Once a drummer following the footsteps of his brother and father, a cellist until convinced to take up the bass during junior high orchestra practice, Brian Bromberg has become one of the most well-respected virtuoso bass players in jazz, thanks to his A-list studio and touring status as sideman, producer and leader of such diverse stylistic range. This year marks the American release of Downright Upright, a compelling addition to his acclaimed and popular catalog that he expects will please both the casual smooth jazz fans and the jazz purists.
Already released in Japan, Downright Upright is a return to the acoustic upright bass Bromberg recently spent time with on 2006’s Wood II. But this record represents a unique progression from that lauded cd, which was laced with Bromberg’s innocent humor and embellished with solo Paul McCartney and Earth, Wind and Fire covers. Far less intimate than Wood II, Downright Upright abandons the traditional trio format and takes on new collaborative touches, including those from pianists George Duke and Jeff Lorber, trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonists Gary Meek, Boney James, and Kirk Whalum, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and perhaps most noticeably, guitarists Gannin Arnold and Lee Ritenour. Having contributed to Rit’s recent album Smoke ‘N Mirrors, Brian just returned from live dates with the legendary guitarist. Ritenour’s contribution to Downright Upright underscores their complimentary, collaborative simpatico.
Downright Upright kicks off with a highly updated take on Herbie Hancock’s 1964 hit “ Cantaloupe Island,” immediately setting the tone for what is to come. The tune is a prime choice for Bromberg, who deems Hancock the “remarkable man” who “made me realize why I wanted to be a jazz musician in the first place.” Hancock’s version had been heavy on percussion, with clearly defined beats and a boxy rhythm made possible through its piano/drum collaboration. It was an obvious predecessor to funk and hip-hop, its beat tying the music together, the sonic palette just sparse enough to leave room for improvisation at any point. Bromberg fills this space with an arrangement that spins the classic in the opposite direction – he has created an entirely new “ Cantaloupe Island,” with a clean, full sound -- adding the element of a guitar as well as prolonged solos that allow each instrumentalist to stand out as a virtuoso.
Additionally, Downright Upright sees covers of Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Eddie Harris’ “Cold Duck Time,” complementing a unique lineup of ten tracks that are among Bromberg’s most accessible and mature work. Unlike previous albums that provided well-lit stages to highlight Bromberg’s solos, Downright Upright is a more modest endeavor that gives equal time to nearly every performer. There are certainly moments here that showcase Bromberg’s immense technique on his 300-year old upright, but rather than garner the spotlight for the length of an entire track, the bass shines through the fulfilling group sound and all-star solo contributions. Such is the case with “Leisure Suit,” whose bass solo enters with only two minutes to spare in the (nearly eight-minute) track. Overall, Downright Upright follows this method, carrying less of the stripped-down, romantic appeal and playful humor of earlier work, instead focusing on the compositional flash and musical balance this time around.
Years from now, the leader will reflect on Downright Upright proudly as another sparkling facet in his illustrious musical career. The bassist sees his musical evolution taking place alongside that of his own life. In his particular case, art imitates life, and both have seen a number of exciting transitions.