Bobby Broom: Building a Legacy

R.J. DeLuke By

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Guitarist Bobby Broom had a feel for music at a very young age. He was exposed first to clarinet and violin as a child, but they didn't have an impact on him. Eventually, an old guitar came through the household. It had four strings across an instrument with a small neck.

"I didn't know it was a descendent of the banjo," Broom recalls. "I found out later it was a tenor guitar. I still have it. I didn't do anything with it. I was about 8. About four years after that I decided I wanted to play guitar. There was no clear reason why I made that decision. I just woke up one morning and decided that was it. I wanted a guitar. I was 12."

Now 51, Broom has been playing that instrument ever since, and rose at a remarkable level, playing with pianist Al Haig at the ripe age of 12 and with Sonny Rollins for the first time at 16, years before touring with the Saxophone Colossus. Broom's style—a rich, thick sound; expressive and swinging—is forged in the tradition of jazz and blues. He can bring those sensibilities to musical landscapes like Stevie Wonder tunes, the focus of his most recent recording with his Deep Blue Organ Trio, Wonderful! (Origin, 2011). Or he can blaze through standards. The 2009 recording from his longstanding guitar trio, Plays for Monk (Origin) is an important interpretation of those great compositions rendered soulfully and thoughtfully through an instrument Monk did not employ.

Broom has carved out a fine career and in the last decade has documented that with a string of exceptional recordings. By his own admission, "practice, apprenticeship, productivity, perseverance and faith" have led to a place in jazz that he can be proud of, even if he isn't a household name in the jazz world. The body of work is there. The contributions on the bandstand speak for themselves. Peers speak in glowing terms. Pat Metheny wrote on his own website in 2008 that "I have been a huge fan of Bobby since I first heard him with Sonny Rollins," calling his new recording at that time, The Way I Play, Origin, 2008), "one of the best guitar trio records ever."

"This validation, especially from those that I respect and from fans, is what keeps me going. It always has. To be sixteen years old, knowing that you're a fledgling, but you're being encouraged and having your efforts endorsed by great musicians was like a crazy dream," says Broom. "Those episodes are long gone, but I'm still making progress and getting validation and encouragement that I need to continue. I guess in a way I've always been in this position—somewhat of an underdog and a true jazz musician. I'm happy that I've made an impact on those who appreciate what I do."

Broom has more to say and the years ahead will bear that out. Some of that came from a curiosity he had as soon as he knew the guitar was his thing. He advanced rapidly. Even when his technical ability wasn't quite there yet his vision of what to look and strive for spearheaded things until that technique came around. The "feel," so important in improvisational music, was innate. He started hearing jazz as a teenager and took steps to investigate further. He inquired at a record store, and was handed George Benson's Bad Benson (CTI, 1974), an album that includes a version of "Take Five."

"My life changed in that moment," Broom says directly. "Everything seemed to make sense, what George played. I was 14 or something like that. I'd heard an awful lot of music. Somewhere in my brain I understood a lot, just innately. Not theoretically, technically or anything like that. Music made sense to me. Most of what George played, although I didn't know what it was, made sense to my ear. I knew it was tremendous. It sounded like he could do anything and everything as an improviser. I understood improvisation. I understood what he was playing, relative to the song, the harmony, the chords as they moved. All of it made sense. I had never heard anybody play an instrument, let alone the guitar, like that, with that kind of freedom and joy. And power and expressiveness. I thought, 'Man, if this is what you can do on the guitar, then this is what I want to pursue. I want to do this.'"

Broom knew he couldn't duplicate what he heard. "It seemed so personal, like someone speaking. I thought, 'I want to be able to speak in that way, at some point. With that kind of freedom. The feeling I'm getting from hearing him, I want to be able to give that to myself.' To be able to do that was the inspiration. Then I found that all of jazz made me feel that way, as I then started to trace and go through the music and do research looking for answers to my questions. Finding out about Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane and all of the great people in stories and in books and on the backs of the records, the liner notes. Making all those connections. All of jazz and anybody that played it gave me that feeling. At that point it was an obsession. Something I had to do and I wanted to do."

It resulted in a career for the New York City native, who from those teen years has played and recorded with the likes of Hugh Masekela, Kenny Burrell, Charles Earland, Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Garrett, Gillespie, Dr. John, David Murray, and Eric Alexander. He even did a short stint with Miles Davis in the trumpeter's latter, funky period.

After playing as a sideman with remarkable musicians, and getting some of his own recordings out, Broom settled in on a small group sound. His guitar voice floats in and around in those settings. Pierces them at times. Broom's Deep Blue Organ Trio, with Chris Foreman on Hammond B3 and Greg Rockingham on drums, was formed in 1999. They met in the early 1990s around Chicago and did gigs, some of them quite regular, like the Cotton Club in Chicago for about two years. In 1999, they decided to become a regular band. Wonderful! is their fourth recording.

Broom is aware of the great organ trios of the past that featured guitar. "Because of the players that have been involved in making that music—Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell. That sound and that instrumentation is documented so well and to such an extent, it has become part of the story of jazz for the guitarist," he explains. "I heard, being a fan of all the guitarists I mention, I heard quite a bit of that music when I became interested in jazz as a teenager and started to pursue it as a fan and a student and enthusiast. Those records were among my favorites. I really had to study those guitar players through that music. And I enjoyed it."

"One of the first records I came across that was a jazz recording—and I didn't really make the differentiation at that point because I was 10 or 11—was Charles Earland's Black Talk (OJC, 1969). There was something about that recording that was striking. It was a hit at that time. He did "More Today Than Yesterday" and "Age of Aquarius." That was the first record I recall being obsessed with. This was before I was a student of guitar. I always had some kind of attraction to that music."

Still, Deep Blue Organ Trio seeks its own ground, offers its own take on the genre. Broom says, "As a musician you can only envision what you've ingested and processed. The instrumentation is the same, so you're going to get something that's akin to that sound. But the idea is definitely not to recreate anything that went before. If it reminds people, or even us, of some of the things we liked and are familiar with, that's OK. That may be good. But we like to bring our own perspective to what we're doing and that's the point. We pay standard jazz repertoire on some of the recordings. We also play a lot of modern tunes, or tunes that are from our childhoods. Tunes that were popular for us."

The Stevie Wonder material took a lot of preparation, he says. Unlike the jazz standard repertoire, these songs were new to the band in terms of performance. "We were familiar with them as listeners, but we had to become familiar with them as players. It was a matter of getting comfortable with the material and seeing how the songs would fit our group and how we play. We had to discard some things that we thought we'd be able to play. Maybe it didn't sound the way we wanted it to. It wasn't a comfortable fit. But we came to some good choices. By the time we got to the studio, it was not very difficult to get it together."

The record has good grooves throughout. The heavy funk of Wonder's "Jesus children of America" is tipped into foot-patting swing. Broom's sound and choices during his solo are delectable. The popular "My Cherie Amor" is a tender ballad, dreamy and ethereal, in the hands of this group. Broom squeezes out the sweetness that can be realized in the composition when it's broken down to the essence. The band tells its own story on each selection and its sweet stuff.

"It's modern from my perspective," says Broom. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to make music and find material that is meaningful to us and listeners like us. In that way, it is current and relevant."

Meanwhile, Broom's other trio, with Dennis Carroll on bass and Kobie Watkins on drums, is on a break. The trio also has its own identity when it comes to playing anything from Monk to standards—even rock and pop favorites, as they did on Song and Dance (Origin, 2007). " In my twenty years of playing with Bobby, I've always felt that his style of playing melds the feelings of all-American blues with an urban hip soulfulness that really speaks to the progression of jazz," Carroll has said of the guitarist. That feeling on guitar spreads through the entire trio. The band did a recording prior to deciding on the hiatus, and that could appear in 2012. And it has a new twist: original tunes, dubbed Upper West Side Story (Origin).



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