OSCAR BROWN JR Sin & Soul (Speakers Corner )
I’m frankly baffled as to why I hadn’t heard of Oscar Brown Jr prior to acquiring this, his 1961 debut album, now exquisitely reissued on vinyl by Speakers Corner. Any suspicions aroused by the front cover hype on “Sin & Soul” – even that title sounds ahead of its time – sourced from advocates including Nat Hentoff, Max Roach (whose “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” featured lyrics by Brown) and Nina Simone are firmly dismissed as soon as opener “Work Song”, an arrangement of the Nat Adderley tune, rips and tears from the speakers. It sets the scene for an album of small group vocal jazz that simmers at injustice and keeps – just, in places - on the right side of theatricality.
The slave auction scenario of “Bid ‘Em In” is brief and brutal; there’s absolutely no sugar on this pill. (As the sleeve note, which one would hope to be a relic from another era, puts it, “Oscar Brown, Jr. is an integrated artist in a non-integrated world”.) “Somebody Buy Me A Drink” sounds like the most extreme iteration of Sinatra’s barfly soak persona, yet “Signifyin’ Monkey” and the fond amazement of fatherhood that flushes “Dat Dere” are almost “Sesame Street”-friendly. The Belafonte-esque “Brown Baby” and “Afro-Blue” burn with quiet awareness of identity and intolerance, the latter gentle and beguiling despite its ascetic vocal-and-percussion arrangement, but the sassy, swinging “Humdrum Blues” is frustrated and angry, perhaps the Public Enemy of its time. It all adds up to a remarkable album, the kind that makes, compels you even, to tell people about it.