The Breathless Charm Of Tina Brooks’s Minor Move

on Blue Note Records
Reviewed by Henry Cherry

Soulster James Brown was known as the godfather of soul for a reason. His syncopated music had the sound of a crisp, rehearsed band that could stop on a dime. In live shows, the singer demanded that same precision found on his studio recordings. Brown regularly fined bandmembers onstage for miscues and dropped notes, dancing his way over toward the offending bandmember in mid-song and flashing with his hand the amount of the fine. It’s been lauded as part of his perfectionism, a backbone of his “hardest working man in show business.” But to be clear, that is business, not music. Legendary pianist Herbie Hancock has a story about blowing a chordal progression on a live date with Miles Davis in the sixties. Every bit the hard charging personality Brown was, Davis was explosive, one former art director described him as nasty. Because Hancock’s mistake was glaring, he expected some backlash from the mercurial band leader. Instead, Davis returned to a solo, incorporating the notes of Hancock’s misstep into the song, in effect, righting the wrongness. That’s an essential demarcation between the rigid and formulaic commercialism of pop music and the open-ended ingenuity of jazz. Hancock remembered in the recent documentary, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, “I had judged what I had done. Miles didn’t judge… He heard it… as a part of the music.”

When saxophonist Harold “Tina” Brooks died from kidney and liver complications brought on by years of addiction, he was just 42. Brooks isn’t associated with either Davis or Brown, but on Blue Note Records recent remastering of Minor Move, the saxophonist’s debut as a leader, that same musical camaraderie and daring exploration Hancock spoke of is on full display. Minor Move wasn’t released until eight years after Brooks was gone, and that’s a tragedy in itself. Now, rereleased once again 45 years after the saxophonist’s death, it is a testament to a lost era of jazz.

At the time of his death, Brooks hadn’t recorded for over a decade. In the last years of his life he gigged when he could, copped dope whether the shows were good or bad. To the rest of America in 1974, that meant that Brooks was just another Black man controlled by vice, a minor statistic long before the Black Lives Matter movement swung into gear. But that is a cloudy recitation of certain facts that do little to highlight Tina Brooks for what he truly was, an intensely gifted tenor player whose death spelled out tragedy in musical notation. At the time, jazz was struggling with its identity and his death went unnoticed. There wasn’t an obit in the New York Times, as was afforded to onetime bandmate Lee Morgan in 1972. Still, listening to his first music as a leader five decades after it was put to tape, the intricacies in the sonic structures are immediate. A hard-bop adherent, Brooks worked phrasing and melody and tone into a driving bouncy sound that is neither lost to delicacy nor born completely of musical athleticism. He matched ingenuous lyricism with ardent harmonics. As a leader Brooks would record a handful of records, though only appeared while he was alive. That Brooks had such a small pile or songs to dig through makes this year’s repackaging of Minor Move that much more intriguing. Repackaged and issued on vinyl with an additional take of the Brooks penned title track, it is the last release of the first swing through Blue Note’s detailed Tone Poet Series.

Harold “Tina” Brooks

Minor Move was recorded at the close of winter in a year where jazz experienced tectonic changes. Rock and Roll was furious in its infancy and jolted the world of jazz. Whether those musical temblors were responsible for Miles Davis’s exploratory modalism, Thelonious Monk’s immersed ecstatic burst of creativity and John Coltrane’s new sheets of sound style is somewhat implausible. What can be said is that the for the last two years of the fifties, jazz musicians produced some of the genre’s most potent electrifying music. From 1958 to 1959, Davis released his monumental Kind of Blue, John Coltrane had begun a recording binge that set up his legacy. Ornette Coleman delivered his intrepid first recording, Something Else!!!! All of them were pushing against the hard bop constraints Davis and Coltrane and Monk had helped create. Recorded that same year, Brooks’s Minor Move was a clear adherent to hard bop’s swinging now. It never set out to shift musical boundaries or chart jazz history. The recording was an overture, the sound of a young musician’s first move. It remains an array of complex songs played with such sophistication they are as natural and straight forward and free of pretension today as when they first became magnetized blips on the session’s analog tape. The mastery of art should be worth as much as the distinction of innovation. And that’s just what this Tina Brooks recording provides, a mastery of hard bop.

On the opener, Brooks saturates the track with a bluesiness he’d return to on True Blue, the lone session he led that was issued in his lifetime. On Minor Move, expectation predicted the tenor player would explore the funkier soul jazz he had incorporated into work he’d done with the bands of guitarist Kenny Burrell and organist Jimmy Smith (that’s Tina Brooks kicking out some indelible tenor funk on the title track of Smith’s celebrated release, The Sermon!). Instead, this record is pure hard bop. Brooks assembled a who’s who of players and his band marks the idiomatic dictum of changes with unexpected notes. Though the recording has been maligned by some over the years, and was rumored to have been purposefully shelved by displeased owners of Blue Note, producer Michael Cuscuna rescued the long-lost music from archival banishment, first releasing it on King Records out of Japan in 1980. In the wake of Cuscuna’s salvage operation, Blue Note has continued to bring out the music of Tina Brooks, re-releasing his songs every decade since.

The Tone Poet Series is spearheaded by producer Joe Harley and is based on a previous run of reissues Harley produced for the label in the mid 2000s. This year, Blue Note’s president, Don Was, wanted a collective release to celebrate the label’s 80th anniversary. Harvey picked 16 albums spanning the label’s history, with a focus on jazz’s heyday of the 50s and 60s, but also including Cassandra Wilson’s light-on-jazz 2003 album, Glamoured, along with a stellar Joe Henderson live set from 1985. Mixing obscure musicians like Brooks with bigger names like Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter, all the releases in the series have been given the gatefold treatment, along with a clever golden-era-of-jazz style of packaging, including inserts, additional liner note materials, photos and, most important, audiophile quality vinyl. Brooks’s inclusion in the series might seem an odd choice considering how many better-known musicians are housed in the label’s archive. That he’s not only featured but also caps the first run of Tone Poet releases is a testament to this series and the strides jazz has made over the last fifteen years. It’s a smart move to bring out music of the label’s classic era because people are once again embracing the warmth of vinyl releases as the sterility of digital music has increased in the shift to streaming services. The first half of 2019 saw an uptick in vinyl purchases, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, outpacing compact discs sales for the first time in three and a half decades.

By 1958, each of the men who backed Brooks on his debut had led sessions of their own. Pianist Sonny Clark, who’s piano is somewhat dialed back on the recording, died at the age of 31, five years after this session. In his short life, Clark recorded with trailblazing jazzers like John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green and Sonny Rollins. Lee Morgan, the trumpet prodigy on Minor Move, was murdered by his older wife in 1972, two years before Brooks died. Morgan may well be the last of the great hard bop horn players and promoted the style long after Coltrane and Davis edged beyond previous boundaries. Bassist Doug Watkins died in a car accident in 1962. Appearing on hundreds of recordings, Charles Mingus hired Watkins on upright when the venerable bassist and composter switched over to piano for a series of recordings. With Brooks’s death in ’74, drummer Art Blakely was the last man of the band still alive. Of that band, only Blakey saw jazz fully relegated to underfunded reissues series and radio stations trapped on the low end of the dial.

The birthplace of hard bop could have happened in any jazz club in New York, but most assuredly, Art Blakey was pounding the skins at its christening. His drum work outside of the Jazz Messengers, the band he led for decades, reads like a who’s who in jazz. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker and Horace Silver all employed Blakey’s rhythmic swoops. It’s hard to imagine this recording happening without Blakey’s repertory of boom. Expansive in stretches, staccato in others, his rim clicks and bass kicks and drag taps provide each of Minor Move’s songs with a jaunty effortless sound that belies the musicianship contained within. Blakey’s importance to this recording can’t be overlooked. The fact that this music sat in the vaults for all but one of their lives is remarkable. While they weren’t a working band outside the day-long session, this foundational creation of theirs moves and curves and snakes along today with the same dexterity of its genesis.

Starting off with a Brooks composition called “Nutville,” the band bursts into sound together and then shifts into solos, first by Clark and then Morgan. After daring volley of drums, Brooks opens a long solo, milking a bright tone from his sax while the bandmembers bob in the surging wake of notes behind him. Brooks continues on for two-whole minutes, lays out a quick moment for Watkins to address his own stake in the band, and that’s it, everyone is corralled into a precise ending by Blakey. That precision continues throughout the session. You forget the length of the pieces, the come and go with an ease, whether clocking in at nearly nine minutes, like the opener, or closing at just over six minutes, like “Everything Happens to Me,” the shortest number on the album.

The piano trill at the end of “The Way You Look Tonight,” the Kerns/Fields standard, is as magnetic a bit of piano dynamism put to wax. The song is a showpiece for Clark, and the ending comes off as a wistful elucidation of music just passed. It’s those pieces of structural detail that define this outing. Brooks and Morgan trade bars for the opening solo on track three, “Star Eyes.”

Next comes the title song. Everyone sways through Blakey’s declaratory samba. With less passionate players, the taut structured formula would reduce the music with every passing bar. Instead, across the recording, Watkins, Clark and Blakey support the soloists with such cerebral decisions, when they take their own you miss their rhythmic scaffolding. You can’t help wonder what might have been had this album arrived while Brooks was still playing.

Like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Brooks was born in North Carolina. The deep south proved inhospitable to Black Americans and pushed many northward when they started families. Brooks, who caught the nickname Teeny (later shortened to Tina) because of his size, didn’t immediately take to the big city. A street mugging sent him back to North Carolina for all but his senior year in high school. Upon his return in 1949, he started jamming at R&B clubs with Amos Milburn and Charles Brown. “My first teacher was my older brother, David,” Brooks told Ira Gitler in 1960. It took him almost a decade of alternating late-night gigs with day jobs. When he joined up with bebop trumpeter Benny Harris, Brooks caught the attention of Blue Note Records co-owner Alfred Lion. Lion sensed something bigger in the tenor player and because of this Brooks became an in-demand hire who could meld his sound into that of any band he joined. When it was time for Brooks to take his solo, the mathematics of his decision-making strode hand-in-hand with his emotional commitment. “I want to express myself rather than be a killer, technically, but in order to do this,” he told Gitler, “I have to grow technically.” That Brooks joined so well with other musicians worked against him at times, when leaders skipped over him for more identifiable stylists. Brooks was every bit the stylistic player, he happened to also be a gifted unifier of sound, and on Minor Move Brooks unifies his hard bop sound with poise, dexterity and regard. If only he had been around to witness his music granted the same grace he gave to it.

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