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Rob Brown: No More "Mr. Avant Garde"

By Published: August 25, 2008

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.

Rob BrownAAJ: 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?

Rob BrownRB: 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.

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