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Rob Brown: No More "Mr. Avant Garde"

John Sharpe By

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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
Rob BrownAlto saxophonist Rob Brown would feature highly on most people's lists of modern purveyors of reed magic. Leading New York avant-garde bassist William Parker has featured Brown for the last fifteen years, and Brown has been associated, both as sideman and leader, with other well-known modern jazz musicians including Matthew Shipp, Joe Morris and Whit Dickey.



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 maturity—a 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.

Rob BrownAAJ: Where did the title come from?

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)—specifically—and 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 not—for—profit 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.

Rob BrownAAJ: 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.

Rob BrownAAJ: That group has a different sound, more open. Is that an ongoing project?

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.

Rob Brown

In the past there have been a couple of times when I've quit my part—time 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."

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