"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
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 same time.
"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," he insists.
I trust that on those terms you will enjoy both Rob Brown's bright future, and the music at hand here.
Ludwig Van Trikt
1. Firewalk 10:56
2. Stillness 06:01
3. Breath Rhyme 07:35
4. PB 10:51
5. The Light 04:49
6. Beehive 11:34
7. Awake 07:31
8. Escape Velocity 06:38
Rob Brown alto saxophone
William Parker bass
Dennis Charles drums