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Rob Brown: No More "Mr. Avant Garde"

By Published: August 25, 2008

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?

Rob BrownRB: 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?

Rob BrownRB: 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.

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