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Rob Brown: No More "Mr. Avant Garde"

By Published: August 25, 2008

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 music—of improvisation. That's what I was most interested in. So I just gravitated towards that and followed the history—and other kinds of music that were not traditional.

Rob Brown

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 out—Live 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 like—saxophonist sounds—and 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.

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