Jazz musician James Brown is a composer, first and foremost. His instrument is the guitar – but his multi-layered musical vision extends well beyond that.
He'll play his compositions – some of which were originally written for classical ensembles and some for jazz quintet – when he makes his GigSpace debut on April 1.
It’s a smaller group, however – a duo concert with well-known Toronto bassist Jim Vivian, where they'll also play some standards and music by the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Brown and Vivian have been performing together regularly for two decades – “It's one of the duos that I keep coming back to,” Brown says.
Brown has played jazz in Toronto for more than 20 years, with a who's-who of musicians in Toronto's jazz scene. His recent performance list includes shows with Andrew Downing, Artie Roth, Ernie Tollar, Ted Quinlan, Vivian, and Yvette Tollar, as well as Latin jazz with flutists Bill McBirnie, Christopher Lee, and Christine Beard. He's released four jazz CDs, one collaboration, and three as a leader; the most recent as leader, Sevendaze , featured Don Thompson on piano, Quinsin Nachoff on sax, Vivian on bass, and Anthony Michelli on drums. Brown is on faculty at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where he teaches guitar and jazz improvisation.
As a composer, he's written for everything from solo guitar to symphony orchestra. His pieces have been performed and recorded by ensembles including Orchestra Toronto, the Trinity Chamber Ensemble, and The Montreal Guitar Trio.
This dual perspective on music is not completely surprising given how late Brown came to jazz.
“Like most kids, I got into rock & roll, and that's what hooked me into the guitar initially when I was about 13 years old. My Grade 7 teacher was a guitarist, and he had a lunch-time guitar club. I joined that, and it just led me down the path of playing the guitar."
He played in a few high school bands, but then a friend began taking lessons at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. “He was doing classical guitar and when I heard and witnessed what he was doing, it really grabbed my attention. So I ended up signing up myself at the Conservatory in Toronto.”
He “really dove into classical guitar” for 4 to 5 years, starting at age 16. But he missed writing, which he'd done even in his high school bands.
“I guess I always had this bug of wanting to create my own music, write my own music and then perform it. When I got into classical, it took me away from that a little bit. The classical route was a beautiful style of playing and the music's beautiful, but there's not very much room for composing.”
“But I did do that as well. I have written a good amount of classical guitar music over the years, so I have that part of my output as well.”
But while Brown was studying classical music in Toronto, he became curious about jazz – and started going out to hear Ed Bickert, the most-renowned jazz guitarist in Canada for many years. “I would go down to George's Spaghetti House and the various places he would play in and around town. He inspired me, just hearing what he was doing on electric guitar.”
It was a step-by-step switch to jazz, as he began learning about, meeting, and hearing musicians in the local scene. “The Toronto jazz scene is an incredible scene and there are a lot of really great guitar players, a lot of great musicians. So I just gradually immersed myself in that and started checking people out.”
But Brown didn't remain on the standard guitar trio path of playing standards. “I was influenced by people like Pat Metheny, who's a great composer. I guess composing my own music and playing it on guitar and with other musicians has an important thing for me, so I've gradually moved away from playing standards to playing my own music.”
On Sevendaze, Brown's guitar is clearly present, but doesn't dominate that album's varied and complex sound.
“A lot of my composing is done at the piano as well as at the guitar. For this album in particular, I had such a great band, and I had Don Thompson playing piano, so it only made sense to feature that. And Quinsin playing saxophone. So I was thinking a little more orchestrally as opposed to your standard guitar album, which is heavy on the guitar.”
And he also reworks his jazz compositions as classical pieces – and vice-versa.
“A lot of my music, I see it as being transferable from concert music to jazz music. Many of my compositions have other incarnations as concert music pieces. In fact, there's one piece on Sevendaze entitled 'June Blossom' that also appears in a guitar ensemble composition that I've had performed. I've used that theme, that material to weave a whole other composition.”
“Actually, the first track on that album is 'Three Bags Full'. That first appeared as a piece for viola and string orchestra that I wrote years ago. There's a lot of crossover within my … I reuse material. I guess I get more mileage out of it than just one particular composition.”
On Balliar Con migo , a duo album with classical flute player Christopher Lee, Brown included a composition he'd written two decades before called “Toronto Folk Song”. That piece was also on his first album, played by jazz quartet, and been recorded on a solo album by another guitarist, he said.
In their jazz incarnations, the pieces are shorter and the form is more basic so that musicians can play the melody and then improvise over the chord changes. “And then what I find is that if I want to have a strong composition, a strong melody and chord structure, I can take that composition itself and turn it into a longer, more evolved composition, in the same way that a classical composer would write a symphony or write an orchestral piece or a sonata.”
He's continuing to add to this list of compositions. “I have the material for at least another CD, if not two or three, and it's just the question of getting the money together and getting my act together and getting a grant.” At the GigSpace show, he'll unveil at least one new piece, called “All Rivers Lead Back to You”.
Doing a show with just guitar and bass, as he and Vivian will do in Ottawa, provides “a lot of space and freedom,” Brown said. “We're not being tied down rhythmically. We can move in and out of playing just melody, just chords. I can accompany Jim. Jim can solo more or he can play melodies. It's really like having a conversation, a very intimate conversation between two people and there's no extra clutter.”
He said he hoped it would fit well in an intimate, quiet space like GigSpace. “I've heard great things about the room.”
Brown first played with Jim Vivian when “I hired him for a wedding gig about 20 years ago or so. He's one of the musicians that I would typically hear play at places like George's Spaghetti House, back in the day when I was just learning. He would play with Mike Murley, and then he would play at places like the Montreal Bistro with my heroes, like John Abercrombie.”
“So I worked up the courage one day, and called him up and asked if he would be willing to play with me, and he agreed. And then I just gradually hired him over and over and eventually we started doing gigs of my music. He's on two of my records.”
Vivian initially studied classical bass, and later began focusing more on jazz and improvised music, studying with Dave Holland and Marc Johnson. Besides performing with many Canadian jazz greats and international artists like John Abercrombie, Dave Liebman, and Kenny Wheeler, Vivian is also a member of the chamber music group Ensemble Vivant.
“I think he has just a spectacular tone. He played classical bass for a number of years, so that's probably one of the reasons that his touch and his tone is so amazing. He has a unique voice – there's no bass player that sounds like him and he doesn't sound like anyone else. I suppose he's coming from the Dave Holland lineage, where he's influenced by Dave Holland quite a bit. Yes, he's one of the greats,” Brown said.
One song on Sevendaze is dedicated to Vivian. “Mr. J.V.” begins with an echoing and thoughtful bass solo that finally settles into an energetic riff.
“I'm happy with that one. It's to Mr. Jim Vivian, and it's a play on words, because John Coltrane wrote a tune called 'Mr. P.C.' for his bass player, Paul Chambers. So I called this one 'Mr. J.V.'.”
The tune is in 7/8 time, a time signature not beloved by all jazz musicians, but one he thought fit Vivian. “I've always loved Jim's sense of time and rhythm. It's a very groovy 7/8 bass riff, and when I came up with it, I just thought of Jim.”
At Saturday’s GigSpace show, they'll play several pieces from Sevendaze, and “a whole bunch of new compositions that I've been playing over the last several years”, as well as standards. Brown also loves Joni Mitchell's songs, and he'll include his arrangement of “A Case of You”. And they'll perform “Magical Mystery Tour” by the Beatles “that I've reworked for jazz improv”.
One genre Brown does not compose or play in is country and western – but in the last few weeks he unexpectedly got to perform in Nashville.
He was in that city visiting his sister, and a group of guitarists was performing at the restaurant where they were having dinner. He requested one of his favourite tunes, the Glenn Campbell 60s hit “Wichita Lineman”, which he has played in a jazz improv version.
“I thought, 'The country guys would at least know that one.' And the singer announced that this particular piece had quite a few chords, and he wasn't sure if he could play it. He pointed to me in the audience, and said, 'Well, can you play it?' Next thing I know, I'm on stage playing with these guys.”
“So I've officially made my Nashville debut.”
– Alayne McGregor
James Brown makes his GigSpace debut with Jim Vivian on Saturday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance. GigSpace is located within in Alcorn Music Studios at 953 Gladstone Avenue, one long block west of Preston Avenue.