Tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks started late and flamed out early. After coming to the attention of Blue Note records in the late 1950s, Brooks recorded mostly as a sideman. As a leader, he recorded only four albums for the label—two of which were never released at the time and only came to light after 1980. Brooks would not record again after 1961, and he died in near obscurity in 1974.
But what Brooks did record—particularly True Blue, Back to the Tracks and Music from the Connection—is strong and smart. Brooks' tenor sound was somewhere between Wardell Gray's and Hank Mobley's—more hard bop than Gray but more piercing and funky than Mobley—and his songwriting was crafty and vibrant. So much artistic promise—only to wind up as another one of jazz's tragic figures.
Harold Brooks was born in 1932 and acquired the nickname "Tina" in childhood—a merging of Tiny and Teeny, which reflected his size at the time. Brooks began recording in 1951 in the rhythm-and-blues bands of Sonny Thompson and Amos Milburn. In the early 1950s, Brooks also became active in New York's expanding Latin-jazz scene, where bands were always in need of a solid tenor. This experience would come in handy later during his writing for Blue Note.
In 1953, Brooks decided to break from the R&B grind and study music theory with Sy Oliver. But Oliver couldn't take him on, so Brooks studied for a year and a half with Herbert Bourne, a music theorist and classical violinist who also played in string sections that backed jazz artists during recording sessions.
By the summer of 1955, Brooks was touring with Lionel Hampton—but he left Hamp's big band soon afterward, claiming that the rigidity of the work prevented him from soloing and stretching out.
Gigging with trumpeter Bennie Harris in the Bronx in 1956, Brooks became exposed to hard bop and its new cooler chord structure. Harris also encouraged Brooks to take greater musical risks and develop as a jazz musician and songwriter.
In late 1957, Harris brought Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records up to the Bronx to hear Brooks. The encounter led Lion to hire Brooks as a sideman for Jimmy Smith's February 1958 recording date, The Sermon. A month later in March, Brooks was given a shot at recording for Blue Note as a leader, but the album, called Minor Move, was never released at the time for reasons that remain a mystery today. (Minor Move ultimately surfaced in 1980 and appears as a CD today).
In April 1958, Brooks recorded again with Jimmy Smith (Live at "Small's Paradise"), and in May he recorded as a sideman with tenor saxophonist Junior Cook on Kenny Burrell's Blue Lights. Brooks didn't record again until August 1959, when he was a sideman on Burrell's Live at the Five Spot.
During 1959 and 1960, Brooks was alto saxophonist Jackie McLean's understudy in The Connection,
a New York play about drug addiction that featured live jazz performed
on stage. The on-stage musicians were McLean, Freddie Redd on piano, Mike Mattos on bass and Larry Ritchie on drums.
The New York performance of The Connection showcased all original music penned by pianist Freddie Redd. While a Blue Note album called Music from the Connection was recorded in February 1960 and featured the on-stage jazz quartet, another Music from the Connection was recorded in June 1960 for the British Felsted Records label and featured Redd, Brooks, Milt Hinton on bass and Osie Johnson on drums.
Six days later Brooks played on trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's Open Sesame album, writing two of the tunes for the date, including the title track. At the end of June, Brooks was recording again as a Blue Note leader. The album was called True Blue and included Hubbard, Duke Jordan on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Art Taylor on drums.
On August 13, 1960, Brooks joined Freddie Redd for Shades of Redd, a date that included McLean, Chambers and Louis Hayes on drums. Brooks returned to the studio on September 1 for a McLean session called Jackie's Bag. Brooks wrote three of the tracks recorded that day.
By October 20, Brooks had written enough material to lead another recording session. The result was Back to the Tracks, with Blue Mitchell and the same rhythm section from Jackie's Bag—Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor. Back to the Tracks, like Minor Move, was never released, despite its intensity and seeming perfection. A spat over money? Minor flaws that most listeners can't hear? Punishment for bad behavior? Bad timing given Blue Notes releases by other artists at the time? Who knows. Today it's a remastered CD, and the brilliant work speaks for itself.
Brooks' final recording date was The Waiting Game. The March 2, 1961 session included Johnny Coles on trumpet, Drew on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
After 1961, Brooks never recorded again. Drug addiction and revolving-door prison and hospital stays compromised the quality of his playing and left him able to play only occasional gigs in New York. Brooks died in 1974, his handful of brilliant Blue Note performances and compositions all but forgotten until they were released in a box by Mosaic Records and subsequent single CD issues.
While I find Back to the Tracks to be a terrific straight-ahead hard bop album, I adore True Blue, which is more inventive, soulful and in keeping with Brooks' sensitive musical personality. Each song has a distinct sound and rhythm:
- Good Old Soul opens in a minor key, with a funky, Latin edge. Then the song shifts and opens up with a walking beat that gives Brooks a chance to show off his tenor work.
- Up Tight's Creek is an up-tempo number in the Horace Silver vein. Duke Jordan's playing here—and on the entire album—is funky and strong. If I played this cut for you blindfolded, you would swear it was Silver at the keyboard.
- Theme for Doris also is in a minor key with a Latin flavor that resolves into a terrific hard bop line.
- True Blue has an odd rhythmic configuration that takes you by surprise and never grows dull. The CD includes an equally sharp alternate take.
- Miss Hazel is a rollicking tune in a major key and sounds an awful lot like a Freddie Redd composition—except brighter. Listen carefully to Brooks on this one. You can really hear his merger of Wardell Gray's sleekness and Hank Mobley's impeccable timing.
- Nothing Ever Changes My Love for You is the album's only standard and non-Brooks composition. It switches effortlessly between Latin and jazz beats, and is a nice closer.
Brooks is another one of those snapping jazz embers—a moment of intense brilliance and then he was gone. Fortunately Albert Lion was there to capture Tina's sound, his musical curiosity and his creative songwriting. Why two of his albums remained in the Blue Note vaults for so long isn't clear but the sidelining certainly must have contributed to Brooks' anxiety and personal disappointment.
Wax tracks: True Blue has been given the Van Gelder remastering treatment, and the sound is crystal clear. Go here to buy it—or find it at iTunes.
Back to the Tracks also is a powerful album. Go here to buy it or download tracks or the CD at iTunes.
I recommend buying both CDs—and passing on Brooks' other two dates, which are good but not as interesting.
If you're really ambitious, download or buy both versions of Music from the Connection and compare the playing of Jackie McLean and Tina Brooks. Both are available at iTunes under Freddie Redd's name. I still marvel at how evenly matched McLean and Brooks are on their improvised executions. Each artist has his own worthy interpretation of Freddie Redd's compositions. You be the judge and let me know what you think.
Wax video clip: Hold onto your hat. While I could not find any video clips of Tina Brooks, I did unearth this rare and incredible gem from The Connection. As you'll see, it features Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd on stage playing Who Killed Cock Robbin. The music is challenging and extraordinary. Go here to watch it. (I've added this clip to my list of YouTubes in the right-hand column, under "Freddie Redd.")
As you watch the clip, remember that Brooks was so well regarded at the time that he was McLean's understudy for these demanding performances. Of course, the sad irony is that The Connection's fictionalized tale about addiction and despair would become a real-life drama for Brooks as his life and career began their downward spiral just a few years later.