Best Foot Forward (Giant Strides)
My first exposure to this guy Derek Brown, saxophonist maximus, was through YouTube, his solo adventures and small ensemble numbers (mostly duets) are great fun. He likes to play in acoustically interesting places which range from creepy but beautifully lit old abandoned houses to grain silos, warehouses, odd echoey chambers, huge wet basements, and well, the fun is seeing it for yourself. Saxophones are powerful instruments, but Derek takes this 1840s era musical machine to places Adolphe Sax probably never before anticipated. The design of a saxophone is for the breath to simply be converted into musical tones, but Derek does all that athletically and then he just laughs, and the two -- man and machine -- become a unit, a thing that has a beat, it has tones, sometimes words, usually legs, several feet, many arms, lots of fingers, up front is brass, the center holds lots of heart, and the amazing valve noises... let's talk about the valve noises.
Most saxophone players try to hide those sounds, but Derek? Noooooooo. He has it down, the valves are percussive and he has a whole new way of playing beats with those metal tube popper stoppers. There are no special effects or overdubs, its just all Derek, in real time. It looks like he uses his rings on his fingers to add extra percussive spice, and he does extended technique things with his breath and tongue too, put it all together and you have a sort of musical flying machine.
They (this combined brass and flesh unit) use every imaginable gesture to make the funky sounds and it is a hoot to experience. The name of his experience is the BEATBoX SAX (which is the name of his first album), and he does it all to present a full one-man-band sound event each time he plays. When he does the duet/collaborative thing, everyone is strong, when he is playing solo, nothing is missing. So when I was offered a chance to experience this human tornado with a full orchestra, well, I am still looking for the top of my head. Gone. Clean. Totally wow! This is his third album, it has nine songs that provide each of the musicians an opportunity to give it all, and the reason it works is that Derek Brown just loves what he does, and it transfers perfectly between spirit and listener. Everyone is glowing and the sound is strong because they are each enthusiastically giving their all to the now of the wow.
Before going deeper into the new album, I had the opportunity to swap some email with Mr. Brown to ask him about the how and why of the when and the who. You dig?
ROBIN JAMES: Mr. Brown, thank you for your time. My first question, what is listening?
DEREK BROWN: There's a difference between hearing and listening. I think most of us hear a lot of music throughout the day, in the car radio, the grocery stores, elevators, commercials, etc. It probably is becoming more rare these days to actually LISTEN to music, where we're focused on the music, listening to the lyrics, song form, etc. And I'm not judging anybody, because I'm the same way. We have such short attention spans and there's SO MUCH media out there coming at us all the time, it's hard to sit down and focus on listening to something a lot of times. But that's why live concerts are so important these days. Going to a live show forces us to sit down and focus on watching and listening to a something that we paid for; that we got into the car and drove specifically to hear. But it also forces us to break away from the mundane of going through the everyday emotions; forces us to FEEL human again.
RJ: What listening events changed your life as you were developing your ears?
DB: I've only seen DVD and Youtube clips, but the first few times I watched vocal great Bobby McFerrin sing solo live concerts, my musical life was changed forever.
The way he could entertain and enlighten concert halls full of people, with only his voice, with no electronics or effects; just his creativity and virtuosity. It just blew my mind, and I knew I had to try some of these things on the saxophone. If he could sing bass lines, melodies, and percussion all with his monophonic (only one sound at a time) voice, could I do something similar on the sax?
RJ: How would you describe your composition process? How do you do what you do, if someone were to ask you for your secrets of the musican lifestyle?
DB: Listen to a lot of music and learn particularly the chords of your favorite stuff, by ear preferably. I'm very chord/harmony driven, so I usually start there, coming up with chord progressions that sound good to me. People might find this unusual since I play a very non-chordal instrument, the saxophone, that can only play one note at a time. But maybe that's another reason I play like I do, I'm trying to treat the saxophone like a chordal instrument, like a piano or guitar!
But anyways, I like to improvise around with bass lines and chord progressions until I find something I like. Then I'll add a melody on top, repeating this process for other sections of the song (like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc).
And the most important thing I've learned with composition is, it's NEVER going to be perfect or even as good as your best song, but that's okay! Just keep writing in whatever system works for you. I often struggle with this perfectionist attitude, and so I often have to absolutely force myself to finish a darn song! I even started a Twitch channel where I would write a song in 90 minutes, and it wouldn't matter what came out on the other end, as long as I finished it!
RJ: How did you figure out this BEATBoX SAX thing?
DB: A lot of people have assumed I combined the two loves of my life together: beatboxing and saxophone. However, that's not really the case (especially since I've never really ever beatboxed vocally before)! Instead, I had a very normal American music upbringing: playing in concert band and jazz band in high school, and then majoring in classical and jazz saxophone in college. It was only then that I heard various musicians making interesting percussive sounds on their instruments. And never really knowing whether I was more of a classical or jazz or pop saxophonist, I just starting messing around with the instrument. Adding musical things here and there, not knowing where it might lead. Over the years I slowly evolved my playing style, learning to "slap tongue" from contemporary classical saxophone, to hit the instrument from watching fingerstyle guitarists, experimenting with multiphonics from avant garde jazz players, getting my feet involved with stomps from playing the drum set, and even singing while playing since, well...guitarists and pianists do it all the time. Why not on the sax??
RJ: Here is where I want to try going into the deep part... human beings have many unique characteristics compared with other creatures here on Earth, including the use of speech, the act of storytelling, and the preservation of history. What is music?
DB: All of those combined!! I'm a very emotional guy. I want to feel things. When I watch a movie, I want to laugh and I actually WANT to cry! (Maybe I'm weird) Music to me is the most emotional art/entertainment form. People listen to music because they want to FEEL something. Basically they want to FEEL human!
RJ: How did your own parents introduce music to you growing up?
DB: The funny thing is that I didn't even want to play an instrument in school band. My parents actually forced me to pick an instrument and stick with it for at least a couple of years because they knew the value of music education. So begrudgingly I picked the saxophone because it looked pretty cool, but also because it also looked like the most expensive option. If they were going to make me play, they were going to pay!
RJ: If a youngster was interested in making music the center of her life, how would you advise her?
DB: Hmmm....It depends on how brutally honest I want to be....
As much as people say it, it's totally true: Only pursue music as a profession if it totally consumes your life; if it's all you can imagine doing. When you're young, explore it! Have fun with it! But when it's time to pick a career, just know that it's NOT easy. Even someone like me who has millions of Youtube videos and has played in over 30 countries and all 50 states; it's still a daily struggle to keep things moving forward constantly.
But I do think there is a secret to success; maybe even guaranteed success. SUSTAIN IT! Millions of people have sought out a career in music but only a few make it, solely because they stuck with it, through the inspired and (mostly) uninspired times. So the million dollar question, I think, becomes 'How do you sustain a career?' I think it takes 3 things: Stay healthy, keep things challenging, and keep things fun! If you can keep these three things up, you won't get bored, you'll keep growing, and you'll be able to physically keep going!
RJ: What were your most important musical discoveries?
While the various "extended techniques" help me physically play the music in my certain "BEATBoX SAX" way, the most important musical discovery of my life was learning that there are two types of music in this world: good music and bad music. And I love them BOTH!! Or in another way, sometimes I like to challenge myself, to pontificate about serious music, like learning to love a fine wine or steak. And then sometimes...I just want candy!! Sometimes I just want to have fun with music, whether it's serious, funny, complex or simple! I think my music falls somewhere in between art and entertainment, and I'm 100% okay with that!
RJ: What are the most beautiful places you have ever performed in?
DB: One of the most commented on things in my solo Youtube videos are the locations. I absolutely love seeking out and performing in inspiring places, and often these are abandoned, dilapidated buildings. Also, I love finding places with amazing natural reverb/echo, and these old warehouse-y cement buildings usually sound incredible inside! I think the most beautiful place I've ever played was also maybe the most dangerous, inside a half-fallen-apart cathedral in Gary, Indiana. But believe it or not, I actually purchased a film license to shoot there, so it was totally legal! You can see this building in my "I Do" music video on Youtube, but I also filmed other videos in different parts of the building on my tunes "Dyakuyu" and my version of "Ain't No Sunshine."
RJ: What are the most dangerous places you have ever performed in?
DB: Not only do I love exploring abandoned buildings, but I also love heights! A friend and me climbed a huge grain silo and filmed "I Got Rhythm" on top. Not great acoustics, but the views were amazing!
RJ: What would you like to try that you have not tried yet?
DB: Skydiving! (And playing the sax at the same time???) Also, I love learning new instruments, and so I'm just about to rent a cello and learn me some strings!
RJ: Derek, thank you for your candid answers, and I am thrilled about your new album, ALL FIGURED OUT, most of all I am glad you have found new ways to share your enthusiasm with the world!
DB: Long live MUSIC!
RJ: Support your local artists!
Okay, now let us look into listening to the new album, All Figured Out: Derek Brown and the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra. What you will hear is Mr. Brown, the inventor of the BEATBoX SAX with a full orchestra - almost 40 musicians - including the Hope College Brazilian Drumming Ensemble, Hope College Orchestra, The Hope College Jazz Arts Collective and The Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra. They have the power and they show it on every track.
There are vocals only on the title track, the other eight tracks are all pure instrumentals, featuring the saxophone family - Altos, Tenors, Baritones - plus the usual line up with Trombones, Bass Trombones, Trumpets, Guitar, Hammond Organ, Piano, Bass, Drums. On some tracks there is a string section (Violins, Viola, Cello) and of course, the Hope College Brazilian Drumming Ensemble bringing it all back home on the final track.
The first track "Prelude" (0:54) lays out the whole premise in less than a minute, you hear the members of the Hope College Orchestra, you get the full bodied flavor all in one deliciously tantalizing track.
The whole force is there for the entire album, a big room full of musicians. "Human Error" (6:04) Solos: the Derek Brown unit and Madison George on Drums. I hear a solo by Lee Heerspink in there too, everyone is blowing the turkeys out of the trees. Some wailing and fancy steps for sure. Next. A nice uptempo pace, "Again" (6:30) with the whole band. Saxophone solos: Dr. Jordan VanHemert and Derek Brown, mixing up a bright turn around, and then a sleepy wheeling, with a bright and then more of the sleepy, around and around. Yes, to dance! Eyes open or closed, perfect music for motion. All of this album has plenty of energy to light up the sky. Bam! "A Simple Gesture" (8:41) Solos: Mark Wells on Trombone, the Derek Brown unit, Andrew DePree on Piano, plus you can hear the people clapping and shouting from time to time. Yeah! Git it. Everyone approves. The strings are here as well, they get a turn or two too. This is why you climbed to the top, for the "Vantage Point" (9:30). Solos: Mr. Derek Brown and Mr. Clif Metcalf on Hammond Organ, the power is consistent, the sky is lit. You can see forever from up here. The arrangement causes an interesting simulated echo which makes the sky so much bigger, and they brought out the synchronized hand-claps with the percussion on this track too. Blow cats, blow!
The sixth number is the title track, and the only place on the album that has singing on it, just when you think you have it "All Figured Out" (5:52). Vocals/Lyrics: Derek Brown. Solos: Tim Grieme on Alto, Clif Metcalf on Hammond Organ, with Derek Brown as the unit. The story is about attitude, the social skills, and human dynamics. Punch that breath, get that angst energized, ask that question, state the case. What is that coming up next? Strings. "The Pursuit" (6:57) With members of the Hope College Orchestra. Solos: Derek Brown and Caleb Elzinga on Tenor, Madison George on Drums. This is where the strings show off, keeping the pace popping. Fancy interlocking sections, with such a smooth powerful dynamic pace. We are always "Hoping for the Best" (6:40) and it is good to have company. Mr. Brown has his beat thang going, he brings his friends along, and there is the sound made by the people there, shouting out and clapping from time to time. I am going to play this again some more, the neighbors are pounding on the walls but they are beating in time with the music, I think they like it too.
The closer, oh too soon, well, bring it on, it's the longest track: "The Good Fight" (11:42) This is where the Hope College Brazilian Drumming Ensemble gets crazy, plus some grungy guitar madness, and a surprise percussion line thing in there too for a few bars. Don't let it be over. I am going to play it again.
Who are all these Hope/Holland (Michigan) musicians on this album with Derek Brown? Since you asked...
Aaron Hettinga Trombone
Abigail Finnegan Viola
Adam Graham Bass Trombone
Andrew DePree Piano
Anna Janowski Violin, Percussion
Austin Hunt Trumpet
Bill Bier Tenor Sax
Caleb Elzinga Tenor Sax
Carlos Flores Drums
Charlie Jordan Alto Sax
Christopher Fashun Percussion
Clif Metcalf Hammond Organ, Bass
Daniel Wade Trumpet
Elijah Maxwell Tenor Sax
Elizabeth Bachwich Percussion, Cello
Emma Wayland Percussion
Houston Patton Alto Sax
Jordan VanHemert Saxophone Master
Keith Walker Trumpet
Leah Reinardy Piano
Lee Heerspink Guitar
Liam Coussens Bass
Lian Robinson Violin, Percussion
Logan Vanderlaan Trombone
Madison George Drums
Mark Wells Trombone
Mike Hamann Baritone Sax
Patrick McGeehan Baritone Sax
Rick Holland Trumpet
Ryan DeWitt Percussion
Samantha Mattingly Percussion
Shawn Nichols Trumpet
Tim Grieme Alto Sax
Tommy Pancy Tenor Sax
Will Zywicki Trumpet
Bottom line, the music on All Figured Out is not based on a charming freakshow beat-box gimmick, Derek Brown proves that he has the chops as a seasoned and skilled virtuoso saxophone player who consistently delivers excitement and great music because he has found that spot within, that place where great music comes from and he brings his listeners and his fellow musicians there with great passion. I highly recommend checking this out! Do it now.
THE TRACK LIST:
Human Error (6:04)
A Simple Gesture (8:41)
Vantage Point (9:30)
All Figured Out (5:52)
The Pursuit (6:57)
Hoping for the Best (6:40)
The Good Fight (11:42)
Extras: YouTube Gallery
BUT WAIT THERE IS MORE!
Derek also does online tutorials…