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Interview with Alan Brown:  Leader, Composer Jazz/Groove Musician

Alan, thank you for agreeing to this interview – On behalf of Jazz Local 32 I would like to gain a few insights into your music and your primary influences.

Q. I have seen various configurations of your bands over the years but I would first like to concentrate on the ‘Between the Spaces’ album.   As the composer and leader are you able to reflect on just what this particular body of work means to you?

A. It’s the culmination and articulation of ideas that had been floating around in my head for a while. They didn’t really solidify until I decided on a format (i.e. the quartet and choice of musicians thereof). Once I had that sorted, a lot of the ideas took shape, as I could hear how they would work with this line-up and the particular strengths of each musician. It also represents a new freedom in my writing, that of allowing all my various influences equal voice. Previously I had felt a bit stifled in my writing as I was constantly aware of ‘trying’ to write in a more ‘jazz’ style (whatever that is).

I was often aware of feeling the (self-imposed) pressure to make harmonies more complex where, in many cases, it wasn’t needed and took away from the purely creative and spontaneous aspect of writing. I mean I know there’s always an editing and fine-tuning that happens but sometimes I found I was just trying too hard to be ‘jazz’. Upon hearing some of the younger generation of jazz composers who were not afraid to push the boundaries but also use rock, RnB compositional ideas and harmony, I discovered a new freedom in my own work, and allowed the classical and pop/rock influences which were an early part of my growth, to be heard – without fear!

Q. This has the feel a well-conceived album, which is largely built around finite concepts.   Is that just my impression or was there a compositional focus?

A. There was definitely a compositional focus, even though a few of the tunes were older pieces I had written. The new writing freedom, along with a strong picture of the quartet sound I had in mind, and especially what each player was bringing to it, gave me a focus that I hadn’t had for a long time. There is a strong odd-time and polyrhythmic element to many of the tunes, which was partly inspired by what I was listening to at the time, such as Avishai Cohen et al. However, I distinctly remember one of the first tunes I wrote for the quartet, Captivated (which sadly never made it to the album, but is available on-line), was built from an idea I had for a while but just couldn’t get anywhere with.

One day I thought to try the idea in 7/4 rather than 4/4, and basically the rest of the tune wrote itself! I guess the excitement and challenge of the odd-time signatures propelled the writing burst that followed, although I never tried to force odd-times etc to fit – it still had to feel right no matter what was happening in the tunes. I was also inspired by the writing of bands like Radiohead in terms of song structure and dynamics, so the inclusion of forms such as coda sections to my tunes are a direct result of that. However there are also techniques I have used in my writing since the Blue Train days (and earlier!) present in these tunes, hence the groove element especially.

Q. What are the primary influences behind the BTS compositions?

A. Artists such as Avishai Cohen, as I already mentioned, in relation to the fresh combination of Middle Eastern rhythms and classical influences in his writing; Aaron Parks in terms of sound, structure and the strong sense of melody; Radiohead with regards to structure as I mentioned, but also harmony and again, strong melodic ideas.

The emotion that is present in Radiohead songs is something I was searching for in presenting these tunes in the quartet form I chose; Classical music plays a big part in my upbringing so much of the harmonic sense comes from that, especially in tunes like Eastern and Tableau. The latter tune also includes an obvious nod to minimalist classical composer, Philip Glass.

Q. Those touches of orchestration where you added strings and flute sounded so good.   It put me in mind of the CTI label of Creed Taylor where expanded works and orchestrations by Don Sebesky were the norm.  How did it feel working with an expanded sound palette?

A. I loved it! It presented its own challenges in terms of writing and understanding how the textures work together but it’s something I definitely want to explore further and include in subsequent compositions. Again it’s a sound that has strong ties to my classical influences, and therefore presents an emotional canvas that really resonates with me.

I particularly love the modern orchestration on Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider album in terms of the close harmonies and inner movement within the strings, creating a vibrant, sometimes dissonant, but compelling texture. I recently found out that Brad was influenced by the the work of Francois Rauber in his work with Jacques Brel, and Bob Alcivar in his work with Tom Waits. I am starting to check these orchestrators out myself now.

Q.The complex rhythms, counterpoint and multi textural nature of the tunes must add a degree of difficulty.   Every band member has to work a different groove while keeping in mind what is happening elsewhere.  Is that a hallmark of the Alan Brown sound?

A. Yes and no. I mean, it was definitely something I had in mind for this album but I’m always wanting to stretch myself and be open to other influences, so I don’t want to be confined to a particular sound or approach. However, every writer does have their own signature style which is something that should come through unconsciously, but the vehicle for expression should be open to whatever provides the creative ‘spark’ at the time. In saying that though, I do love the multi dimensional nature of what happens in these tunes, that there are elements that one can focus on and think “that’s cool”, but that they’re still part of the whole. In other words, it’s got to groove no matter how difficult or ‘clever’ it may appear.

Q. Is there a ‘Between The Spaces two’ planned?

A. I’d like to think so! I have been slowly writing some more tunes, at this stage with the quartet in mind, but as I mentioned, I’d also like to explore various palettes more, especially with strings. Some of the writing is with my Masters study focus, but is still very much what resonates emotionally with me.

Part two and a short review to follow in the next post:

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