The Dark Fire Sessions
Pianist and composer Alex Brown is relatively new on the scene and The Dark Fire Sessions marks only his second release as a bandleader. Having seen Brown perform in virtual performances such as Sean Jones’ Dizzy Spellz at the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival and at Baltimore’s Keystone Korner where he accompanied the likes of Warren Wolf and Benny Benack III, this writer can attest to Brown’s rising talent, which is on further display here in this mostly trio/quartet setting with his biological brother, bassist Zach Brown, and de facto brother, drummer Eric Doob. They augment the trio for this eclectic set of tunes with long-time collaborator and friend, percussionist Paulo Stagnaro. Guests join them along the way, as we’ll point out. Hailing from Columbia, MD, Brown splits his time between the Baltimore-D.C. area and New York City where this album was recorded.
The two brothers established Dark Fire Studios, an independent rehearsal and recording studio in Harlem that they operated over the course of a year, with Zach taking the reins as foremost audio engineer. Obviously, the title is taken directly from the name of the studio. Musically, these tunes tastefully blend a variety of authentic Latin American folk rhythms with Alex’s eclectic musical personality. One such example is “Chacarera,” a based on the traditional Argentinian rhythm of the same name. This piece features a freer, open piano introduction derived from the main theme, and a groove section that eventually shifts into a funk-driven, soulful groove inspired by Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters band. The melody on this piece is passed between guitar, played by Matt Stevens (Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science, In Common), and bass, underpinned by traditional chacarera comping by guitarist Eric Kurimski and traditional bombo leguero played by percussionist Franco Pinna. Steel guitarist Lucas Apostoleris adds texture as well. Most notably, “Chacarera” features a field recording from the jungle of St. John, in the US Virgin Islands, taken by Zach while the trio was touring there.
“Wistful Road” is an up-tempo, high spirited piece with Latin rhythms derived from the Afro-Uruguayan beat, The candombe, a blend of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music. Stevens again is brilliant along with Brown as the sail aong to the undercurrent of three percussionists, as Sebastian Natal joins on candombe percussion. “24/7” has the core quartet engaging in hard bop with a vigorous exchange between the pianist and his bassist brother as well as conversing with drummer Doob on the eights. It swings! “See You Again” brings it down to a soft, romantic kind of whisper through the soft tones of Stevens’ guitar and Brown on Fender Rhodes. One might expect a vocalist to join this romantic atmosphere at any point, but the tune remains instrumental, fading in a spacey way on the outro. “Novembro” is also electric, funky with Zach’s electric bass and Alex’s skittering Rhodes, as Doob propels the brothers in a trio format for a tune that simulates the improvisation of a live gig. They display their trio chemistry again, this time acoustically in “Almost There.”
“New Flamenco” is inspired in part by the late Chick Corea’s flair for Spanish music. Brown collaborated with Sergio Martinez, a traditional flamenco percussionist from Spain who plays on the piece, delivered the tap dance-like clicks that Brown soars over brilliantly in his precise solo. “Before It Began” is a contemplative, haunting ballad which is also imbued once again by Stevens’ rich guitar tones while the closing “Anthem” returns to the Latin rhythms, loosely inspired by tumba music, a six-eight groove form from the island of Curacao. Alex’s “Anthem” originally had long-time friend and collaborator Warren Wolf in mind but ended up growing into something larger. Aside from Brown’s powerful chords played on the electric piano, the power of the piece lies in the percussive interplay between drummer Doob and percussionist Stagnato features a pseudo metric modulation: while the groove remains in six-eight, it is divided over a two-bar cycle into a bar of five-eight and a bar of seven-eight that results in a playfully disorienting but irreparably fun piece.
The rental on Dark Fire Studios expired after a year but that was long enough for Brown and his sidemen to create this gorgeous piece of music, much of which is complex, but ultimately uplifting. Watch out for Alex Brown. He is just getting started, and that’s scary.
- Jim Hynes