Recorded in the midst of the New York City’s blossoming avant-garde jazz scene in the 1960s, Marion Brown’s Why Not? combines elements of traditional free jazz, conventional lyricism, and Latin like rhythms. Marion Brown’s (1931-2010) career first began in 1956 when he began studying music at Clark College in Atalanta. In 1960, Brown moved to Washington D.C to study pre-law at Howard University. After only two years in D.C Brown moved to New York City in 1962 to pursue music once again. Before Long, Brown befriended many of the now legendary free/spiritual jazz musicians. Artists such as John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Clifford Thornton, and later bandmate Rashied Ali. Soon after arriving in New York in 1962 Brown began playing with both Coltrane and Shepp as a regular contributor. Brown appeared on both Coltrane’s Ascension and Shepp’s Fire Music, both of which Impulse! released in 1965. Continuing his work with Impulse!, Brown released his first record as a leader in 1966. The album, Three for Shepp, featured Brown on alto, Grachan Moncur III on trombone, Dave Burrell and Stanley Cowell sharing piano duties, Norris Jones filling in on bass, and drummers Bobby Capp and Beaver Harris. Following Three for Shepp, Brown recorded his second record, Juba Lee, as a leader again in 1966. The album was then first released in 1967 through Fontana. On October 23, 1966, Brown entered the ESP studio with his quartet. The quartet featured Stanley Cowell on piano, returning bassist Norris Jones, and Rashied Ali on drums in place of Bobby Kapp. The recording session would result in Why Not? and was later put out in 1968 by ESP-Disk. Why Not? opens with “La Sorrela,” and is the longest track on the record with a length of twelve minutes and thirty-five seconds. The tune’s defining feature is the extended solos between the intro and ending. Brown’s melodic lines become the prominent voice of the intro, floating atop a chordal and cloud-like rhythm section. The atmosphere of the intro feels loose, yet still structured. Ali’s use of cymbals add a lush texture, while Jones’ repetitive pizzicato move the quartet along, and Stanley Cowell’s piano outlines the chords best. Cowell is the first to solo after the intro and supported by Jones and Ali. After Cowell’s sprawling modal solo, Brown takes the reign for his feature. Brown begins with a furry of flourishing
notes before diving into a flow of notes that builds across barlines. Like that of an Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy solo. Brown then ends his solo with squeals in the upper register of his alto, turning over the floor to Jones. Norris Jones’ solo is the longest of the tracks three solo’s and is nothing short of mighty. Ali’s drums continued to accompany Cowell and Brown during their solos, but Jones’ solo features only the bassists’ voice.
Jones chooses to push the boundaries of what even an excremental bass solo could be. Often employing lofty octave jumps, double plucked notes, slides, repetition, and altered timbre. At the end of Jones’ solo, the full band joins back in, surprising the listener out of nowhere. With an urgency, Brown alludes to the “South of the Border” theme once again as he did in the intro. The allusion is brief, and the piece comes to an end within the last two and a half minutes or so. But before doing so the band comes to a quiet fake ending before jumping back into the intro’s main theme and motif. Track number two, or, ” Fortunato,” appeared first on Three for Sheep in 1966. ” Fortunato” is an original composition by Brown and is a slow ballad. Cowell’s piano playing shines in “Fortunato,” and is a standout quality. Often, Cowell’s playing channels the sound of McCoy Tyner, yet the feeling of the young pianist voice is still present. “Why Not” is the third track of the album and serves as a chasm between side A and side B.
Without a doubt, the two tracks on side B contain faster tempos than side A and is overall a bit more chaotic. The title track opens with a burst of a line before pausing for a brief silence. Then, a series of piercing unified trills from the band emerge before a Cowell solo begins. Cowell begins a frantic and intense solo until Brown takes back over. Brown’s solo, filled with barking arpeggios, switches between staccato attacks and smooth long-tones. Like ” La Sorrela” after Brown finishes his solo, Jones is next in line. By far this solo contains some of Jones’ most intense playing of the entire record. Following the conclusion of Jones’ solo, for the first time on the record Ali takes a turn at soloing. Ali’s solo is short, but leaves an impact, by taking advantage of the thunderous sound of his tom and snare drums. Ali’s solo ends in an abrupt fashion which is then followed by a quick pause, building tension. Then, without missing a beat, the quartet joins back in returning to the track’s opening theme. The final tune of the album, “Homecoming,” opens with a march-like theme, the melody is simple like an old folk song. The style feels like an experiment of Brown’s contemporary Albert Ayler. Ayler, also a legendary figure from the ESP free jazz roster, was at the time experimenting with similar structures. Brown’s eagerness to explore Latin rhythms appears again on “Homecoming,” like “La Sorrela”. After each member takes a solo, toying with the tracks main motif, the group comes full circle to the intro theme. The head of the tune gets repeated again until the track comes to an end with the same drum roll.
Not only is the artwork of Why Not? downright cool, but also occurred under somewhat unique circumstances. The photograph, wordless with Brown’s face in front of the red, white, and blue shapes, came about by chance. Before Why Not? was released in 1968, Brown traveled to Europe for a series of concerts in late 67′. Photographer Guy Kopelowicz was on the trip and was the one who took the album’s cover image.
Kopelowicz explains, ” “the photo on the cover was taken in September shortly after Marion arrived in Paris. On the day of the photo shoot, Daniel Berger drove Marion and I in his 2CV Citroen. We started from central Paris and headed to the Place de la Concorde at the bottom of the Champs-Elysees. Marion was delighted in having a tour of the city and managed to avoid being hit by passing cars as he walked around for vantage positions of the fountains and the Eiffel Tower.”
He adds, ” At the corner of the Rue Washington, near the Arc de Triomphe, there was a huge publicity poster depicting the red and blue Bonnet Phrygien, the head wear of participants in the French Revolution. The poster had a ‘Revolutionnaire’ sign and was a teaser for a publicity campaign for an undisclosed product. Berger thought it might be worth a try to have photos taken of Marion in front of the colorful poster with a revolutionary attitude over what looked like a mini barricade.”
Why Not? is striking for its ability to be an all-out free jazz record, but still contain structure and constraint. The record is Not quite as extreme and noisy as some of the most popular avant-garde jazz that was popular by 1968. But at the same the time the elements of conventional post-bop do not overbear either. Coltrane’s influence is by a good amount the biggest of the album and band. As Brown and Ali were both past members of Coltrane’s previous bands. Also, the works of Jackie McLean, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Albert Ayler. For only being the saxophonist’s third album as a leader, Why Not? is a standout among Brown’s long and colorful career.