Trumpeter and bandleader Brownman is a busy, busy guy. He leads seven groups of his own and, by his own count, is the featured trumpet player for another 37 internationally. He’s even had a documentary made on his life and career (http://vimeo.com/16725046), and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
One of Brownman’s groups, the Brownman Electryc Trio, won this year’s Toronto Independent Music Award (TIMA) for Best Jazz Group. He answered some questions via email for us recently, and by “answered,” we mean “dove in with gusto.”
Raz Mataz Magazine (RMM): Has your recent TIMA win affected your career? Are you generally pro- or con-award?
Brownman: That’s a tricky question to answer. Speaking as an artist, awards are generally meaningless. They are an acknowledgement of an artist’s contributions – and all artists should be grateful for that acknowledgement – I know I am. . . but beyond that, awards are meaningless. It isn’t an indicator of one’s abilities, nor is it even an indicator of one’s acclaim or stature. We’ve all seen award-winning artists who sound terrible. . . and brilliant artists who toil in obscurity. But that’s my answer as an artist. If you ask me as the head of a record label, my answer is different. Awards garner artists visibility and additional opportunities, so they’re very important from a business standpoint, if you’re interested in forwarding your brand or if you’re interested in propagating your artistry beyond the basement where you rehearse. It’s a complicated answer to that question, brother. As an artist – I can’t afford to care too much, but am always grateful to be acknowledged for the body of work I continue to build. . . but as a music businessman, awards are vital to getting your art noticed, and vital to the propagation of your visions.
So when handed an award, I just say thanks. . . then put on my shoes and get to the next gig.
RMM: You do a lot of session work, but you also lead several bands. Do you delineate the two, or do you feel that you can be your artistic self during someone else’s session just as well as you can when you’re the boss?
Brownman: I gear shift.
When I’m in the studio, in a session – I’m a tool to be used by the producer to help achieve another artist’s visions. My own ego and needs are sublimated – they have to be, in order to give yourself over to the other artist’s vision. But when I’m leading a group, I shift gears. . . and then my own visions and artistic needs take precedence. Randy [Brecker, a musician whom Brownman was a protege of] and I used to talk about this at length when I was in New York studying with him. The idea of giving 100 percent of your abilities to the session in an ego-free manner, in order to help another artist achieve what they see in their minds. And then, in turn, being so self-aware, artistically, that when you’re leading a group you’re fully in charge and able to communicate and delineate your own artistic visions clearly and efficiently. It took me a long time to be able to do that – to shift gears and sublimate one’s own ego for the sake of the evolution of a session.
You asked if one can still be one’s own artistic self during a session; I think you have to be very careful about drawing lines on how much of your own artistry you contribute. Because an artist usually has a vision. The greater the depth of the artist, the more defined and specific the vision. So if I’m being hired as a session musician for such an artist, they usually have a very specific job in mind. You can’t bring your own agendas to that kinda gig (unless they’re specifically asking for it). It gets interesting when the call is for an improvised solo (which are about 80 percent of the session calls I get are for, the rest being stock horn-section type work). You’re then getting called because another artist wants your own unique voice on that track. But you still have to give the track what it needs. . . and not what you necessarily want. It becomes an interesting balancing act between your own artistic voice, and the track’s own musical requirements.
I love being a session musician for that reason. Being a band leader is easy – you do whatever you want and have complete control over things. But as a session musician – you have to be much more nuanced and varied in what you deliver – because it’s for someone else.
Sometimes jingles are really hard for that reason. I remember once having to do a car commercial, and was improvising as this car was winding it’s way up a mountain on the video monitor. The producer stops me and goes, “That’s great Brown – but we’re looking for something a little more “mountainous”. Can you give us that?”. Mountainous? The hell is that?! But that’s the interesting challenge. So, I tried it again, and tried to be more “mountainous”. They liked that take more, and I was done in ten minutes. But see what I’m saying? You have to push your own ego or urge to dismiss “mountainous” as ridiculous – and try and dig down and find what that moment of music needs. I love session work for that reason, be it Keg Steakhouse commercials, or laying tracks for Quincy Jones – you still have to give the client what they want, and push your own ego aside to do it.
RMM: Your work is on the same continuum as artists like Miles Davis, equally interested in the past and the future (with the Electryc Trio owing a particular debt to Miles’ electric period). Is that just a function of being a jazz musician, having one foot in the past by definition? How do you feel about the future of jazz?
Brownman: First of all, I’m honoured that you noticed, brother! Because there’s a broad spectrum to my work; not everyone knows the full gambit of what I do. But to answer your question – yes – I think it’s vital to know where you came from. Jazz is built on a lineage, so to be a modern jazz musician you must be aware of the past. You need to know where you came from, in order to know where you’re going. You can hear jazz musicians without a knowledge of the lineage the second they start to solo. . . and I’m very uninterested in that kind of jazz musician. As an improviser, I feel that our greatest responsibility is to try and create in as genuine a manner as possible – to dig as deeply as possibly and express whatever we need to, inside the framework of the genre. And to effectively do that, you have to study the genre and immerse yourself. Randy Brecker has always been a huge influence on me for this reason. Because no matter what he’s playing – be it hard-swinging jazz or Brazilian samba or modern jazz-funk, he always delivers a personal concept and sound. You can pick him out of a lineup, he’s so unique and distinct. . . like Miles.
As for the future of jazz. . . it’s a bleak time right now in Toronto. Jazz clubs are closing (Pero Lounge closed last year, Trane Studio just closed, and Quotes is closing in the new year) and people just don’t care as much for this music as they have in the past. Part of that is simply because it’s now considered “art music” and completely out of mainstream visibility. And the record labels are gone and/or powerless.
So musicians have to re-think everything. Cats now have to, on their own, try and get venues who wouldn’t normally book jazz to try and pay the artform some attention. But more than that – leaders have to re-think how they get their music out into the world. Those who aren’t afraid or ashamed to take their own artistry seriously, promote and propagate it on their own terms – those are the cats who will survive.
But those still waiting for a record label to show them the end of the rainbow will be jacked. Because there’s no more rainbow . . . no more pot of gold. . . no more golden era. Those who don’t want to do the work required to propagate their own artistry (or build a team to help them to do it) won’t last long in this new paradigm. There’s only us – the musicians – and those who love music. We can now build direct relationships with our fanbase. . . but it’s hard work. Those who are unwilling to acknowledge the industry has changed. . . and then change with it, will have a rough time in the future.
Ironically – though the business side of things may seem bleak – some of the actual music being made by young jazz musicians right now is some of the most exciting jazz I’ve ever heard come out of the country.
Man, Toronto is so filled with monster 20-something talent that no one wants to give a chance, ’cause they’re so young. But I’m tellin’ you – as Miles already knew – if you’re patient, and give these guys the opportunities to make great music, they’ll amaze you. Most important to let them know it’s okay to fail. I think a lot of Canadian jazz is so safe, and so antiseptic, and so lacking in any driving passion because it’s risk-free, meanwhile these kids aren’t afraid to fall on their ass. I encourage it. It forces them to adapt. And adaptability is the most important quality to playing in any musical context.
RMM: Raz Mataz focuses on independent and up-and-coming artists. Any tips for hungry young musicians?
Brownman: Be versatile. Be adaptable. Be knowledgeable. Be open. Be prepared.
Don’t disillusion yourselves into wanting rockstar fame and fortune. Reality TV and a programming gig at Microsoft will bring you those things. . . but if you want to be an artist – work on the fundamentals of your craft first, then work hard at developing your own voice. Nothing is more important than having a unique voice and being truly expressive with it, regardless of genre or instrument – everyone will eventually want to hear that one-of-a-kind voice, if you’re truly one-of-a-kind.
For more information on Brownman and his various projects, visit www.Brownman.com.