet took to our stage in 1998, soon becoming a septet, and they have been burning down our stage every Tuesday since!”

Those live performances are incredible indeed and “Tuesday Night” is a great representation of what Portland audiences are privileged to see weekly.

The septet is heavy-laden with horns and is centered on the exquisite artistry of drummer Mel Brown. Gordon Lee, on the other hand, is the quintessential music director and has spent the last years composing music for the ensemble.

Eight out of the nine tracks are written by Lee with the sole exception of the opening piece, “Full Moon.” The solo piano introduction is unmistakably and immediately recognizable as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor. The piece quickly turns into the more swinging version “Full Moon (And Empty Arms)” which was a major hit for Frank Sinatra in 1945.

Mel Brown has taken this group in the direction of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with the hard-bop focus and with the personnel, he makes it happen brilliantly. The horns consist of the precise Derek Sims on trumpet, the versatile John Nastos on alto sax, the powerful Renato Caranto on tenor sax and the smooth trombone of Stan Bock. Andre St. James joins his bass with Mel Brown’s drums for the rhythm section with Gordon Lee who plays partner to Mel Brown as the driving force of the group.

After the nod and wink to Rachmaninoff, Mel Brown jumps starts Gordon Lee’s “Low Profile.” It is a swinging piece that has piano, bass and drums surging to the front while the horns get brilliant solos. Caranto and Nastos are like telepathic twins exhibited by the marvelous flow between them.

“Sunset on the Beach” begins as a piano solo with the group then joining in a creation of beautiful imagery. The moments of corps unison are exquisite in themselves. Described as a tone poem, it is a colorful display of texture and tonality.

Brown opens “Machangulo” with deep toms leading the way for the soulful minors and cool horn arpeggios. The piano solo followed by the sax weave a film noir sound that is a fitting setup for the next track “Istanbul” which Andre St. James leads off with the bass.

The piano and bowing bass fashion a groove that is picked up by Brown and the horns. It is an intriguing piece that itself sounds like a film score sequel to “Machangulo.” One almost expects to see Sidney Greenstreet strolling across a TV screen. Gordon Lee’s outro is smooth stuff.

“Blue and Bluer” is a fine showcase for Caranto’s tenor sax. The sweet blues shows the diversity of Lee’s compositions. It all is made exceedingly clear that—with Gordon Lee—it’s not just the ivories, it is also the charts. He expands those boundaries again with the Latin dance number, “Hey Veo.”

John Nastos is at his versatile best on “Change Your Dreams.” Lee’s piano is mesmerizing against Nastos with Bock’s trombone knocking out the background. It is a deliberately paced piece and flawlessly executed.

The album concludes with the hot tempo of “Urgent Message.” Mel Brown’s precision is riveting, as always, and Sims puts forth a blistering trumpet solo. The staccato chops of the horns are smoking. In fact, the whole piece just smokes. Lee is on fire on piano but the writing is just exemplary. Those compositions are interesting and exciting.

Gordon Lee and the Mel Brown Septet are an adventure in live Jazz performance and in Jazz recording. The music that has created a very long-standing residency at Portland’s great Jazz venue is now available to a much wider audience. What was known only to the few is now accessible to the many. The beautiful swing and bold swagger of Mel Brown—who has performed and recorded for so many greats—is set center-stage alongside Gordon Lee for a recording which rightly features them both in stunning partnership.

“Tuesday Night” is a brilliant exposition of expanding composition and contracting cohesion, vivid performance and smooth professionalism. In other words, these cats can throw it down on any night of the week but Tuesday nights belong to them.

Travis Rogers

All About Jazz: “Gordon Lee With The Mel Brown Septet: Tuesday Night (2014)”

For more than sixteen years, jazz fans in and around Portland, Oregon, have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing drummer Mel Brown’s hard-blowing Jazz Messengers-style septet each Tuesday Night at Jimmy Mak’s nightclub. Among its mainstays is pianist Gordon Lee who has been writing and arranging for the group almost since he enlisted shortly afterward and in fact much earlier, as the then-sextet recorded an album of his music, Gordon Bleu, in the late 1980s, a brief time before Brown’s ensemble vanquished some seven hundred other groups to win the 1989 Hennessy Jazz Search competition sponsored by Playboy magazine.

Even though Tuesday Night, the group’s first recording since Gordon Bleu, is advertised as “Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet,” Lee is an indispensable part of the team, and without his presence at the keyboard this would be a sextet: trumpet, trombone, tenor and alto saxophones on the front line backed by drums and bass. A pretty good sextet, it should be noted, but one that is not only enlarged but considerably enhanced by Lee’s burnished piano (not to mention his engaging charts). Besides arranging everything, Lee wrote all but one of the album’s nine songs. The exception is the melodic opener, “Full Moon” (handsomely introduced by Lee’s luminous piano), which is based on Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and was a mega-hit for Frank Sinatra back in 1945 as “Full Moon (And Empty Arms).” Tenor Renato Caranto and trumpeter Derek Sims add fluent solos.

Brown’s drums usher in the first of Lee’s themes, the prancing “Low Profile,” which precedes his colorful tone poem “Sunset on the Beach.” After mastering the minor-key “Machangulo” the group is off to “Istanbul” for some beguiling Middle Eastern fare before returning home “Blue & Bluer,” a somber mood underscored by Caranto’s melancholy tenor. “Hoy Veo” is a throbbing dance, “Change Your Dreams” an even-tempered showpiece for Lee’s piano and John Nastos’ nimble alto sax, “Urgent Message” a dashing throwback to the animated themes once favored by drummer Art Blakey’s renowned Messengers.

Based on this sample, it’s easy to discern why Brown’s group has had a steady gig for so many years. Soloists are consistently bright, the ensemble trim, the rhythm section (Lee, Brown, bassist Andre St. James) alert and supportive. And thanks to the decision to produce an album, enthusiasts need no longer wait until Tuesday Night to share the excitement.
Track Listing: Full Moon; Low Profile; Sunset on the Beach; Machangulo; Istanbul; Blue & Bluer; Hoy Veo; Change Your Dreams; Urgent Message.

Personnel: Gordon Lee: piano, composer, wooden frogs; Mel Brown: leader, drums; Derek Sims: trumpet; Renato Caranto: tenor sax; John Nastos: alto sax; Stan Bock: trombone; Andre St. James: bass.

Jack Bowers

JazzTimes: “This Path”

New York native and longtime Portland resident Gordon Lee, a veteran pianist-arranger-composer and educator, weaves a mesmerizing spell on this singular piano-trio recording. His delicate opener, a modal take on the Chinese folk song “Pao Ma Shan,” sets the evocative tone, which continues with interpretations of Jobim’s “Portrait in Black & White” and Jim Pepper’s “Lakota Song.” Miller’s “Sitting Bull’s Revenge” is a playful reharmonization of “Cherokee,” while his reflective and eloquent “Field on the Hill” is a soulful highlight. For a change of pace there’s the angular blues of “Ninety-Nine, Ninety-Nine,” the flamenco-flavored “Andalucia” (featuring Miguel Bernal on cajón) and a funky take on Lee Morgan’s “Cornbread.”

Bill Milkowski

The Oregonian: “This Path”

Gordon Lee wasn’t satisfied with just one trio for his latest recording, “This Path.” Instead, he enlisted two bass players and two drummers, each lending their signature sounds to this collection of worldly jazz.

Lee, a respected Portland pianist, arranger, composer and educator, has explored many musical styles in four-plus decades in jazz. He’s played with some of the best in the business, locally and nationally, including Bobby Hutcherson, Bill Frisell Mel Brown and the late Jim Pepper. He’s played, composed and arranged styles as diverse as avant-garde, symphonic, fusion and big band, and he’s performed all over the world. All these influences combine on “This Path.”

The music traverses the globe, with seven originals and five arrangements. It begins with “Po Ma Shan,” a Chinese folk song re-imagined by Lee as a modal mesh of east and west. The trio here is rounded out by drummer Carlton Jackson, who plays with touch and color, and sturdy, inspired bassist Dave Captein. This trio is robust, sounding bigger than its three parts, thanks to Lee’s huge chords and complex melodies, as on the fluttering “Dragonfly.” The second trio, with nimble bassist Kevin Deitz and the sure-handed Ron Steen on drums, isn’t strikingly different from the first, but brings a lighter touch to counteract Lee’s attacking style.

The music, even in its global diversity, manages to be cohesive. “Sitting Bull’s Revenge” is a playful interpretation of the bop classic “Cherokee,” while “Niney-Nine, Niney-Nine” is an angular blues. Pepper is honored with a solemn reinterpretation of his beautiful “Lakota Song.” The tunes are all held together by Lee’s distinctive sound, which weaves in and outside the chordal structure. In the middle, the trios get a break as Lee brings in cajon player Miguel Bernal on a Latin-tinged “Andalucia,” adding to the international feel.

Lee’s many influences have made him a strong musician, and one who continues to impress.

Grade: A

All About Music: “This Path”

Gordon Lee comes from a varied musical background, having played a number of different styles as a sideman before turning his focus to being a leader himself. This Path utilizes two separate rhythm sections (either Dave Captein or Kevin Deitz on bass, plus Carlton Jackson or Ron Steen on drums), both of which work hand in hand with the pianist. The opener, “Pao Ma Shan,” is a dramatic interpretation of a Chinese folk song in a post-bop setting. Ernesto Lecuona‘s “Andalucia” substitutes a cajon player for the bass and drums, with Lee recasting this South American favorite as a blend of post-bop and Latin jazz with a waltzing air. Lee‘s sassy treatment of Lee Morgan‘s funky “Cornbread” and moody setting of Antonio Carlos Jobim‘s “Portrait in Black & White” (particularly the eerie introduction) also stand out. Among the pianist’s originals, highlights include his campy, dissonant reworking of “Cherokee” (called “Sitting Bull’s Revenge”) and the choppy Monk-like blues “Niney-Nine, Niney-Nine.”

Ken Dryde: Rating: ****

Audiophile Audition: “This Path “

(Gordon Lee, piano; Dave Captein or Kevin Deitz, doublebass; Carlton Jackson or Ron Steen, drums; Miguel Bernal, cajon [tr. 4])

Lee is a respected Portland, OR pianist, composer, arranger and music educator. He’s performed around the world and with some of the top names in jazz. His diverse expertise covers avant-garde, symphonic, fusion and big band. The many different influences result in an extremely diverse collection of a dozen tracks which he has composed or arranged. The “Lakota Song” and “Sitting Bull’s Revenge” reminded me of a memorable evening Lee arranged and put together as a tribute to the late Native American jazzman Jim Pepper – composer of “Witchee-Tai-To.” “Sitting Bull” is a sort of reimagining of the classic “Cherokee.”

His use of two different bassists and drummers on the various tracks also adds to the diversity of the sounds. A strong blues flavor permeates “Niney-Nine Niney-Nine.”  On some of the tracks Lee employs big chords and quite complex melodic structures, but he always swings. The first two tunes have an Asian influence. I especially enjoyed his composition “Portrait in Black & White” – one of the longest tracks on the CD, at over seven minutes. Overall a fine collection of varied music which should have considerable appeal to many listeners.

Pao Ma Shan, Dragonfly, Minor Discrepancy, Andalucia, Portrait in Black & White, This Path, Lakota Song, Sitting Bull’s Revenge, Niney-Nine Niney-Nine, Cornbread, Cadenza, Field on the Hill

John Henry

Oregon Music News: “This Path”

Gordon Lee has been perhaps our finest Jazz pianist for decades. Of course he’s not the only fine Jazz pianist in Oregon, but he’s pretty much the standard by which others are measured. Although he has several wonderful recordings, his latest is one of the few with a small group.This Path is an album featuring two trios, Lee with Dave Captein on bass and Carlton Jackson on drums and the other with bassist Kevin Deitz and drummer Ron Steen.

Why two trios? How did he pick which to use on what tune? And why such a wide diversity of material?

Find out…
Tom D’Antoni