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Keep an Eye On: Bassist Rich Brow

I first heard about Rich Brown through Damian Erskine, who handles our CD reviews for the mag. Obviously I trust Damian’s opinion considering the job I hired him for, and after hearing some of Rich’s work, I can see why Damian recommended him.

Beyond his credits, which are impressive, I heard a seriously soulful player with a very impressive command of his instrument. He listed his influences, as we all do, but has managed to find his own voice which has kept him a very in demand player in his hometown of Toronto. I’m sure he’d fair well wherever he decided to call home with the musicality he demonstrates, and the talent that’s obvious to anyone giving him a listen.

I look forward to hearing his next release with his band Rinsethealgorithm, and predict we’re going to hear a lot more from this very centered and inspired musician.

Jake: Looking at your list of influences, Jaco, Victor Baily, Jimmy Haslip, and Alain Caron, my assumption was that melodic content within your playing is a big part of your approach, which was solidified for me after hearing you on a live take. How do you personally try to draw this melodic approach into your playing?

Rich: For me the idea of playing melodically is definitely the most important thing about playing the bass. Especially the electric bass which still even today struggles to be taken seriously as a valid voice in jazz music. I think that a good melody can touch anyone in the same way at the same time be they non-musician or jazz snob. Even if (or especially if) that melody is played on an electric bass.

I’m a self-taught player so for me it’s impossible to think about what scale to play over what chord unless the sound is already in my head. This is a far more melodic approach simply because of the fact that I have to think more in terms of melodic phrases as opposed to scales and patterns. Don’t get me wrong, I had to practice the modes up and down the neck for hours to get to this point, but it never felt like I was “learning the modes”, instead I was internalizing the sound being created by each scale. Now as soon as I put one finger down on the fingerboard I can almost see the entire fingerboard light up with all of the possible note choices made available to me. This approach stays the same whether I’m soloing or playing a walking bass line or laying down a simple groove. I see everything as a melody.

Jake: Tell me about your band Rinsethealgorithm, which I understand was nominated for a Canadian National Jazz Award.

Rich: I had always wanted to write some music and put a group together but I felt as though I had nothing to say as a composer until just a few years ago. I was listening to a lot of different forms of dance music from the UK. Specifically the “broken beat” scene of West London. The light went on as soon as I heard this music. It was beautifully melodic and the grooves were heavily syncopated and very funky. I guess the main objective of Rinsethealgorithm is to combine these elements of dance music with jazz. Jazz was originally dance music in the first place right?

The name of the band also comes from that same UK influence. The word “rinse” was used by a lot of DJ’s and artists in that scene. It basically meant to do something really well. The algorithm in this case refers to any kind of problem. So to “rinse the algorithm” simply means to handle any problem with great skill. The idea of putting it all together as one word just made sense. It gives the name more meaning as a word rather than a term made up of 3 words.

We were nominated last year in the category of “Electric Group of the Year” at the National Jazz Awards (NJA’s). What was so incredible about the nomination was not only being mentioned among the greatest bands in the country but also being nominated without releasing a debut record. We didn’t win, we didn’t expect to, but it really was great to be nominated. I like to joke about it and say that we are Canada’s National Jazz Award losing supergroup. We’re hoping to release our first album this year (late spring or early summer). I feel great about the band and the music and I’m sure your going to like what you hear.

(Hey Jake! I just got a phone call. We were nominated again!)

Jake: You made an interesting comment on how you stopped listening to bass players. I’ve talked to other bassists with this same philosophy, for lack of a better word. What does this approach personally accomplish for you?

Rich: I think it’s so important to look beyond your own instrument in order to gain a better understanding of melody and harmony and even rhythm. I went through a phase years ago when I just felt like all electric bass solos sounded the same. I thought it best to look at other instruments to gain a new melodic perspective.

Originally it was just singers and horn players that I listened to almost exclusively — singers because I thought that they were the most expressive melodic voice. I tried to learn the ornaments, the vibrato, anything that would help me to emote on my instrument. And horn players to gain a better understanding of the be-bop language. Later on I became more interested in the music of other cultures, which now has a huge influence on the way I play. Now my influences are constantly changing. All of the players listed in your first question will always be a part of who I am as an electric bass player, but it’s the other elements that have shaped my voice on the instrument.

Jake: You live in Toronto, and you’ve mentioned how you never felt pressured to move to NYC or LA. A lot of players still feel that’s a must. Could you expound upon your comfort zone as far as remaining in Toronto?

Rich: I’ve always thought of Toronto as home. It’s such a beautiful city and the music scene here is incredible. I’ve learned so much as a musician here not only in the Jazz world, but also in more culturally diverse genres of music. Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities on the planet with an ever-thriving music scene. Where else would I get the chance to play Jazz, Classical Indian and Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Far East Asian… you get the picture. But I mean authentic forms of these idioms, not just jazz hybrids (although there’s a lot of that as well). I guess if I were chasing money or some sort of fame then I could see myself relocating, but my heart is here.

Jake: Understanding that woodsheding/practicing seems to be a lifelong endeavor, what would you say the focus of your (musical) studies is at this point in time?

Rich: What I’ve really been focusing on for the last few years is the idea of emoting through the instrument. Trying to say more with less. I really admire musicians like Djivan Gaspariyan and Jan Garbarek who are able to say so much with only a few notes. Miles also had this quality about his playing, as well as Pat Metheny. I think with so many players going in the other direction and focusing on speed and dexterity on the bass, I’d rather focus on playing in a way that speaks to everyone, not just bass players or musicians. Trust me, there are times when I listen to some of the more agile players and think “Man I wish I could play like that”. But I think it’s more important to reach as many people as possible with something more universal and inclusive. I still work on chops but only in order to accurately articulate my ideas. It’s definitely a lifelong endeavor but I hope that I’m able to include everyone whether man or woman, musician or non-musician on the same level and at the same time.

Jake: In this issue, Victor Wooten and I discuss the concept of music being a language. I also had a similar discussion on that in an earlier issue with Alain Caron. Best that you can, what might that premise mean to you as a player?

Rich: I remember the first time I heard the song “Alabama” by John Coltrane. I was about 17 or 18 years old. I had no idea who or what it was, I just knew that it was a very important lesson in Black History. I saw images of racism in America, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King; all of these images came to me at once. When I had heard that this was a song called Alabama by Coltrane, I was absolutely blown away. I couldn’t believe that this man Coltrane was able to convey such a specific sentiment in an instrumental piece of music. That to me is the absolute epitome of music as a language. This has also been my ultimate goal as a musician. I would love to be able to take the listener with me on whatever scenic route I may take. I’ve always felt it a bit cheesy to say, “Music is a universal language”. I think it’s far better to think of music as an inclusionary language free of self-awareness and more focused on self-expression. In other words, it’s more about what I would like to say to you and less about what I can say. This allows the listener to share in the experiences of the musician. That is truly when music becomes a language and goes back to being a form or art.

For more information, visit Rich online at Myspace

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