Rob Brown: No More "Mr. Avant Garde"
“ I don't feel the need so much to exclude elements of music that aren't traditionally jazz, and it just adds to the overall sound of the music ”
A recent example is the group Right Hemisphere. He has also recorded and worked alongside such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Butch Morris, Reggie Workman, Henry Grimes, Roy Campbell and Karl Berger. Brown has also been building a substantial discography under his own name, on a variety of labels and with a diversity of ensembles.
Is Rob Brown still Mr. Avant-Garde?
All About Jazz: I would like to talk about some of your recent releases first. Your latest album Crown Trunk Root Funk (AUM Fidelity, 2008) was a slight departure for you, bringing in electronics and more of an earthier feel to the music. You brought Gerald Cleaver on drums and Craig Taborn on piano and electronics into the band [in addition to William Parker on bass]. What were you looking for that was different from them?
Rob Brown: Well, besides my duos and some collaborative records with Matthew Shipp, this is the only record I have as a leader with a piano. I've been playing with William (Parker) for a long time, and with the quartet, quintets and sextets coming out of that, I've been playing that music a lot. To some degree that has probably influenced my desire to have some more earthy types of elements. But it's also I think just a process of maturing and including elements of things I've liked in my life into the music. At this point in my life, I'm not really "Mr Avant-Garde." I don't really care about that any more. There was a time when I did, but that was a long time ago: I don't feel (now) that I have to have any radical stance. I want my music to be different and (to) have a unique sound and structure when (it) can, but I don't feel the need to be an experimental person.
AAJ: Is that something that has come with maturitya mellowing?
RB: It's not a matter of mellowing. It's just that I don't feel the need to be the person out there in front, an innovative "cutting edge" person ... I don't feel that desire. Hopefully my music will stand on its own with its own sound, and some things might be innovative and some things might sound very familiar. (That) just doesn't matter to me anymore.
RB: That was complicated, because I did have a title, but we weren't in perfect agreement with the record company on it. So I went through a lot of titles and eventually Steven (Joerg) at AUM said he wanted to use imagery (for the cover) from some photos he took on a trip out to California to the redwood forests on his honeymoon. He had photos of some of the giant sequoia trees, so it basically came out of that: crown, root and trunk all being parts of a tree. So it was part of my searching for a title that fits, because titles can be real tricky things unless you have something real specific in mind. And my music isn't thematic, really.
AAJ: What you call things affects how people perceive them, so there is always that consideration.
RB: Yeah. Normally I would go for some poetic kind of thing. The title came out of a search to match the cover imagery with something that would make sense for me, and I don't think I would ever have come up with that title if I hadn't been pushed to keep trying different ones. I've had various reactions to it, but people generally don't have a problem with wondering what it's supposed to be.
AAJ: Then there's the funk bit at the end of it. You're playing tomorrow with Patricia Nicholson's Celestial Moonbeams Funk band. Is this a side of yourself that you want to show more of?
RB: Well, (it's) her band, and there's a whole range of music in there, (but) part of it is more funky, definitely. Now with my band there are elements (of funk) in there, but they are not really as overt. But the thing is that Gerald (Cleaver)specificallyand Craig (Taborn) really can do everything, and that is the thing that makes it so great to play with them. I don't feel the need so much to exclude elements of music that aren't traditionally jazz, and it just adds to the overall sound of the music.
AAJ: Is this band going to continue as an active one?
RB: Well, I would like it to be an active one, but it is really hard to get everybody together. As it was, (for) the gig that we did at The Stone (a notforprofit performance space dedicated to the experimental and the avant-garde in New York's East Village: The Stone) in May, William (Parker) couldn't make it and it was pretty much a miracle that it happened at all. I had a slot when everyone was supposedly going to be there, and then I got a call the next day, "Do you want to play (this particular) week?" and I said "Oh, that's great, fantastic!"
Then finally we settled on the date, and a couple of weeks before the gig I looked on the Stone website and they had given me a day two days before (the date) because they had got their signals crossed. And Gerald was coming back from England that night. So we played at 10.00pm. He had got in to the airport that evening at 7.30. I was just so happy that he could come out and play the gig after so many hours flying. So, if I can get some good enough paying gigs ... then I will certainly try to do it.
AAJ: Another of your recent releases Sounds (Clean Feed, 2007), with Daniel Levin on cello and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, was one I really enjoyed. I saw the title pieces premiered at the 2005 Vision Festival, and I thought then that it was one of the more successful marriages of music, dance and visual art that I had seen. The choreography echoed the visuals and the music was keeping track of the movement as well. Did you approach your writing for that performance in a different way to your normal way?
RB: No, basically if I'm writing for any collaboration I'm writing the way I normally write. For that performance the visual art was by my wife (artist Jo Wood Brown), so I'm very familiar with that. (For) the dance, I'll give them the music so they can listen to it, but normally the music and the dance are not a direct influence on each other. (For example), when they do a jump, we don't do a jump! So it's a certain type of feel or atmosphere. That doesn't mean that I don't pay attention to the dance at all, of course, because I do.
AAJ: I noticed that in the performance you appeared to be looking round to see where the dance had got to.
RB: Sometimes, of course, there might be cues where it's going to another section and the music is supposed to change, although I don't remember exactly how we did that piece. But of course the pieces have already been set: it is just how long they are before the transition to the next section. But even when I play with dancers, when I'm just improvising with them, I watch them. But usually I couldn't tell you after the performance what they did, because I'm concentrating on the music and the flow of the music and (it's) development. (The dancers) are ... a peripheral part of my concentration. I see them, but there is a certain filter, so I can't say when they did this or when they did that. I don't necessarily like to work that literally. I like it better when the dancers are doing their thing and the music is doing its thing and they are conscious of each other, rather than (them both) trying to do the same thing.
AAJ: When was that CD actually recorded? It gives the day and month, but doesn't say the year on the sleeve.
RB: I believe it was 2005.
RB: Well, that has been an ongoing project since about 2003. I have another recording by that group which is hopefully going to be picked up (by a label) pretty soon. It's a live recording that was actually done at the same studio where we recorded the first one, although the first one was strictly a studio recording. This is (studio) Firehouse 12 up in New Haven, and their performance area is the same room they use as a studio. So we played a performance and it was recorded.
AAJ: They get a really nice sound on the recordings there.
RB: Yeah. It is all super equipment. It's great stuff. So that should be coming out in 2009. Somebody's got it right now and hopefully they are going to say they'll do it and we can agree to the terms. But for that band, even though we don't work as much as I would like, I also had a Chamber Music America grant, and so the music that will be on the next CD was commissioned by (CMA). So that's a continuing project. But like a lot of my bands, they don't work as much as they should. There are a lot of factors involved in that: local venues that are available or other places that aren't local, that offer us money to play. Daniel Levin, who has been living up in New Haven is now actually moving to New York in about two weeks, so we will be continuing that project.
AAJ: Some people tell me that they virtually have to pay for the gig to put their music on now.
RB: Well actually the last one I did for the quartet, that I was talking about before, I went to that gig and I just brought a bunch of money to pay everybody. But there was a great turnout and everybody got paid well. Even I did! That was a great gig and it was pretty much a full house. That's the other thing: sometimes in New York it's a difficult situation because it's hard to get people together to rehearse, and then if you have a rehearsal, or a couple of rehearsals, and then a gig, obviously you have to pay people. It's just a matter of how much you can pay for the size of the group and when you can afford it, or if you make enough money playing music, or you have another job. There are times when I've had no money and it makes it hard to do what you want.
In the past there have been a couple of times when I've quit my parttime day job, hoping that I could just play music. Usually things might have been going good for a while and I was maybe looking at the future and it looks good, then there is a certain point when it is not going very well and I'll have some period when it's too long to go without money, and that stress of worrying about how to pay the bills and where I'm going to get money from is worse than having to do the part time job. It's not that I love the job, but I feel more secure doing that job and going in and getting paid, rather than staying at home and just working on music and being really worried about when I'm going to get paid again. So it's a kind of balance now. As this job is flexible for me, I just tell them that I'm going out of town and they say "Call us when you get back."
AAJ: That's a good situation to be in.
RB: Yeah. I'm kind of senior enough in what I'm doing that there are other people that they can call, but they always call me if I'm around.
AAJ: When did you realize you wanted to be involved in creative music?
RB: Well I guess when I got into music, into playing jazz, I kind of followed the development of the music. So there was Louis Armstrong, there was Count Basie, Lester Young, there was bebop.
AAJ: Is that what you listened to first of all?
RB: I couldn't tell you what I listened to first. My brother played saxophone (he doesn't play anymore) so we had Charlie Parker records in the house. There was one Eric Dolphy record. And then, when I was young, I got as a Christmas present the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, and that gives a chronological survey of the music. So I listened to all the stuff on there: there's Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and then there's Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor.
I can't say why it appealed to me, because I like it all but, and this is relevant to what I was talking about at the beginning, I did feel at that point that it made sense to play the most modern of the music it was the most modern. There was something (there) that was always more interesting to me, because as the other music became more and more familiar, the newer stuff was more interesting because there is mystery about it. You want to figure out what it is, and so that's why when I was younger it was more important to me to to play the most "advanced" (I wouldn't use that term today) concepts of the musicof improvisation. That's what I was most interested in. So I just gravitated towards that and followed the historyand other kinds of music that were not traditional.
Earlier, it would have been more important for me to understand and use the most advanced kinds of technique ... whereas now I don't really think that way anymore, because now it's more important to me that it is really music, about emotions and feelings, rather than advanced techniques or the most avant garde thing that someone can do. But I still love a lot of what drew me to that music ... and the way that it historically developed. Ornette Coleman wasn't a bebopper, but his language kind of came out of the sound of Charlie Parker. But because that music was innovative at the time, the music was that. He's not going to include something that sounds like Louis Armstrong. It's only when stuff is transitioning, like when Cecil Taylor played "Love for Sale" on his first or second record [Love For Sale (Blue Note, 1959)] ... but you won't hear him play that after the early 1960s, because then it just became his music. But for me it is really just about integrating those elements with other elements.
AAJ: Who were the players who made you go "Wow," I want to check out what they are doing?
RB: Well, early on, Charlie Parker of course, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and then Julius Hemphill and some other people in there too. That covers a lot of jazz, and there's other music that I love a lot. But I think that when I was really listening and studying other players it would have been those people. And you can probably throw Roscoe Mitchell in there and some other things, different kinds of world music, ethnic music, classical music, and blues.
AAJ: There are a few alto players there. How did you come to choose alto?
RB: Well I started on tenor actually, and occasionally I still play tenor. Actually, there's a record that just came outLive in Chicago (Ruby Red, 2008)(a duo with drummer Andrew Barker) which was recorded in 2000 and which is a live performance where I play some tenor, but I don't play very much tenor really. That's a good question. I can't exactly remember how I came to switch to alto, but it happened when I was still at school, not even at college ... I mean still in high school.
AAJ: To my ears, you have a really distinctive tone which can be picked out on a recording very quickly. Did that come naturally or did you have to work on it?
RB: Well, I would say that it's not something that I worked on. There are certain types of sounds that I likesaxophonist soundsand some that I don't like so much, but to say that I worked on it to have that particular sound would not be correct. You could just say that I worked on having a good full sound through the whole range of the instrument. That's what I did work on.
AAJ: One of the things that I've noticed is that you've really incorporated the use of overtones and harmonics into your sound in a way that not many others have. Was that one of the aspects you've worked on?
RB: Well I've always included that kind of playing. Now, of course, I don't do it to the extent that some people do. You know, I'm no Evan Parker. I don't look at it that way. Also, I've done it in an intuitive way. I mean, of course I know how the saxophone works, but I don't practice that.
AAJ: When you're playing, though, it sounds as if you are in control of it.
RB: I guess what I mean is that I couldn't write out a chart and show you all the fingerings, whereas I could do that with the notes. I mean, I'm sure I could come up with some. It's not like I don't understand it. It's just that, about the harmonics, there are a lot of saxophonists who do that a lot more than I do.
AAJ: What I hear is that you subtly incorporate it in ways that others don't, so it's not like going way out and just playing the harmonics, but more putting an edge on a note or a run ... in a way that appeals to me anyway.
RB: When I was younger I might do longer sections that would be more harmonics or abstract things from the saxophone. Now I still do that, but it is more integrated with traditional saxophone sounds. The people who use that as their main language ... I do find some of those players interesting to listen to ... but ultimately for me it's not the way I feel about music. It's not as satisfying to me musically. I like to play melodies and tunes. Some of those people may feel the opposite way: they like melodies too, but it's not as satisfying to them.
AAJ: John Butcher is one of the people who made a language out of that.
RB: Yeah, he's got a whole thing going. I don't know his playing that much but there's Evan Parker, and John Butcher. (He) doesn't sound like Evan Parker, so you have people that have very different languages. Then there are the Swedish guys, they have their thing going. But for me that's not the way I do it.
AAJ: You played at the Vision Festival last night with Ensemble of Possibilities, with many of your close musical associates. Is that a cooperative or is that Whit Dickey's group?
RB: Well, that was Whit Dickey's slot in the festival. It was a group of his that he put together. I think it started out with Whit and Daniel (Carter) and Eri Yamamoto, maybe Jason (Kao Hwang) too. I don't remember the sequence, but he also added Joe (Morris) and me. But the music is improvised, and there is no obvious leader going on there.
AAJ: When you work like that, like last night, is there any discussion beforehand?
RB: No, we didn't. (However), we had done a recording. It's not been released, but it's been mixed. (It's the one time) I had played with them before. I don't remember if Joe (Morris) was there. So I don't know that we ever really said anything about the music. Whit didn't say "I want to do this or I want to do that." But it's a band that does have a very cooperative way of playing together.
AAJ: Another of your recordings came out recently, the excellent Right Hemisphere (Rogue Art, 2008), with Dickey, Matt Shipp and Joe Morris, which sounds as if it has a similar approach, of collective improvisation. However, in the liner notes Shipp says that the pieces are not collective improvisations but are a series of "concepts and gestures" put forth, discussed and then acted upon musically. Yet in the same liner notes, Dickey say that there was no advanced planning or rehearsals. What was your perception of that session, back in January 2006?
RB: Because we have all played together a lot and the group goes back to the 1980s (when William Parker played with us), I think it is somewhere between talk and not talk. We did talk about some pieces, but sometimes the talk is not that explicit. In other words ... if you've ever heard that recording with John Coltrane where he is talking before they start on one of the pieces ... I don't remember which record it is, but he says something that all the people in his band would understand, but it's not explicit at all: it's like a short hand language that only his band would understand. Although from what I understand Coltrane very often would not say anything and would come out and start playing something and the band would just have to start playing. But in that case Trane was the leader, unlike Right Hemisphere which doesn't really have a leader.
I think we talked about some parts of what we did, but it wasn't like sitting down with a piece of paper and plotting out stuff. It's more like general guidelines and shared musical concepts and histories. So it wasn't that we went into the studio and we just did it all improvised, which is the way we did it at the Whit Dickey session (except for one piece) ... we did pieces that weren't that long. Unlike the record that I did with Matt (Shipp) and William (Parker).
AAJ: Magnetism (Bleu Regard, 1999)?
RB: Yeah. That one had a more specific kind of direction. That's longer ago but I believe we had some paper, with gestures written out. Maybe on that one Matt might even have used some signals to say move to section two. But we didn't do anything like that for Right Hemisphere. I just happened to read a review where the reviewer was saying it was the paradox of right hemisphere, intuitive ... but it says in the liner notes: "not." But I would say that the left brain part of it was not that specific in the sense of really plotting it out. Nothing was written down.
AAJ: Yes, one thing that always intrigues me as a listener is how ideas come together and how people develop a piece and how they communicate and whether there is preconception or not.
RB: Well it's like, if you were having a conversation with a bunch of people (though you don't normally talk at the same time) ... and one topic leads to another. Someone talks for a while then someone else adds. It develops like that and you might stay on a theme for a while, one person leads then another person leads ... you all do something together, and it's just having a sense of the proportions of the music and when everyone knows that it's time to end ... people know that you should have contrasting things going on. And that's how improvisation works.
AAJ: What makes a performance satisfying for you?
RB: Well, I guess, like the way I was just explaining it is when you get the kind of flow of the music ... it goes to different places, and then when say that place that you've gone to ... you've explored that enough, and you go to something else that's interesting, and it works and the transition is good. Which doesn't mean that, for instance, you couldn't do a very minimalist thing too, where you stay on the same thing but it's a more subtle development. I mean a kind of a trance thing ... and if that's effective then that's a successful performance too. I guess when it doesn't work people aren't connecting with each other, and of course this can happen in any music, not just improvised music ... or nobody's coming up with ideas, or people are fighting musically on stage. But I guess that doesn't really happen with the people I play with.
Sometimes people are just in different moods and they're not synching up. Sometimes it doesn't always work as well, and sometimes it depends on who you're playing with, of course. Sometimes festivals will put people together and they think it's a good idea, and the musicians may or may not be really trying to make music [laughs]. If they don't like each other, they may not be trying to make music. You don't know. Sometimes it just doesn't work. Sometimes interesting ideas of putting certain people together may look interesting on paper, but it doesn't necessarily work.
AAJ: I saw one of the Cecil Taylor/Anthony Braxton concerts last summer. There was one in London and there were two in Italy. The one in London worked well I thought, there was intent there. But from what I've read and heard the concerts in Italy were more mixed, and that may be an example.
RB: Yeah, there has to be mutual desire [laughs].
AAJ: So Whit Dickey, Joe Morris, Matt Shipp, they're all part of an inner circle for you and you've been working with them for a long time. What keeps you working with them? What do they bring for you?
RB: Well I guess we just keep wanting to try different things together, maybe different musical configurations. This was definitely a different one, because, especially with Eri Yamamoto and Jason (Kao Hwang), those are both different people in that world. I'm playing with Eri now with William (Parker's) sextet, and so I've become more familiar with her playing. But it's just a matter of certain people being compatible to play with, and you just want to keep trying different things. Hopefully you are doing different things and not doing the same thing over and over.
AAJ: On your own records, you include less free improvisation. Is there something behind that?
RB: Well, I would say a lot of my CDs have one or two pieces that are improvised, and of course there is the record I mentioned that just came out from 2000 which is all improvised. And the trio I did on Marge with Lou Grassi and Wilber Morris is all improvised [Visage (Marge, 2000)]. Basically anything that I do with Matt Shipp, as a duo, is almost all improvised, But the last duo we came out with was a while ago, ten years ago. But I like composing, because I figure that there is always going to be improvisation in there anyway and that a lot of times my pieces are not necessarily locked into ... (well) if it starts with a certain beat or groove or something, they don't necessarily go all the way through like that ... so it's not like a traditional jazz tune where, if it starts like "A Night In Tunisia," it's going to follow the form. Sometimes the tunes do stay within the parameters of the composition, but they don't have to, and usually there's enough room for improvisation. My compositions aren't really long anyway, so to me it's all ...
AAJ: They're jumping off points?
RB: Well, sometimes they're jumping off points but often I am trying to set an atmosphere, a feeling. And I guess there's just plenty of room for improvisation. Maybe if I was putting out more records, (say if there were people asking me to record all the time), I would probably do more improvised records. As I don't put out that many records, when I put them out I'm usually trying to showcase some compositional ideas too. AAJ: What are your future plans? Are there recordings or groups that you want to get together?
RB: My future plans are basically to work more. I have good groups, and there are always different things that I want to try or that I want to expand on. I'm applying for a grant right now that would be a different set up. If I get this grant there will be more electronics and I'll maybe have four horns. I'm not sure if it will include a regular rhythm section. If I get the grant I'll do it, but if I don't, I don't know that I'll do it.
Beyond that, I would like to have an agent who can help me get work. That's more what it's about. The musical ideas and the creativity process are ongoing. It's really more about the business side of it: that's the thing that I would like to have some real action on.
AAJ: Is there a Catch-22 there, where you need work to pay an agent to find you work?
RB: Well, that's OK. Usually an agent will work for a commission. If you do it by commission, then they have a reason to do it rather than just collect a pay check. So that's the way it usually works. But right now I don't have anyone booking the gigs for me. That's what I need the most. Because then it's a lot easier for me to get the musical projects played. I don't play with people that don't want to play with me, but people are busy and people need to make a living. It's not that easy to get people together to rehearse, and to just work on music in an abstract way. I certainly did that much more when I was younger, and that's what most people probably do, but when you get older people just don't have that kind of time anymore. They want stability in their lives. If the gigs come in, then I could do all kinds of projects.
I do hope to do some more collaborating too, music with other things. My wife and I will maybe do more of that. I'm going to Germany in the winter and we'll be doing something there. We'll probably have a dancer involved too. Those kinds of things are fun to do. A lot of times when I do that I play solo. It's certainly easier logistically, and it makes those kind of things possible, because if we're going to Europe and my wife has a visual art installation going on, and we have a dancer, for me it's so much easier to work with that than to try to have a band. Since it's a collaboration it's not just about me, it's about the music and solo saxophone can work for a lot of things. I would like to do another solo record, because the one that I have out [Silver Sun Afternoon (Self Produced, 2002)] was a hastily put together affair.
AAJ: When was that recorded?
RB: About six years ago or something like that, but it was just done on a lower quality machine, and it's just a CDR. I'm not putting it down, but I'm just saying that I'd like to go in a studio and have a little more time. Beyond that there are a bunch of projects, but until I have more offers about how to do them, I'm not putting that much energy into thinking about them. I have general ideas for things. If I get a call or apply for a grant which allows me to do a more extensive type of piece, then I have to focus on it and figure it out. But before that time they are (just) concepts that I may have catalogued somewhere, but they are not expounded on at all.
AAJ So you're not into the Anthony Braxton way of doing things, where you are writing your operas without any expectation that they will ever be performed?
RB: Well, it's funny, because I remember when I was pretty young reading about (him) talking about orchestras, then orchestras in different cities, then orchestras on different planetswell you know he's got a creative mind and he thinks that way. I don't really think that way. I guess I'm a little more pragmatic [laughs]. But that's what makes him great. That's what makes him Anthony Braxton.
AAJ: You work a lot with William Parker in his Quartet, his Raining on the Moon Quintet and his Sextet. Does that help you do your own work as well?
RB: It helps people know who I am, but it's not like a magic pass into anything. It keeps me working and I love working with William so it's great and I'm really happy doing this. Of course, I would like to be doing my own projects much more than I am. There's plenty of time, because I can be doing William's band and my band. William's band is not working as much as it could be working. We have small periods of activity and then there are two months when we don't have any work and it really shouldn't be that way. I feel that the band is popular enough: everywhere we go it's sold out and people love it. That band should be working a lot more and from that perspective it's just a matter of whoever is in charge setting those things up. So we'll see what happens.
William Parker, Double Moon Over Neptune (AUM Fidelity, 2008)
Rob Brown Ensemble Crown Trunk Root Funk (AUM Fidelity, 2008)
Rob Brown/Andrew Barker, Live From The Empty Bottle (Ruby Red, 2008)
Right Hemisphere, Right Hemisphere (RogueArt, 2008)
Rob Brown Trio, Sounds (Cleanfeed, 2007)
William Parker Double Quartet, Alphaville Suite (RogueArt, 2007)
William Parker/Raining on The Moon, Cornmeal Dance (AUM Fidelity, 2007)
The Diplomats, We Are Not Obstinate Islands (Cleanfeed, 2006)
Rob Brown Quartet, Radiant Pools (RogueArt, 2005)
Whit Dickey Quintet, In A Heartbeat (Cleanfeed, 2005)
William Parker Quartet, Sound Unity (AUM Fidelity, 2005)
Rob Brown Quartet, The Big Picture (Marge, 2004)
Whit Dickey Quartet, Coalescence (Cleanfeed, 2004)
Rob Brown, Silver Sun Afternoon (NoLabels, 2002)
Rob Brown Trio, Round the Bend (Bleu Regard, 2002)
William Parker Quartet, O'Neal's Porch (AUM Fidelity, 2002)
William Parker, Raining On The Moon (Thirsty Ear, 2002)
William Parker and Little Huey, Raincoat in the River (Eremite, 2002)
Rob Brown Quartet, Jumping Off the Page (No More, 2000)
Rob Brown Trio, Visage (Marge, 1999)
Anthony Braxton, 4 Compositions (Washington DC) (Braxton House, 1999)
In Order to Survive, The Peach Orchard (AUM Fidelity, 1998)
Rob Brown/Matthew Shipp, Blink of an Eye (No More, 1997)
Rob Brown-Lou Grassi Quartet, Scratching the Surface (CIMP, 1997)
Anthony Braxton, Trillium R (Braxton House, 1996)