Friday, August 7, 2020

Brian Scarborough: “Sunflower Song” (2020) CD Review

Brian Scarborough is a trombonist and composer based in Kansas City, playing in such bands as Boulevard Big Band, The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City and The Kansas-Nebraska Act. In addition to his work as bandleader and sideman, he has played in many musical theatre productions in the Kansas City area. His debut album as a leader, Sunflower Song, features all original compositions. Joining him on this release are Matt Otto on tenor saxophone, Adam Scholzman on guitar, Jeff Harshbarger on bass, and Brian Steever on drums.

The album opens with “This One’s For John,” which features a cool, somewhat relaxed groove at the start, that work on hi-hat at the beginning making me think briefly of The Pink Panther. There is quite a lot of good work on drums here. And perhaps it is partly due to Brian Scarborough’s work in the theatre, but this music seems to tell a story, and one that develops naturally, the trombone and the saxophone each taking on a specific character, or maybe different aspects of the same character, in addition to creating a sense of place and atmosphere. Brian’s lead on trombone is wonderful, and I love the way the drums and bass provide an exciting rhythm in support, making that section of the piece even more dramatic and fun. That’s followed by “OK, Here We Go,” which creates quite a different atmosphere and feel at the start, mostly through Adam Schlozman’s interesting and distinct work on guitar. Despite its title, this one is in no hurry, and works to establish a certain mood, which pulls us in. And once it has us, it then does start to move, and this is during Brian’s lead.

“City Lights” is one of my personal favorites. It has a playful sense about it right from the start, the horn immediately announcing something different. And that bass line reminds me some of those fun low-budget black and white films that would follow some guy as he made his way through the city night, meeting women and looking for mischief. This track also features some great work on guitar. Really, each instrument has a lot of character. There is a lot happening here, all of it delightful. The piece is even allowed to fall apart somewhat at one point so that Matt Otto’s unusual sax lead can emerge from the rubble. I love the place this track takes me. The sense of a city at night is certainly strong, but I also think of the City Lights book store, for this track has that hip sense about it. It’s fantastic from beginning to end. That’s followed by “Sunflower Song,” the album’s title track. Whenever I think of sunflowers, whenever I see sunflowers, I am reminded of my favorite film, Harold And Maude, and how Maude says: “I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple.” So I had a certain mood in mind before this track began, and whatever expectations I had were immediately dispelled, this piece beginning as it does with bass, establishing a somewhat darker mood than I would have thought, and moving at a slow pace. But then what happens is the trombone begins to rise above that, to stand tall like a sunflower. This track also features a good, though short lead on bass, and it, as well as that work on guitar, feels like it is in honor of the flower, or of the idea of growth in whatever sense of the word strikes you.

“The Owl” has a mellow, easygoing vibe, and again we get a sense of a character here, someone who is observing the world with a keen eye but is not worried. The energy begins to pick up, and there is more of a bustle, a busy sense, if not quite a sense of urgency. And before things can become too tense, the piece suddenly breathes, mellows again. Then “Tick Tock” also begins in a somewhat mellow place, but with the work on percussion calling to mind a series of clocks and thus making us aware of the passing of time. So you know the pace and energy will pick up. Must we hurry? Though there are schedules, and though things have to be done at certain times, this track seems to remind us of the need to breathe, to not let the schedules run our lives too much. It features some really nice work on guitar.

“I Tolerate You” is, probably not surprisingly, my favorite title of all the compositions that make up this album, and it is also one of my favorite tracks, in large part because of that excellent work on bass, but also because its overall vibe. Tolerating someone has never sounded so enjoyable. It is getting more and more difficult to tolerate certain people out there, and of course some folks (those who support a particular narcissistic racist currently occupying the White House) ought not to be tolerated at all. But music like this gives us a desired and much needed lighter sense to things, and I appreciate that. There is a joy and a lighthearted aspect to this piece. That’s followed by “Willard’s Blues,” which takes on a great groove, and has something of a sly vibe, and includes a couple of unexpected pauses and a delicious lead on bass. This is another of the disc’s highlights. The album then concludes with “Empty Bottles,” which begins with drums and moves at a good pace, feeling like a celebration, particularly Brian’s work on trombone. Though I suppose if the bottles are all empty, the celebration may be a thing of the past. Well, this music keeps it going, and for that I am grateful.

CD Track List
  1. This One’s For John
  2. OK, Here We Go
  3. City Lights
  4. Sunflower Song
  5. The Owl
  6. Tick Tock
  7. I Tolerate You
  8. Willard’s Blues
  9. Empty Bottles
Sunflower Song was released today, August 7, 2020.

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