Soaring orchestral strings, clarion vibe work and a fat, juicy sax are not sounds you would expect to hear under one musical roof, but there you have it: a sparkling and spanking new album from “Beatbox Sax” musician Derek Brown called “All Figured Out” featuring his recent collab with the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra. The result is highly unusual and eminently musical. Among the nine tracks are songs like the quirky “Human Error” that flirts via syncopation and tricky rat-a-tat rhythmic turns (Brown’s sax speaks, insists, screams). “Again” is full of woodwind swells that are nostalgically evocative of a Sammy Nestico anthem which become melodically surprising and happily unpredictable. A complex and technically astounding human-beatbox-on-sax, Brown opens “A Simple Gesture” with awesome timing, soon joined by HCJO whose horns and strings sound like musical love and freedom, and, it must be noted, the trombonist is a brilliant, spine-tingling standout on this track.
You are known for beatbox sax. Explain how you got there.
While I wish I could say I got my start on the streets of New York City combining the two loves of my life, beatboxing and saxophone, it’s not quite that fanciful! Instead, I had a pretty traditional American music upbringing: playing in marching band and jazz band in high school, and then majoring in classical and jazz in college. It was during then that I heard various instrumentalists making interesting percussive sounds on their instruments.
While not knowing where things might lead, I slowly evolved my playing style, learning to “slap tongue” from contemporary classical players, to hit the instrument from watching fingerstyle guitarists, playing multiphonics from avant-garde jazz players, stomping my feet from playing the drum set, and singing while playing from, well… being a little jealous of guitar/piano players who also sang.
Needless to say, I’m pretty rough on the saxophone and probably on my body too! Doing my solo shows, which can be up to 90 minutes of just me on stage playing the saxophone in this way, gets pretty tiring after a while. So I do have to make sure I’m playing things with a minimal amount of tension in my hands, breathe from the diaphragm, etc. and just stay in shape in general.
How did you meet up with the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra?
After living in Chicago for a while, my wife and I borrowed an RV and I did what I called my “FiftyFifty Tour” playing over 50 gigs in all 50 states. It was a blast doing this for 9 months, and right afterwards we had a baby! We decided to move a bit closer to family back home and set up shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Earlier I had graduated from Hope College, just next door in Holland, Michigan, and so when looking for a good big band to play my new material I reached out to Jordan VanHemert, the jazz director at Hope, who also leads the excellent Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra.
This album is different from what you have done recently- so what’s it like to make a transition to the big band experience?
While it’s a TON more work writing for 17+ musicians (compared to typically writing just for myself), I again realized how fun it can be playing with other musicians for a change. After sort of “finding my voice” doing all the solo extended technique stuff on the saxophone, it felt like a logical next step would be to incorporate this style with other musicians. Additionally, I really like big, powerful, epic music, and I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty hard to create all that with one acoustic saxophone (although God knows I sure try).
Writing for a full jazz ensemble, and even adding in a string quartet, organ and occasionally a Brazilian drumming ensemble allows me to take the music as far as I want. Now it’s going to be tough going back to playing by myself again!
What was the original inspiration for “All Figured Out”?
The album name and song “All Figured Out” is clearly meant to be ironic (hence the backwards letters and my confused look on the album cover). Its meaning is twofold: 1) It refers to the fact that we “professionals” are expected to know it all and be perfect, when in reality we’re waiting for that terrible day when everyone realizes we don’t know what the heck we’re doing (especially when someone likes me composes a full big band album); and 2) in these extremely politically polarizing times, neither side seems willing to give a listen or thought to the other side’s viewpoint, because (as my song lyrics say) “We think we got it all figured out.” And while I definitely believe it’s fine or even good to pick a side at various times, we can always learn something from listening to those who disagree.
What were the highlights of production- biggest challenge? Most rewarding aspect?
Other than learning to write parts for instruments I don’t play (how do you write a drum set part after all), the biggest challenge was creating this whole project with a VERY limited budget. My previous two “studio” albums I recorded by myself in my bedroom with a laptop. And now I’m trying to record up to 25 musicians at the same time. The solution to this came about from meeting director Jordan VanHemert, who suggested we record at the new Hope College recording studio. We even get some of the Hope students involved, which is where we got members of Dr. Christopher Fashun’s orchestra and Brazilian drumming ensemble.
And this leads to the biggest reward. It was such fun working with the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra and all these college students (including the Hope College Jazz Arts Collective), and I’m extremely grateful for the donation of their time and talents. Before recording (and before the pandemic) we did a live concert at Hope, and even had a live studio audience to cheer us on during some of the recording sessions. Such a blast!
Are these original songs? What was it like composing for so many different instruments?
For my previous solo albums and youtube videos, I’ve done a lot of cover songs: everything from Bach to The Police. I wasn’t opposed to doing any cover songs this time around, but I guess I was inspired enough with the original stuff I was writing myself so I just stuck to that.
Some of the tunes came from my own solo originals; some came from small group stuff I had done in Chicago that I fleshed out with the much bigger band, and some were written from the beginning with the whole band in mind.
It wasn’t always easy writing for so many musicians, but ultimately it was very rewarding because it allowed me to take my music to a whole new level where I couldn’t have taken it before. For instance, my favorite part of the whole album is the last minute and a half of “Vantage Point” where I’m not soloing or even playing a lead part. But the whole band is just creating this huge, driving “arena rock-like” sound that’s WAY bigger and more energizing than anything I could ever dream to do on my own.
How have your marketing strategies changed since the pandemic?
Like everything in my life, it’s definitely been a big learning curve, trying to navigate the unknown of all of this. The good news is that my biggest “marketing strategy” (even though I don’t usually think of it like that) has always been my music videos on YouTube. And even though I have a love-hate relationship with social media, if it wasn’t for YouTube there’s no way I’d have a full-time career in music right now.
What I do on the saxophone doesn’t neatly fit into common genres, and it would take a pretty far-out-there booking agent or music label to hear my early stuff and want to work with me. But because I’m able to create and share my own stuff online, it’s possible for anyone around the world to hear it. And as I tell music students at clinics, if you want to get noticed, don’t try to water-down your interests and pursuits to make the most amount of people like it. Instead get as specific and “nerdy” as you can, and because the world is so vast and because you’re so unique, little pockets of people from all over will find and follow you. And a bunch of those little pockets can add up to something sustainable for you.
What have you learned most recently and how have you grown as a musician (musically speaking and/or the business side of things)?
As frustrating as the pandemic has been for my career, it’s helped me understand the most important things in life. Making a living with just your music full-time is TOUGH. And it can completely consume your life without you even realizing it. For instance, everything can be going great in your career, and you see another musician get a magazine feature that you wanted. And now you’re nothing but depressed, even though things are still going great!
So while I’m glad I’ve gone down the musical road I have, with all its ups and downs, I’m also grateful for this current time to reflect and realize how far I’ve come, but even more importantly, recognizing all the non-musical miracles I have in my life: good health, a wonderful family, a house, and many, many other things. You can work 80 hours a week and accomplish all your work goals and life’s still over like that. I’ve got to learn to actually enjoy every step, or what’s the point?
Thanks Debbie for your interest in what I’m doing! It can be difficult getting jazz journalists/writers to listen to my music since, like mentioned before, I don’t neatly fit into a jazz category, or classical, or pop style. But I think that’s precisely how I’ve learned to make my mark in the musical world, by drawing a bit from all my favorite musical influences: from Bobby McFerrin, to Sonny Rollins, to Green Day, to Rachmaninoff, to Justin Bieber. As I like to say, there are two types of music in this world: Good music and bad music. And I like them both!
For more information visit www.derekbrownsax.com.