2013 may finally be Donald Brown’s year.
After sharing Grammy nominations in three categories earlier this year (two for production on Kenny Garrett’s album “Seeds From the Underground” and one co-writing of a song on Denise Donatelli’s album “Soul Shadows”), returning to playing piano after a year-long hiatus due for medical reasons, and releasing his new album “Born to Be Blue,” Brown may be on the verge of getting the recognition that in-the-know jazz lovers have known he deserves.
Wynton Marsalis, Brown’s former bandmate in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the man who nicknamed Brown “Silk,” once called Brown a “harmonic genius.”
“Now that I’m getting better it’s time to take advantage of the buzz that’s going on,” says Brown, over lunch at Chandler’s on Magnolia.
Brown has just finished producing another album for Kenny Garrett (who also performs on Brown’s new disc) and other artists are inquiring about Brown’s production schedule. Artists are also beginning to record Brown’s compositions.
Born in Hernando, Miss., and rasied in Memphis, Brown worked as a session musician at Hi Records (often playing bass) and backing up soul and R&B greats on the road. He later performed in the Jazz Messengers and taught at the Berklee School of Music in Boston before moving to Knoxville in 1988 to teach at the University of Tennessee. His arrival invigorated the local jazz scene and he helped bring attention to local musicians. Fellow musicians, including legends Joe Henderson and Dave Brubeck sang his praises, but he remained known mostly to serious jazz aficionados.
Much of that is due to Brown’s chronic problems with his hands and shoulders, both from arthritis and other physical ailments. It has become almost a routine for Brown enduring pain for long periods, followed by surgeries and physical therapy. Shows and tours that would’ve helped his career had to be put on hold or abandoned. The most recent derailment, surgery for a torn ligament, was particularly hard.
“I was very depressed,” says Brown. “Those were very dark times. I was really scared. I felt like I might never play piano again. I could sit at the piano and put my hands on the keys, but I couldn’t press anything.”
During his recuperation he began performing at local clubs as a sideman playing electric bass. He also began hearing from former students for whom his teaching had had a big impact.
“Having those things happen while I couldn’t play it meant more to me than I can say,” says Brown. “It’s sort of like raising kids. You do what you’re supposed to do and you don’t expect a pat on the back. But then later you realize you must have done all right.”
It took some prodding for Brown to return to the studio to perform on piano again.
“My manager was trying to get me to do it 8 or 9 years earlier,” says Brown. “I didn’t really feel like I was quite ready to do it when I did it, but I thought I would try.”
Listening to the fluidity of Brown’s playing on “Born to Be Blue” it’s hard to imagine he had any problems. The disc was originally slated to be a trio project, but Brown’s manager, who also heads up Space Time Records, which Brown records for, saw that Brown was more comfortable with more musicians on the project. The final line-up includes saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Ravi Coltrane, trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Robert Hurst, drummers Marcus Gilmore and Kenneth Brown (Donald’s son), Rudy Bird on percussion, along with Knoxville musicians Mark Boling (guitar), Vance Thompson (flugelhorn) and Emily Mathis (flute).
“I was in France and I was supposed to go to New York to mix the CD, but then Hurricane Sandy hit,” says Brown.
Instead he returned home and decided to have some of his Knoxville friends and players overdub some parts on the disc.
“I’m a strong believer in getting friends and family involved when it’s appropriate,” says Brown.
Thompson, who leads and founded the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra which recorded an album of Brown’s work, also wrote the liner notes to the album. He says working with Brown is always “humbling and exhilarating.”
“He has an incredibly vivid musical imagination, and knows exactly what he wants, down to the most miniscule detail,” says Thompson. “He’s not shy about telling you if you’re not giving him what he wants, but at the same time, he’s always a gentleman.”
Boling says he was thrilled to be asked to part of the album:
“Donald has an amazing musical imagination. He knows exactly what he wants to hear from each instrument, and he hears at much higher resolution than most people. Instead of using New York studio time, we added guitar, electric keyboard, trumpet and flute background tracks in Knoxville, so we could take the time to color the arrangements just the way Donald heard them.”
Brown says it was hard to compose when he couldn’t physically play what he heard in his head and didn’t have the stamina to stay at keyboard for long periods of time.
“You’re always trying to write beyond what you can play,” says Brown. “But now I feel like I can write some again.”
Donald Brown CD release party
When: 5-8 p.m. Sunday, April 21
Where: Bella Luna, 15 Market Square
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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