|| Rob Brown Trio
Cat. No.: SHCD122
Rob Brown alto saxophone
William Parker bass
Dennis Charles drums
1. Firewalk (Rob Brown) 10:50
2. Stillness (Rob Brown) 5:58
3. Breath Rhyme (Rob Brown) 7:31
4. PB (Rob Brown) 10:47
5. The Light (Rob Brown) 4:47
6. Beehive (Rob Brown) 11:33
7. Awake (Rob Brown) 7:28
8. Escape Velocity (Rob Brown) 6:38
Total time: 65:55
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"Breath Rhyme establishes a high level of creativity right from the
first few minutes of Firewalk and maintains it for over an hour. This is one of
the best trio record I've heard in some time. It makes a strong case for Brown's
place amongst today's better alto improvisers and is another unqualified winner
for Silkheart. His Breath Rhyme is an artistic triumph."
Carl Baugher, Cadence, May 1991
Watching this trio in the studio was fascinating. For a fledgling leader, Rob
Brown was almost eerily calm. (Technically this is his second album, but his first
Sonic Explorations, co-led with pianist Matt Shipp, for Cadence
Jazz had been privately recorded and then sold. So this was his first real
studio date.) Brown quietly went over cues and solo orders with his rhythm section,
and proceeded methodically from one composition to the next without pausing for
many playbacks. He was undistracted by the trickle of kibitzers and fellow musicians
(like tenorist Frank Lowe) who stopped by to check him out. But when Brown took
up his alto and hollered on his horn he'd lean back, bending his knees
and rising on his toes, like a basket player at the foul line another side
of him poured forth. It's as if there's a part of him down deep only music can
Drummer Dennis Charles is animated by nature, but on the days this album was
taped he was even more up than usual the day before, he'd finished recording
his own debut as leader (Silkheart SHCD 121). Listening to a playback of "Firewalk"
in the booth, he did an ecstatic Monkish shuffle, letting out with an occasional
"Oh Yeah! William!" or "Keep that one!" You can hear that
enthusiasm in his drumming, just as you can hear his West Indian background in
his beats and rhythm. You can hear the shape of a composition there too
Dennis called for a retake of one tune because he wasn't thinking of the melody
when he soloed.
By contrast, William Parker is peaceful and steady the band's anchor when
Brown and Charles spin off on tangents. But like Brown, he may reveal another
side when he plays as on "Beehive," one of the greatest displays
of manic/controlled bowing I've heard or seen. It makes a case for Parker as the
greatest arco bassist in jazz (as do his overtone manipulations on "Stillness").
For that matter, he's one of the greatest jazz bassists, period.
A few weeks later, Rob Brown sat in a park near his home on NY's Lower East Side,
and talked about the road he's taken from Hampton, Virginia (where he was born
in 1962) to fronting a trio with two of the best rhythm players in the music.
This is some of what he said:
"When I started playing saxophone at 12 or 13, I took it for granted I'd
always be a musician I didn't think it was strange, I just wanted to play.
I wanted to play in big bands. Then I got into bebop when I was in high school.
I used to listen to Bird records, and read biographies of all the bebop people
I read Bird Lives three or four times, as corny as that book is.
I wanted to get into everything that had to do with the music, expecially interview
material it'd give me ideas. Some books I read later that I really liked
were A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Behop Business, Val Wilmer's As
Serious As Your Life, Amiri Baraka's Black Music, which has a chapter
on Dennis Charles, and J.C. Thomas' Chasin' the Trane, which has interview
material with my teacher, Dennis Sandole."
Brown spent some of his college years in Boston, at Berklee. "I took an ensemble
performance class with John LaPorta. I learned a lot about attitudes toward music
from John not to be inhibited or afraid to make mistakes. 'You'll learn
as you play so don't be afraid to go after something that may seem to be out of
your reach.' Joe Viola was my saxophone teacher, and he gave me a lot of help
with my sound. But they didn't have much of a direct musical influence
I was learning mostly from playing and listening to records. I listened to a lot
of Sonny Rollins not the trio recordings orginally, though now they're
my favorite Rollins. And I listened to Ornette, though I'm not really familiar
with his trio LPs. I was more into the earlier stuff, the Atlantics and the Hillcrest
sessions with Paul Bley.
"The only teacher who had a lot of influence on me conceptually was Dennis
Sandole. Three or four years ago, after I'd been in New York a year, I'd take
the train to Philly once a week to study with him, for a year and a half. He's
a really great teacher Coltrane, James Moody, Art Farmer and Tommy Flanagan
were some of his students. His whole method is very well thought out, very comprehensive.
He takes musical materials and puts them together in endless ways, ever and ever
more complex. He gave me a real framework to keep working on my own, putting in
my own material.
"Before that, I'd studied briefly with Lee Konitz at NYU less than
a semester. But what he'd been trying to teach me was very different from what
I'd been working
on. Lee wanted me to play Louis Armstrong solos, and though I realized the value
of that, I was headed in a different direction, and found that approach stifling
at the time. I'd been listening to Albert Ayler, Jimmy Lyons and Roscoe Mitchell.
I always liked Jimmy Lyons, but never considered him a big influence I
was much more aware of Cecil Taylor. Roscoe was one of my biggest influences in
a way, though I haven't really listened to him for years.
"At one point I totally cut myself off from playing anything reminiscent
of traditional jazz. I felt like I had to start all over from a totally different
premise, that it was necessary to develop my own vocabulary from which to improvise."
So has he done it? "Well, yeah. It keeps going on, keeps expanding.
I've developed my own language, maybe not radically different, but personal. For
one thing, I think intervalically instead of harmonically dealing with
strings of intervals. As in bebop, the emphasis is on the line, but my lines are
created by how the notes relate to each other, not to a chord sequence. Sometimes
I write tunes that have chords, but they're tetrachords groups of notes
that happen to fall into chords.
"I try to employ variations on as many musical elements as I can rhythm,
dynamics, timbre. I don't think in terms of traditional timekeeping, but sometimes
I think my playing is rhythmically like a drum solo. I feel like I've had to create
my own drums with the saxophone. When you don't have a regular tempo under you,
you have to create your own pulse to sustain itself. But usually I think about
all this stuff in a more intuitive way.
"I first played with William Parker about three years ago, in a trio with
drummer Frank Bambara. We'd rehearsed, and then William called me to play in his
big band. A little while later, I put together the trio for a gig at the Knitting
Factory; that's when I first played with both William and Dennis. I'd known Dennis
was around, and had heard him play and I knew he and William had worked together
a lot, with Jemeel Moondoc and some other bands. They'd even rehearsed as a duo
for a while. And of course both have worked with Cecil Taylor, though not at the
"To me, William is one of the greatest bass players I've seen him
do a lot of concerts where he'd do some amazing things. He plays in a lot of situations,
but some don't show his talents. Dennis is a very interesting player because he
comes from a straightahead kind of sound he really digs Art Blakey
but has stretched that out, thinking in other terms besides the traditional. He
really listens, and he's fun to work with. Unlike a lot of drummers in free situations,
he doesn't overbear. His playing is very honest, simple but sincere. His playing
starts from ideas, not showing of his technique it's very well developed.
"On the record, I wanted to do a couple of different things to make
it compositional, and for the compositions to vary conceptually to get the whole
spectrum of colors. I wanted to avoid just playing in a traditional melody-solos-melody
format. We do some of that, but it's not the only thing. I wanted to make it clear
that every tune had its own character. Records bother me when the compositions
sound different but all the solo sections sound the same. I like to set up textures
in advance to conduct the group through textural changes. So I give William
and Dennis an idea, and they do with it what they want. I might give William a
melody to play with me, or a written bassline in counterpoint to the melody. But
he may change it, which is okay if it works, it doesn't matter."
As we were wrapping up, I tell Brown what I've already told you: that the bluesy,
hollering energy in his playing seems to come from some remote place that
he seems to tap into something elemental and spiritual. "I would never try
to say that I'm a blues player. I have nothing against it, I just don't think
in those terms. If it comes off that way it's 'cause people are hearing something
I really feel." He mulls it over for a second. "Yeah, there's a spiritual
thing there, definitely."
Alto saxophonist/composer Rob Brown's music suggests a direct link with the naked
expressionism of the 60's avant-garde. The trio interacts in such an intuitive
fashion that it conveys improvisation on a level which recalls Cecil Taylor's
notion of music being organic, a living entity. Brown's unyielding devotion to
his art is also reminiscent of John Coltrane's onemindfulness; so much so that
even the titles of this session's compositions were afterthoughts. Brown's compositions
deal with the music in and of itself, rather than through any reference to personal
experience. Finally, his dry piercing tone connects with an array of 60's players
(Ayler, Charles Tyler) in its hard and sensual directness. But, far from being
the avant-garde's Wynton Marsalis, Brown is an original talent whose music adds
onto 'the tradition', rather than simply bathing in its glory.
"I don't think in terms of 'free', I like Albert Ayler for his sense of melody
and his folk references. But my playing is different from music of that era because
of its emphasis on an equal share of harmonic development and variation."
For added points of reference, Brown cites Charlie Parker and the great Philadelphia
teacher Dennis Sandole as being instrumental in his growth. It is the quality
of 'growth' that Brown best exemplifies, be it in the firmly mature sense that
he has of himself as a young artist or his daunting lyricism in the searing music
found throughout this session.
I hope that Rob Brown continues to evolve this music. I hope too that he continues
to maintain the fixed, poignant melodies that lie at its heart, the harmonic richness
that elaborates on the past. I also hope that he continues to play with the likes
of Charles and Parker, of course. "I have to play with people I trust,"
I trust that on those terms you will enjoy both Rob Brown's bright future, and
the music at hand here.
Ludwig Van Trikt