Updated November 12, 2014
At his NAC Fourth Stage performance this Saturday, Ottawa pianist Brian Browne will let the music flow. Each beloved jazz standard will inspire the next one, unconstrained by a set list.

Brian Browne ©Brett Delmage, 2010
Brian Browne ©Brett Delmage, 2010
“Most of the time I don't even know what I'm going to play until I go there. I don't even know when I'm there. As a matter of fact, a couple years ago, there's a joke about this, I wrote up a set list. I was forced to write a set list but when I got there I didn't do it. There's nothing more boring than to me than to do a set list.”

Browne said he starts with a “subconscious idea of flow” – what songs flow together well, rather than dictating the order in advance. He doesn't want to have to think about what tune comes next: “I don't want to be thinking – I just want to play. And sometimes if I'm playing a tune, when I'm into it, another tune might pop up into my head that should be next.”

And for Saturday's show, he'll be joined by two “top-drawer” Toronto jazz musicians who will have no trouble keeping up with that flow: bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Terry Clarke. Browne has known and performed with both for decades, but this will be the first time Ottawa audiences will hear them as a trio.

The show will be recorded for a possible CD, which would be Browne's 15th. That means his choice of music will be slightly more limited than usual.

“I don't want to record any songs I recorded on albums before, which is a awful lot of them. So I put a list of songs on a envelope here somewhere, and when the time comes, I'm going to do those. Some of them are just standards, standards like 'Come Rain or Come Shine' and 'Girl Talk' and a few things like that. Just stuff I haven't recorded before, that's all.”

Never the same twice

But other songs – even those he has recorded before – are always a possibility.

“That's how it's always fresh. And as a matter of fact, even if I'm playing songs that I haven't recorded before, I might play songs I've recorded before but they won't necessarily be on the record. I might decide to play 'Autumn Leaves' or something.”

And most importantly, it won't be the same as he played before.

“I could play 'Autumn Leaves' every night of my life and it would be different every night. The only thing that's the same is the title and the framework, the actual skeleton of the actual piece of music. I could play it in different keys, for a different feeling once in a while.

“And that's the beauty of playing the standards because even if the title is the same and the framework is the same, it's like building a house. The frame is the same but every time you play you have different rooms, different walls, different pictures on the wall, different colour rugs. It's always different. And that's what's fresh about playing jazz!”

It's effectively creating a new piece of music on that framework. “When I'm playing, everything I play is a composition. Jazz players, when we're playing, we're composing on the spot. That's why we're crazy!”

A superb command of jazz's common language

The reason why this all works, he said, is that jazz is a common language for musicians. And the better the musicians, the better their command of the language.

“We got beginners, we got young, we got old, some are good, some are no good, some are terrible, some are mediocre, some are phonies, some are bullshitters. The language depends on how articulate you are, how accurate you are in your language, how you speak.”

And playing with Swainson and Clarke, he said, “I'm playing with two other musicians that understand the language absolutely, incredibly well. High-class, really, really experienced, the most talented, learned, professional players you can get. And there are others in the country, too, these aren't the only two guys, but this is the top drawer. Top-notch guys."

Both Swainson and Clarke were raised in B.C., and moved to Toronto in the 1970s, Swainson a few years after Clarke. Browne said he not only played music with each regularly soon after they arrived – he and Swainson also played baseball together every Tuesday on a musicians' team.

Swainson has recorded and toured around the world with pianist George Shearing for almost 20 years. He also regularly recorded and toured with trumpeter and bandleader Woody Shaw, and is a leading player on the Toronto jazz scene.

Clarke played with the pop vocal group “The Fifth Dimension” in the 1960s, before moving to Toronto and then New York and then back to Toronto. He toured with guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Oscar Peterson; he was an original member of Rob McConnell's big band, The Boss Brass and played in it for 25 years. He has been a major force in Toronto's jazz scene for decades.

In the last decade, both have appeared occasionally in Ottawa at Jazzfest or Chamberfest concerts or in visiting Toronto bands, but not often.

Browne compared them both to hockey players: only 1 in 500,000 might make it to the NHL. “It's the same with guys like Terry and Neil. They're that good.”

“And, as a matter of fact, I wouldn't even have to talk to them before the gig. I wouldn't even have to tell them what I'm going to play. I can play a little intro and start a tune and there they are! And that's the beauty of it.”

Cues without words – like Keith Jarrett

Browne said he uses the same technique as Keith Jarrett to cue the other musicians as to what he'll play next. “He plays a little intro and then brings the rhythm in later. And that's what I'll do with these guys. You noodle, you play a little intro, you set the mood, you set the harmonic terrain, and then the guys just fall into it, and away we go! And it's a experience more than a performance. That's the beauty of it. That's why guys like me, we love it.”

He demonstrates on the piano: “Do you know that tune 'If I Should Lose You'?” He plays a few bars, immediately recognizable as the intro to that tune. “I play the intro, the whole chorus so the bass player will hear the changes I'm using, and then I do a little rhythmic intro, and bang! We start into it.”

"The biggest, best piano you can find"

Another special treat at Saturday's show will be the grand piano, a “$160,000 nine-foot Steinway Concert D. The biggest, best piano you can find. So that's a beautiful thing for me. That's a real pleasure for me. That's like driving a Bentley.”

The piano will be on loan from Lauzon Music, a local Steinway dealer, because Browne is a Steinway artist. It's a step up from the Fourth Stage's normal Yamaha, which Browne said is “lovely. But this Steinway, as Kenny [Lauzon] says, is better. It's the best. And it looks so impressive – a big nine-foot Steinway. It takes up half the room.”

All of the show will be recorded, but Browne said he won't decide until next year whether it will become a CD. “Depends if it's any good or not. If it's good it will be put out as a CD. I don't know how soon. Most of the time when I record, I don't like it.”

But he won't even listen to the recording for three months. “And after three months, I'll give it a listen and by then it's far enough away that you can tell how good it is.”

A fun tradition of annual concerts

Browne's piano trio concerts in Ottawa have become a tradition. “It's become an annual thing and it's kind of fun.” He said he regularly sees listeners returning from year to year: “some new people, but always lots of the same old folks.”

He himself has lost track of how long he's been presenting them, but in February, 2007, he did a trio concert to release his CD, Quiet Nights. In November, 2008, he filmed and recorded a CD/DVD at the NAC Fourth Stage, which he released the following year. Then followed a steady stream of annual November concerts, almost all at the Fourth Stage. The most recent was in 2012 with Browne's son, Sean, on bass and Jeff Asselin on drums.

The November, 2013 concert – which was supposed to be with Swainson and Clarke – was cancelled because of Browne's then-ill health. He has since fully recovered.

The concerts regularly sell out, but Browne was particularly happy that the last ticket for this year's show was sold 10 days in advance – earlier than usual. But he's used to large houses: in 2011, his trio very nearly filled Confederation Park for a Jazz Festival show. He said he's also played the NAC's Southam Hall, the NAC Studio, and Library and Archives Canada. The Invitational show he did with John Geggie in 2011 was absolutely packed.

These days, though, listeners aren't spending the same amount on food and drink and “the economy for jazz trios now doesn't exist. So that's why every year I can do one gig with a real good trio and people will come and pay some money. I'm not going to really make much money, but it's OK. A good bunch of people will hear some good music, and that's the way it goes.”

The six-night-a-week jazz trio doesn't exist any more – and I wouldn't want to do it

“Unfortunately, the life of the trio, playing six nights a week, doesn't exist anymore. Or if it did, I wouldn't want to do it. I couldn't sit in the same place nowadays. That's OK in the old days when you're drinking and smoking and getting into trouble, and partying. That's why half the musicians are dead. I was half-dead for a while: I'm fine now.”

“I really drank a lot and I got into a lot of trouble, I really messed up and was a heavy, heavy alcoholic since from the time I was almost a teenager I was like that. But I didn't drink all the time, and during the time when I was sober and straight, and most of the time in fact I was fighting it. I was fighting the fact that I'd go down to a gig and get drunk and I'd come home and get in trouble driving the car.”

Browne credits Alcoholics Anonymous with getting him to stop drinking at age 42. He stopped smoking and using drugs a few years later. “I was always trying to save my life and save the situation. I didn't like that. I didn't like what I was doing. And it wasn't fun. It was a terrible, terrible thing. So I'm really, really happy not to be drinking and smoking dope and smoking cigarettes and all that shit. I'm really happy about that.”

Content, and looking forward

Brian Browne mentors students at Merrickville's Jazz Fest ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Brian Browne mentors students at Merrickville's Jazz Fest ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Browne's long-time weekly solo gig at Juniper Kitchen in Westboro ended at the end of October after 7½ years (the restaurant closed the following week). But he's not feeling discouraged. “I'm quite content. So the gig at Juniper failed, that's OK.”

He has a new CD, a duo album with local jazz vocalist Elise Letourneau which will be released in December, to look forward to. “I just got a copy of it yesterday, just a rough copy, and it is gorgeous! Gorgeous! I'm so proud to be on that thing as a matter of fact. It's just beautiful. And she is incredible, she is the best.”

He plays at other restaurants around town occasionally, and has two upcoming shows at GigSpace: a Christmas show on December 20, and the release show for the CD with Letourneau on January 9.

“So I'm OK. I'm teach, I teach a few here and there, so I'm quite happy. I'm happy to be healthy and alive. And I'm blessed with that, you know. I really am, because I've been through some shit that was terrible.”

    – Alayne McGregor

See Brian Browne play "Autumn Leaves" in the OttawaJazzScene.ca video interview with him and Steve Berndt:

Update November 12, 2014: Brian Browne and Elise Letourneau's CD release concert has been postponed from December 12 until January 9, 2015.