Pianist Alex Brown: Why the Jazz World Beats Classical
At the Kennedy Center's incandescent "Jazz Meets the Classics" concert on Monday, the Paquito D'Rivera quintet did a strong set of Latin takes on classical repertoire. Standing out in those arrangements was the band's 22-year-old piano player, Alex Brown, who switched back and forth between swing and conservatory stylings with such ease it was like he was born with the know-how.
Brown, a native of Columbia, Md., has been a regular performer at the D.C. Jazz Festival for several years despite his youth, and will continue that tradition tonight in a midnight trio performance at Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan. Ahead of that performance, he spoke with Washington City Paper about growing up in the D.C. area, deciding between classical and jazz piano, and developing as a composer in his own right.
Washington City Paper: So tell me about your background. Did you go to any performing arts schools before New England Conservatory?
Alex Brown: No, actually. I grew up in Columbia, Md., and went to the public schools right here in Howard County. I graduated from Wilde Lake High School, which had a great performing arts program. That’s actually why I decided to go there instead of looking at the performing arts schools, because I knew they had such a great reputation in their music department.
WCP: When did you start playing?
AB: I started playing piano when I was 6 years old. Taking lessons. I was taking one of those childhood, music-for-kids things, and my parents asked me if I wanted to play an instrument and I said yes. They asked me what I wanted to play and I said piano. My grandmother gave us her old baby grand piano, which was perfect since I had an instrument that I could use.
WCP: It seemed pretty clear from the “Jazz Meets the Classics” concert that you have at least some classical training. Was that your initial intention?
AB: Yes. I started off studying classical, and up through my freshman year of college I was still studying with a classical teacher. I started doing jazz as well when I was about 11 and started taking private jazz lessons. I still love classical music a lot, and still play it—well, try to play it. But I just love the freedom of jazz, being able to write my own music, and you just have so much more freedom in terms of interpretation, in terms of the improvisational element.
As I got older, I realized—well, first of all, if you want to be a classical musician, you really have to practice a lot. Not that you don’t have to practice a lot to play jazz, but I don’t enjoy sitting in a room eight hours a day playing the same passage over and over and over again. It’s just so much dedication and there’s so many amazing, virtuosic pianists, and it’s so competitive. Again, not that jazz isn’t competitive, but classical requires so much discipline, and maybe I just don’t have the discipline to do it. (chuckles)
I also feel like the jazz community is for the most part is such a warm community—it’s all about playing together, meeting new people, and stuff like that. Whereas the classical community always felt more competitive. People are in all these competitions. Jazz has some competitions, but that’s basically what the classical world is. You’re competing. For that orchestra gig or whatever.
WCP: So how did that inform your experience at New England Conservatory, where there’s a lot of emphasis on stylistic crossover?
AB: Well, that was a lot of why I really loved going there. I got to study jazz with one of my favorite pianists of all time, Danilo Perez, and that’s one of the reasons I went there. He was teaching there at the time and he was my teacher for four years. But on the other hand, I took a 16th-century counterpoint class, which was just amazing; took orchestration and arranging; took this incredible class about Stravinsky and Schoenberg, so it was really the best of both worlds. I also took Jewish Music Traditions, and I took one called “Development of Personal Style,” where we looked at anything from bitonal classical music to James Brown. A pretty eclectic mix of music.
WCP: So you’ve been playing the festival since 2007, when you were 20?
AB: I think so. Well, actually, my first performance at the festival in 2006, and it was just coincidence, and that’s how I got hooked up with Paquito. I was a sophomore in college, and I’d been wanting to take the Afro-Cuban Music Ensemble. But it was directed by Oscar Stagnaro, the bassist in Paquito’s band. He first recommended me to the drummer Mark Walker, Paquito’s drummer—also in Boston—for a rehearsal with Mark’s band, and I was so excited to get the e-mail from him. So I played a rehearsal with Mark’s music at Berklee. I didn’t actually play at the concert, though they invited me to sit in. And a couple weeks later, Oscar and Mark were going to be in D.C. for the Jazz Fest, with Paquito, and they were doing this trio gig at Bossa in Adams Morgan. The pianist couldn’t make that one gig, and Oscar knew I was from D.C. so they asked me if I wanted to make the gig with them. Coincidentally, I had to be in town that week anyway, for something else, and I would have come anyway just because I was so excited to play with those guys.
They invited Paquito to come to the gig, and I was so nervous about playing this little keyboard in front of Paquito. I didn’t think I knew anything about Latin music; they were playing all this Brazilian stuff, and I didn’t know any of the tunes. I had never played any Brazilian music before, apart from the typical bossa-nova tunes you’d play on a jazz gig. But Paquito asked me for my card; I didn’t expect to ever hear anything again, after the way I sounded that night. But about two months later I got a hilarious e-mail from him, asking a bunch of questions and if I was interested in playing with him.
WCP: And that got your foot in the door for solo gigs at the festival?
AB: Yeah. It was also funny, because I don’t think Charlie Fishman had any idea who I was, and I kept bugging him for a gig. Then a few months later he gets a call from Paquito that I’m his piano player, too. Had to hear a lot from me, I guess (chuckles).
WCP: Do you have other regular gigs, besides Paquito’s?
AB: That’s really my only regular gig on that level. I play occasionally with other people, and get calls for other things locally. And I’ve also been working on getting stuff happening for my own band. Most of the time that’s a quartet, but we’ve got some things coming up as a trio.
WCP: Tell me about your development as a composer, as well.
AB: Well, I didn’t study composition formally, but it was something I was always working on—trying to write. I found an old notebook where even when I was a kid, I was doing stuff. I would just have fun with it; whether it was good or not, I would just enjoy creating. When I was a senior in high school I did this thing called the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. It was a big band workshop, basically a master class where they’d go through everyone’s compositions and give feedback. Once every month they’d put together a band and go through the compositions.
WCP: How does that fit in with what you’re doing these days?
AB: Well, I like to play my own music in my band; we do some arrangements, but mostly original compositions. I’m realizing that I have to write some new stuff, too, because I’m getting sick of the stuff we’ve been playing! (laughs)
WCP: Who’s the usual lineup in the band?
AB: Recently, it’s come to be Tim Green on saxophone; my brother, Zach Brown, who’s an amazing bass player; and a great drummer named Eric Doob. Zach and Eric will be performing with me in a trio at Cashion’s.