Brian Browne demonstrates a piano point on a virtual keyboard to a Carleton University Jazz camp masterclass  ©2010 Brett Delmage
Brian Browne demonstrates a piano point on a virtual keyboard to a Carleton University Jazz camp masterclass ©2010 Brett Delmage

Ottawa master pianist Brian Browne will be artist-in-residence at Merrickville's Jazz Fest this year. It's a first both for the festival and for him.

He'll be giving a masterclass on Sunday morning, performing with long-time jazz partner Peter Woods in the afternoon, and playing on two numbers in the Blossom Dearie tribute concert that night.

“It's going to be fun. It's going to be a long day ... that's one thing I know. I'm going to be there from the morning to the night. A full-day gig. But I guess that's what it means being artist-in-residence – I have to be in residence all day!”

Festival co-organizer Peggy Holloway said that a Merrickville resident suggested the artist-in-residence concept, including a masterclass – which fit in with her own commitment to increasing music appreciation by young people in their community.

“Brian was the first artist that came to mind as he has always been so supportive of our festival, always so willing to appear for us and we really wanted to acknowledge his accomplishments and his contribution to the Jazz world! With his reputation we aimed for the top!”

Browne's reaction: “I was quite impressed.”

The masterclass is open to the public ($5 admission will be charged), and will include Browne talking about his career and his take on the art of jazz piano, and a brief performance. Then he will work with several pre-selected student pianists, listening to them play and offering comments. The 75-minute class will conclude with a question and answer session open to the audience.

It's a similar format to what he's done at the Carleton University Jazz Camp, where he has worked with 13 or 14 pianists: “just have them play, and then I talk, and then I play, and then they play, and we work stuff out. I'd like it if there was a huge audience of the public there to see how it works. That would be interesting.”

At the Carleton camp, he asked each student in turn why they wanted to play jazz. “The answers varied from 'Well, I like to hear the music and it makes me happy', [to] from a couple classical kids that had never played a note, they said they wanted to break away from the stricture of playing the written notes. They wanted to be able to look down at the keys, believe it or not, Look down at the keys and play without looking at the sheet music all the time. They wanted to be able to make stuff up. They wanted to be able to play stuff from their heart, from their soul, and from their mind, that isn't somebody else's music written on a page that they've been forced to play from the time they are a kid.”

“And then I'd have each of them come up and play a little bit. A couple of classical kids didn't know what to play so I said, 'Well, play a scale or play a classical piece that they had'. And surprisingly enough, most of the classical kids couldn't play unless they had the music with them.”

Browne said his “basic philosophy is just to take them a little further ahead from where they are. Get them on the road. For the classical kids, get them on the road to playing some chord changes and explain a few little things, explain the logic of chord progressions and stuff like that.”

And, most importantly, to inspire them. “Just like I got when I used to study with Oscar [Peterson], or when I was at Berklee studying with Ray “Muzzy” Santisi. If you can be inspired when you come away from your lesson, rather than downtrodden because the teacher said you're not practicing enough or you're not doing this. If you can come away from a little encounter with an established musician, if you can come away inspired, just say 'OK, I'm going to go home and I'm going to practice and I'm going to have fun', that's good. Rather than going away and saying 'Oh jeez, I'm never going to be anything'.”

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A decade of Honest Company

At 4 p.m., Browne will perform with saxophonist Peter Woods in the local Anglican church. In fact, the duo usually does play in churches – “about 75 or 80 per cent of the time” – and a good part of the reason is that Woods is also a United Church minister, based in Smiths Falls. When the two toured the Maritime provinces in late September, Browne said, they played seven evening concerts in seven days, all in churches of the United Church.

They'll play selections from their 2013 CD, Honest Company, and many of Browne's beloved jazz standards. And, most importantly, they'll be playing to their audience.

Peter Woods and Brian Browne: Honest Company CD
Peter Woods and Brian Browne: Honest Company CD
“We do not like to play above the heads of the people we're playing for. We're not going to play some stuff that the people don't understand. We're not going to say 'Oh listen to us, how tricky and superior we are'. So when we're playing in a church, we play nice tunes that the people can recognize.”

And some music from the religious tradition. “So, yes, if we're in a church, we might play a couple more spiritual things and Duke Ellington's “Come Sunday. And he plays “The Preacher”, of course. We play “Down by the Riverside”, and a few other tunes, but generally we just play “God Bless the Child” and “Over the Rainbow” and the standards like that that people know and like.”

The two met in the fall of 2003. Browne had recently returned from a decade in New York City, and was profiled in the Ottawa Citizen. Woods, who needed a piano player for a gig he had booked in Smiths Falls, read the article. “So, as the story goes, he got his nerve up and he called me, and said would you come do a gig on Saturday night? I said 'Sure.'”

The story has turned into an anecdote Woods often repeats in concert, Browne said. Woods didn't actually know Browne, so “he came into town and he bought a CD of mine. And he put it on in his car on the way back. And he got scared. He said 'Holy Mackerel, what have I done, playing with this guy!'”

“Anyway, we got along really, really fine and we've been playing together ever since. We just finished another tour down east, and we've gone out west, we've gone to Northern Ontario. We play all over the place, we've played in Montreal. I play with him a lot and I really like him. We have a nice little mixture.”

A Tribute to Blossom Dearie

Another happy collaboration is with Ottawa singer Caroline Gibson, who is one of a trio of singers performing a tribute to jazz vocalist Blossom Dearie on Sunday evening. Browne has guested on several of her concerts, and said she was fun to perform with.

At the tribute, they'll perform two songs together – including likely reprising their version of “Blossom's Blues” which brought down the house when the show was premiered at the NAC Fourth Stage in 2010.

For jazz fans, the day will be a chance to see Browne in three of the different ways he contributes to the jazz scene – and how comfortable he is in each of them.

    – Alayne McGregor 

Full disclosure: publisher Brett Delmage previously produced video of Caroline Gibson's student vocal recitals and concerts on contract. Merrickville's Jazz Fest arranged a billet for Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage to make it possible for us to report more from the festival during the festival.

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