No one has yet written a comprehensive history of jazz in Ann Arbor, but when someone does, a major chapter will have to be dedicated to the Ron Brooks Trio. The bassist leader has for decades played a central role in the music scene of the city, as a performer and as the proprietor of its longest-lived jazz club, the Bird of Paradise, which thrived for almost twenty years before it closed in 2004.
Brooks began his musical career while studying at the U-M and was soon playing with local and visiting musicians; his early recordings include a challenging 1962 album with pianist Bob James, who would eventually make it big playing more popular kinds of music; a date with the adventuresome woodwind player Eric Dolphy; and albums with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet and Mixed Bag.
The Mixed Bag combo included Eddie Russ, who became the first pianist in the Ron Brooks Trio, a position held by many others over the years, including Harvey Reed, Stanley Cowell, and Rick Roe; drummers have included Pete Siers and George Davidson. When Brooks opened the Bird of Paradise, Russ returned to the fold once again in one of the more memorable versions of the Trio. For almost nineteen years, the Brooks trio was the house rhythm section at the Bird, working with visitors and playing regular weekly gigs on their own.
In the seven years since he closed the Bird, Brooks has continued to perform throughout southern Michigan, but he hasn’t had many chances to play in Ann Arbor. The newly opened Ravens Club on Main Street has seen fit to make up for this, and now the Ron Brooks Trio has a regular Wednesday night gig at that restaurant and bar, with pianist Tad Weed and drummer George Davidson joining Brooks. The Ravens Club likes to think of itself as harkening back to speakeasy days, but none of this gets in the way of enjoying the food, drink, or music, and the jazz seems to be bringing people in. An upright piano is set up in the window on a platform, and the trio is backlit by the Main Street night scene. The area in front is occupied by serious listeners, while those for whom the music is just background sit in the rear of the long room.
The music begins at 9 o’clock, featuring young pianists such as the excellent Ian Finkelstein from the U-M jazz program. Weed then takes over for the rest of the night, although other musicians sometimes pop in and take turns on various instruments. Weed has such an intense way of approaching his instrument that a listener immediately forgets his is only an upright piano: the room is filled with cascading runs, rich chords, melodies, countermelodies, and rhythmic shifts. The other two members of the trio respond in different yet complementary ways: Brooks holds down the beat, favoring the lower register of the bass, while Davidson dances around his drum set, constantly changing rhythms, answering riffs, playing his own melodies without overwhelming the others. The repertoire is familiar: mostly Great American Songbook or modern jazz classics, but they are all transformed by excitement, wit, and grace. Years of playing together are on offer here, and all three musicians play with the spontaneity and infectious pleasure that lies at the heart of all good jazz.