Tom Browne ‘Brother, Brother. The GRP / Arista Anthology’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 3/5

Probably better know in the UK for his major pop chart hit in ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’ than in his native country, Tom Browne is a frustrating musician in some respects. He started off in jazz-fusion at the very end of the 1970s, modified his style and scored individual single successes with a style some would describe as jazz-funk, and then got somewhat sidelined by the hip-hop revolution and changed his style again. Compare this with the two major trumpeter players of the 1980s, the resurgence of Miles Davis who came out of semi-retirement to record again with a new generation of musicians, and the young pretender to the throne in Wynton Marsalis, who after a promising early series of albums that included performing with the classic 1960s Miles Davis rhythm section, then turned his back on moving forward and instead pursued a revivalist career, harking back to the jazz tradition.

By the 1990s, Tom Browne’s sound had become somewhat dated and one wonders whether had he not scored the major hit in ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’ (of which there are no less than three separate versions on this anthology, the original album version, a 1991 extended version and a more recent mixed version) as early on in his career, his music might have travelled a different path, with more satisfying results. Be that as it may, for devotees of the Tom Browne sound, there will be a good deal to delve into and the anthology is comprehensive in including harder to find 12″ versions.

The debut album, ‘Browne Sugar’, was a modest top fifty R & B album entry and, frankly, there is little among the five pieces selected that distinguishes him from any number of musicians from the era when jazz was well and truly in the doldrums with the onslaught of disco and rock. Chuck Mangione seems to have been a guiding influence here and the latter had some major commercial successes in the 1970s before disappearing altogether when acoustic jazz came back into vogue during the 1980s jazz revival. A reasonable mid-tempo stab at Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s goin’ on’ features collective vocals in the chorus, but not on par with the Harvey Mason cover.

A second album from 1980, ‘Love Approach’, would prove to be the major breakthrough for Tom Browne, with a number one R & B single in ‘Funkin’ For Jamaica’, which crossed over into the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic. As a whole, the album contained nothing else quite as ‘sellable’ to a wider audience and only three tracks including the big hit are included here. The far stronger ‘Magic’ album was released in 1981 and this is by far the most balanced of all Browne’s recordings and also included a reasonable chart hit in ‘Thighs High (grip your hips and move)’, and betrayed a bass line that paid direct homage to the Funkadelic and Parliament P-funk school with ‘Not Just Knee Deep’, immediately springing to mind. Jazz-funk was very much flavour of the day in the UK at the beginning of the 1980s, with home-grown talent such as Incognito and Level 42, and veterans such as Roy Ayers and Lonnie Liston Smith enjoying a new surge of popularity. Another single, the title track, was a good deal poppier and the 12″ version is added with vocals by Cliff Branch Jr.

The next album, ‘Yours Truly’, was another well-balanced set, but frustratingly here, the three interpretations of John Coltrane standards, ‘Naima’, ‘Lazy Bird’, and, ‘Come For The Ride’ are all left off this compilation which is a mistake. Clearly Browne was rediscovering the roots of jazz and the listener should have been made aware of this, but you would never know based on the more commercial side of Tom Browne that is showcased here. All the more frustrating because this could easily have replaced throwaway disco-tinged numbers such as ‘Let’s Dance’, which is not the Nile Rodgers and David Bowie collaboration number.

A new single, the lengthy titled ‘Fungi Mama/Bebopafunkadiscolypso’ was a minor hit in the UK, but nothing on the scale of ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’. That said, it was an indication that Browne was open to different influences and here the combination of calypso, gospel vocal harmonies and P-funk with jazz was one that he could and, perhaps, should have explored in greater depth because no one else was fusing these genres so effectively. In a not dissimilar vein, ‘Bye Gones’ combined assorted stylistic elements and the extended remix is included here.

Thereafter, Tom Browne fell victim to major changes in the music industry and allowed himself to be led rather than pursuing his own distinctive trajectory and this was typified by ‘Rockin’ Radio’ and his carer petered out somewhat. Liner notes by writer Kevin Goines places Browne’s career in a wider historical framework and there are useful quotes from bassist Marcus Miller, keyboardist Lesette Wilson as well as by the trumpeter himself.

Do search out the BBR re-issued an expanded edition of ‘Magic’ when investigating further.

Tim Stenhouse