By Dee Dee McNeil
December 1, 2021
“The Dark Fire Sessions” is Alex Brown’s latest CD release and is a homage to the transformative process of regularly performing music with a group of companions who have become closer than blood. This is his second release as a bandleader and he mixes warm Latin overtones, with sparks of percussion that light up this project, along with his own piano brilliance.
“I started working on this album in 2014. We recorded most of it in 2015 and 2016. It feels great to finally be able to share it. Clearly, we took our time to really try and get it exactly how we wanted it to sound,” you can hear the excitement in Alex Brown’s voice.
His first album was titled, “Paquito D’ Rivera Presents Alex Brown Pianist.” What an honor to be presented to the jazz world stage by such a musical icon. Alex has been a part of Paquito D’ Rivera’s aggregation for nearly fifteen years.
I asked Alex about his long-term relationship with the multiple GRAMMY Award winning Paquito D’ Rivera. Alex shared with me his initial meeting with Paquito when the young musician was being considered for becoming the pianist in his group.
“I was still in school in Boston. I took the train from Newark to meet with Paquito. … He picked me up in his Volkswagen convertible and he was playing the classical radio station in New York. I was so surprised that he was listening to classical music. I thought he’d be listening to Latin jazz. I don’t know why I thought that. It was my ignorance I guess; and I said, oh, you listen to a lot of classical music? He says yeah – if you want to know how to write, you have to listen to it, or something like that. I can’t remember the exact words, but in that moment, I realized he was such a deep musician. I’ve learned so much from him. I mean, musically, over the years, while playing with him; he would never really tell me if I made a mistake unless I repeated it over and over. Some people, if you make a mistake one time, they get right on you. But if I made the same mistake multiple times, then he would tell me about it. He understands how to let people do their thing but not step on their toes too much. And he also taught me to take the music seriously, but not take it too seriously,” Alex chuckled.
Admittedly, Alex is his own worst critic. He is a perfectionist and has to remind himself to be more in touch with the joy of playing music and less in playing it perfectly. After all, jazz is every evolving and changing. It should feel brand new each time you do it. On his recent recording, Alex Brown weaves in his own fiery talents on piano and keyboard, enticing us to enjoy his composer skills. The result is that Alex Brown has recorded a creative and diversified album. Another reason for the album titled, “The Dark Fire Sessions,” is that Alex and his brother, Zach Brown, founded a recording studio and an independent rehearsal studio in Harlem. They named it “The Dark Fire Sessions.” This album was recorded there, during their brief entrepreneurial experience of operating and managing a recording studio.
“My brother and I rented a commercial space in Harlem in 2015 and from scratch turned it into a rehearsal/recording space. Zach did basically all of the work. We called it Dark Fire Studios – hence the name of the album, since most of it was recorded there. We only had it for about a year, but it was a great experience,” the pianist and young entrepreneur shared with me.
Alex Brown is bi-coastal and has relocated to Los Angeles in search of film scoring jobs and new horizons. Now he splits his time between New York City and L.A. He’s a very industrious composer, pianist and percussionist. In fact, it was the study of percussion that opened his eyes and his heart to Latin jazz, with all its possibilities and percussive excitement.
“I played classical percussion in the high school band,” he surprised me with this revelation. “So, our band director, Mr. Lewis Dutrow, was very interested in percussion, even though he was not a percussionist. He had all these bands and different percussion ensembles. So, we met and played music that was only written for percussion. That was one of the ways I was introduced to Brazilian music. We played the Brazilian drums in the ensemble. I was always drawn to Latin music, from when I was younger as well,” Alex told me.
Even before high school, Alex Brown was infatuated with music. His parents exposed both him and his brother Zach to the theater, to classical concerts, music, museums and art. They grew up in one of the newer American cities, Columbia, Maryland. It’s a small city in between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. with schools that offer an abundance of music and art in their curriculums. Columbia, MD was established in June of 1967 as a socio/economically diverse new city by multi-millionaire, engineer and dreamer, James W. Rouse, * who was far ahead of his time believing in constructing buildings and cities that were ergonomically correct and racially diverse. It’s said he was the first man to construct an indoor shopping mall. Columbia consistently ranks on the LIST OF THE BEST PLACES TO LIVE in America and the city is still growing.
*NOTE: James W. Rouse (1914-1996), a native of Easton, Maryland, obtained a job in Baltimore with the Federal Housing Administration, a New Deal agency whose purpose was to promote home ownership and home construction. October 29, 1963, he publicly revealed himself as the buyer, informing the Howard County commissioners that he proposed to develop the land into a “balanced, planned community” that would “fit naturally into the Howard County landscape, preserving the stream valleys, protecting hills and forests, and providing parks and greenbelts.”1
“James Rouse tried to create a utopian community. Well, a lot of the districts in Columbia are literature based, named after authors and poets and stuff. Like there’s a name called Longfellow. There’s an area called Hobbit’s Glen. He designed it in such a way to be inclusive. James Rouse happens to be the grandfather of the actor, Ed Norton. Ed and I went to Wilde Lake high school together, although we didn’t know each other. He’s quite a bit older than me.
“I started classical piano lessons at age six. I didn’t envision becoming a jazz musician right away. In 6th grade, my band director was Nick Ellis and he played the band a record by Maynard Ferguson. That was the moment I was hooked on jazz,” Alex Brown recalled that moment with enthusiasm.
“The Record by Maynard Ferguson blew my mind. I immediately went to the mall, to the Sam Goody store, and bought that album. My parents used to play Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s duet album around the house. I remember loving that album too during that young period of my life,” Alex Brown recalled during an interview with Joe Dimino.
Alex Brown, Zach Brown and Eric Doob are the rhythm section on Brown’s recent CD. These three musicians are close as peas in a pod. They’ve toured the world together playing as a trio for a plethora of years and hold this new project tightly together like magnets to metal.
One of my favorite tunes on Brown’s new album is “Chacarera” that establishes a catchy melody and warm groove. Zach Brown is set free to explore his improvisation on a theme, using strength and creativity on double bass. Chacarera is an Argentinian dance, somewhat like the Tango, that is entrenched in Argentina folk music. The strength of Eric Doob on drums, working in concert with brothers, Alex and Zach Brown, makes for a tenacious trio and rhythm section. Alex talked to me about his infatuation with Latin music and how he met drummer, Eric Doob.
“I met Eric I think in my freshman year of college; 2007. A friend of ours, who I had just recently met, Paulo Stagnaro, (who is one of the main percussionists on my album) his father was and still is one of my biggest mentors to me. His name is Oscar Stagnaro.* He was also a mentor to Eric. Then I met Paulo, his son, who became a really big friend of mine and he said, hey – you have to meet this drummer, Eric Doob. We’ve been a team ever since. Eric got to play with Paquito D’ Rivera for a long time and we got to play together in a lot of different situations where Eric and I played in the rhythm section.”
*NOTE: Bassist, Professor Oscar Stagnaro teaches at Berklee School of Music and is Artistic Director, CLAEM and ALAEMUS, the Congress and the Association of Latin American Music Schools. He has recordings with the Caribbean Jazz Project, NDR and WDR Big Bands, United Nations Orchestra, New York Voice and the Paquito D’ Rivera Quintet
Alex Brown, aside from loving the music of Chick Corea, Wynton Kelly, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock and Danilo Perez, (the great Panamanian pianist who was his teacher for four years) has studied with the great Stanley Cowell. I asked him what he took away from that experience.
“Stanley is a genius and he is someone who completely has his own thing. He approaches music in a very unique way. He is always attempting to learn more himself and to look for new things. He had me looking at music in a completely different way; … exploring various influences. Stanley had me looking back at classical music. I remember one time he told me he was listening to Schoenberg* and he said, sometimes I just get so tired of tonal music. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had never checked out Schoenberg at that time. I wasn’t particularly interested in classical music when I was younger. But now, to be honest with you, I probably listen to more classical music than jazz. Stanley Cowell was an early example of one of my mentors who did that. Of course, there’s a good history of jazz musicians who listen to classical music including Charlie Parker.”
*NOTE: Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg, (September 13, 1874 –July 13, 1951) was an Austrian-born music theorist, teacher, writer and painter. He is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.
Here is “Prayer for Peace” composed by Stanley Cowell and played solo by Alex Brown.
Brown spent his teenage years hanging out in Washington, D.C. on U Street. He described that experience to me and how it influenced his piano playing.
“Well, U Street it’s historically an African American scene in Washington, DC, like Harlem. – an area where great artists would come there and it has a lot of old theaters. It’s also an area where Duke Ellington grew up. That area had a renaissance when I was in high school, if you want to call it that. There was a brief but beautiful time of maybe five or ten years, where maybe the cool thing became having jazz again on U Street. The time I started going down there is when I was about sixteen and got my driver’s license. That was around 2003. I started meeting a lot of local, great musicians and got to play with them including drummer, Nasar Abadey, (he’s a local legend) whose son is a drummer based in New York; Kush Abadey. So many great musicians I got to play with down there. One became one of my favorite piano players, Allyn Johnson. They had a trio with Kris Funn (the great bassist) and Quincy Phillips. … I think Kris has been playing a lot with Joey Alexander. He played with Kenny Garrett for a lot of years. Quincy played with Roy Hargrove the last ten years of his life. I discovered these guys on U Street when I was about eighteen. I learned so much from watching them play,” Alex told me.
Now, settled into West Coast living, he is reimagining his dreams and has landed a few jobs scoring short films and commercials including, “Dear Jane” directed by Noah Kistler. He also composed and performed the music for “Over Blue – Vogue China” and the Zimmermann Spring 2021 Campaign. His love of scoring and arranging became serious when Alex started scoring orchestra charts for his mentor, Paquito D’ Rivera. Paquito saw the young man’s potential and invited Alex to score arrangements for his orchestra.
“A couple of years ago we did a project with this legendary singer/songwriter, Mexican musician named Armando Manzanero* who unfortunately passed away recently. He’s one of the most recorded composers and artists in Latin America. Everyone, including pianist Bill Evans, has recorded his music. So, I got to do a project with Paquito and I arranged nine songs for his album and one of those songs I later arranged for a full orchestra. Armando Manzanero actually came to Mexico City to hear it.”
*NOTE: Armando Manzanero Canché (December 7, 1935 to December 28, 2020) was a Mexican Mayan musician, a singer, composer, actor and music producer who was widely considered the premier Mexican, romantic composer of the postwar era. He’s heralded as one of the most successful composers of Latin America. Manzanero received a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. He was the president of the Mexican Society of Authors and Composers (Sociedad de Autores y Compositores de México).
Below, Alex Brown’s arrangement for Orchestra and the orchestra performance.
As the cherry on top of a sweet and escalating career, Alex Brown has played on two GRAMMY Award winning CDs including Paquito D’ Rivera’s album “Jazz Meets the Classics” that won a 2015 Latin GRAMMY Award.
Brown also played piano on the Brian Lynch Big Band album that came out last year (2020) and won the GRAMMY for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album; “The Omni-American Book Club.”
Here is a young pianist, burning with energy, fueled by talent and supported by some of the best in the business. He’s like that star we place on the tip-top of the tree during this holiday season. Alex Brown is shining brightly, like any rising star at the apex of his game.