Over the years Warn Defever, the native of Livonia, Michigan, who’s been the brains behind His Name is Alive for nearly two decades, has demonstrated an almost schizophrenic array of musical directions, using his group to enfold his interests in pop, soul, country, folk, rural blues, and electronica, among many other things. I’m always a bit skeptical about such eclecticism. It’s natural for people, and especially musicians, to be interested in lots of stuff, and curious about things they haven’t experienced, but there’s a big difference between being interested in something and deciding to practice it. Defever is a dilettante with a capital D, and sadly, lots of his cross-cultural endeavors have come up rather empty.
For this reason I was pretty leery of the forthcoming Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown (High Two). HNIA planned the homage to be a one-off event, a 2004 concert at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, but Defever was so happy with the results he decided to record the music (three of the eight pieces on the album are taken from that performance). Brown is one of the more peculiar figures to emerge during the 60s free-jazz explosion, perpetually overlooked despite killer albums for ESP, Impulse, Fontana, Freedom, and ECM. He’s always been a deeply lyrical player—coming out of an environment that frequently stressed energy and raw emotion over well-considered melodicism—but he could also go out with the best of them. His work in the 70s leaned toward more meditative terrain—hell, he even collaborated with Harold Budd!—and it’s this material that HNIA focuses on (although they do also tackle mid-60s gems like “Juba Lee” and “Capricorn Moon). Defever wisely enlisted the help of some of his friends in the Ann Arbor Afrobeat band Nomo, for whom he’s produced some records: leader (and saxophonist) Elliot Bergman and trumpeter Justin Walter do a nice job handling much of the solo activity, but the star of the show is Erik Hall, with his warmly undulating electric piano parts.
Brown loves to use ostinato figures—repetitive little licks casting an air of hypnosis for the soloist—and HNIA transforms them into something warmer and more spellbinding, albeit less rhythmically interesting. The rhythm section here doesn’t mix things up very much, which sometimes gives the music a static quality. Still, the album is much better than I expected it to be, and it does manage to shine a different, yet deeply empathetic light on Brown as a composer and conceptualist. A portion of the album’s proceeds benefit the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation.
HNIA plays Schubas tomorrow night, but I expect they’ll draw far more repertoire from a new album of original material, XMMER (Reincarnate)—which I haven’t heard—rather than the Marion Brown tribute.