Incendiary Intensity from Derek Brown in “All Figured Out”

A sax is a playground to Derek Brown, who has perfected a “slap-tongue” technique that explores the instrument percussively while being extremely lyrical. He has drawn inspiration, he says, from disparate musicians as Bobby McFerrin, Sonny Rollins, Green Day, Rachmaninoff and Justin Bieber.

In his newest CD “All Figured Out,” Brown uses funk and bounce and an incredible facility with punching out rhythms and is lovingly accompanied by the hot, tight Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra. “A Simple Gesture” is a strong cup of coffee with amazing, in-the-bullseye solos traded throughout the band featuring incredibly gymnastic mouth work from Brown. The catchy “Again” with its overlapping layers and totally enveloping big band wall of sound has some surprise modulations wrapped up in brass and a satisfying tempo. “The Good Fight” is colorful and thoughtfully paced (with amazing clarinet harmony) and has countless different parts that come together and snap in place perfectly at the end. This album is reassuring proof that the individual artist and the big band can not only play nicely together but that the collab shows all participants in their strongest light.

How did you get into the beatbox sound and does it take a toll on your embouchure and your thumbs?

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, but 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 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, 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, 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 nine 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. 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 realized how much fun it would 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 to incorporate this style with other musicians.

I really like big, powerful, epic music, and it’s pretty hard to create all that with one acoustic saxophone (although God knows I sure try)! But writing for a full jazz ensemble, and even adding in a string quartet, organ, and a Brazilian drumming ensemble occasionally, 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, referring 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; and that in these extremely politically polarized times, neither side seems willing to give a listen or thought to the other side’s view point, because (as my song lyrics say) “We think we got it all figured out.” And while I definitely believe it’s fine to pick a side at various times, we can always learn something from listening to those that 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, and even get some of the Hope students involved, which is from where we got members of Dr. Christopher Fashun’s orchestra and Brazilian drumming ensemble. 

This has led to the biggest reward, working with the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra and all these college students (including the Hope College Jazz Arts Collective). 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!

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 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. Though it wasn’t always easy writing for so many musicians, 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. 

What have you learned and how have you grown as a musician since the pandemic?

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? 

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