The late 1990s were hell for the drummer and composer Jaimeo Brown, before he heard hints of heaven in the spirituals of the quilters in Gee's Bend, Ala., and in the entrancing tabla rhythms and plaintive singing of East Indian traditions.
As an undergraduate music student at William Paterson University, Brown was having relationship problems, housing problems, and was in a bad car accident. It was a "crisis moment," he says. But music held "beauty that I was able to discover in the midst of pain," and gradually it transported him to an ecstatic flip side of that pain, a place where "the light is blinding."
Brown went on to earn a master's in music and composition at Rutgers University, and included a discussion of the Gee's Bend singers in his thesis, "How the Black Church Affected Jazz." He then started a remarkable career playing jazz with the Charles Mingus Band, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and the pianist Geri Allen; hip-hop with the rapper and producer Q-Tip; R&B with Stevie Wonder; and the high-profile roster goes on.
But Brown, 34, never forgot the haunting chants of those isolated Alabama quilters, in recordings from 1941 and 2002, which had been produced by Tinwood Media in a double CD called How We Got Over. And the work of the Indian singer Parveen Sultana, "almost like this primal crying out to the creator," Brown says, "made me understand the common denominator" of spiritual music across geographies. Steeped for years in academic credentialism and commercial bona fides, he thought hard about "not just what I was playing but why I was playing."
That introspective voyage led to Transcendence, his new album from Motema Music, in collaboration with, among others, J.D. Allen on tenor sax, Chris Sholar on guitars and electronics, Geri Allen on piano, and the Indian-born singer Falu. Though he now lives in Paterson, N.J., Brown comes from a San Francisco Bay Area family of musicians, and we also hear guest appearances on the CD by his sister, the singer Marisha Brown; his father, the bassist Dartanyan Brown; his mother, the pianist and woodwind player Marcia Miget; and even his 3-year-old daughter, Selah, briefly on vocals.
Transcendence melds hip-hop sampling methods, cross-cultural singing, rock guitar licks, and an intimate jazz-improv aesthetic into a distinctive amalgam. The samples are treated less as repetitive rhythm drivers or nostalgia-infused hooks than as swatches by guest artists integral to each composition. And Brown's combo incorporates the samples when it plays live, wrapping world-weary but determined songs like "You Can't Hide" and "The World Ain't My Home," in studio and on stage alike, into subtle studies of call and response. In contrast, on "Patience," the vocal sampling comes in late, reverbed like a voice from beyond.
Live performance of “This World Ain’t My Home,” from Jaimeo Brown’s album Transcendence.
Brown was headed to Europe for a Transcendence tour the day after we spoke. For this fall, he's got another album lined up, similar in approach but "exploring different grooves." He hopes that listeners get into it, but "being a jazz musician in general, you're not doing it for the money," he says. "You're doing it because something strong drives you to go against the grain already."
Against the grain or, in the case of Chuck Owen, with the current.
When a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship gave the composer, bandleader, and professor of jazz composition at the University of South Florida the breathing room to tackle a large-scale project, he knew, he says, that he needed "something that would unite it." What theme might channel the musical motifs zipping around the mind of the lifelong canoeist and rafter? Rivers.
They had inspired a previous extended piece, Confluences—for Trumpet, Trombone, and String Quintet. And they did again in what became River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone, and Orchestra,new from Mama Records.
The six-section opus draws on Owen's experiences, from scouting days as a kid to trips with his children.
Decades ago, after studying music education and trombone at the University of North Texas, and then orchestral conducting at California State University at Northridge, Owen apprenticed with the film composer Patrick Williams (Breaking Away, All of Me, Swing Shift). And the blend of jazz and classical elements in River Runs has a restless, cinematic feel. The saxophonist and flautist Dave Liebman calls it "Coplandesque in scope, suitable as a score for an epic Hollywood movie." Owen's varied and vigorous orchestration features the strings' pizzicato rapids and eerie, bowed cirrus clouds of high treble; bracing big-band brass glissandi; supple Pat Metheny-type guitar undulations; sly sax scrambles; even some down-home fiddling.
To record the work at Tampa's Morrisound Recording, Owen and the co-producer, Tom Morris, supplemented Jazz Surge, a big band Owen organized in 1995, with strings and French horns, plus additional winds, percussion, and harp. The soloists are Owen's USF colleagues Jack Wilkins, on sax, and the guitarist LaRue Nickelson.
Excerpts from Chuck Owen’s River Runs.
The work puts in with the prologue, "Dawn at River's Edge." "The paddlers wait anxiously to embark on their adventure," as Owen describes in liner notes. Then "Bound Away" echoes the excitement (and terror) Owen felt as an Explorer Scout on the New River headed toward a gorge drop and riding a "raft made of over 50 truck inner tubes lashed together with ... wood and rope. Piling 13 or 14 of us on the raft, it was slow and quite ungainly—but amazingly durable!"
The brooding second movement relates the "confused, insignificant, and utterly lost" feeling boaters get in the "Dark Waters, Slow Waters" of Florida's Hillsborough River, "beautiful" but "often unsettling" with their swamps, their dripping Spanish moss, their snakes, spiders, and gators.
With syncopated alternating seven- and eight-beat patterns, "Chutes and Wave Trains" jauntily celebrates the Chattooga River's fast funnel currents and the roller-coaster waves below a rapid.
And "A Ridge Away," adapted from an earlier project, suggests the afternoon hikes once ashore, on which Owen has "discovered waterfalls, thermally heated pools, petroglyphs, abandoned cabins," and the "layered view of countless other ridges" beyond.
Trips down the Salmon River, the awe-inspiring and treacherous "river of no return," inspired the fifth movement, named with a phrase borrowed from Frost, "Perhaps the Better Claim."
Although he still has a teenage son at home, Owen, 59, is a young grandfather now, too, and had barely started composing when his father died, in early 2010. The cumulative effect of his new work is bittersweet, calling to mind not just trips taken but also time's obscure downstreams and deltas, all the trips one never gets to take.
"Other than just kind of the grandeur that you're immersed in," Owen says when discussing "A Ridge Away," "I'll pick a point that I see in the distance, and I'll start wondering about that point." And a melancholy recognition sets in "that I'll never be there."