BACKTRACKING WITH JEFREY LEIGHTON BROWN'S CHANGE HAS GOT TO COME!
Jefrey Leighton Brown is the second artist to provide background detail on a specific recording for textura's Backtracking series, in this case his powerful Change Has Got to Come! recording issued on Community Library. Brown, originally from Baltimore but now settled in Portland, has contributed to numerous musical contexts during the past decade. In recent years, the founding Jackie-O-Motherfucker member has expanded his playing abilities beyond his first instrument, the electric guitar, to saxophone, his instrument of focus in the Evolutionary Jass Band and on Change Has Got to Come! The album, his first solo release, finds him merging his jazz interests with a raw rhythm & blues aesthetic.
Would it be fair to say that the worshipful title as well as the modal style immediately establishes a Coltrane connection, specifically to A Love Supreme?
Good question. Of course there is a deep love of Coltrane's music running through me from childhood on and the first music I really connected with was probably Jimi Hendrix's Machine Gun (modal!); after getting bored with that (as a teenager I had 40 Hendrix records!), I decided to look into what turned him on. I read he dug Rashaan Roland Kirk and sought his music out which led me to other music including Trane. “Devotion,” I wasn't really concious of the connection, I was just trying to make some music I wanted to hear and make it immediately and with immediacy. I didn't want to write something complicated or shrouded in the myth of 100% originality. That gets in the way of immediacy to me and, at that time, I really needed that. Still do, actually. Funny thing is, after I recorded it and titled it “Devotion,” a friend told me how much it sounds like Indian Devotional music, with the vibes/sitar combination. I still have yet to hear that music but I certainly would like to. The other funny thing was while recording it I wasn't happy with the drumming; it was too rock as Barry plays soul music mostly. He found this pair of drumsticks on the floor of my pitifully messy basement and played the rest of the session on those. When we were done, he looked at the sticks in the light and noticed they were Elvin Jones signature sticks! Sometimes it pays off to be so messy...
Did you put the tune up front as a way of immediately acknowledging the debt/influence?
No, I put that song up front simply because I thought it was a great way to start an album; it's lively yet it is a meditation. It's important to start out strong, your first and last note is all people remember and, if they like that first note, then you've got their attention. If they don't, that's one more person who just needs something else and I'd prefer if they left and found joy elsewhere.
How critical an impact did Coltrane's music have upon you and is there a particular album or two that stand out as favourites?
I feel that if you play saxophone and your life is now, then the impact is critical. You can deny it but somebody who influenced you was influenced by him somewhere. I listened to him a lot but honestly, my favorite horn players are from the ‘20s-‘40s: Lester Young, Ben Webster, Vi Burnside. This record is how I hear soul music in my head, “October” is my direction for life, I really grew up on the old Jazz. That music still scares me, the sounds and the feeling more than later music.
I'll be perfectly honest with you. I've only played the horn for more than eight years at this point and this record was done three years ago. It was the best I could do at the time and it was intended for my own listening only. I have lots of recordings like this. My playing has changed so much since then and I have to keep changing to keep myself going.
My favorite Trane album is Crescent, especially "The Drum Thing." One of my childhood influences is Prez Prados' "Voodoo Suite." There is this section where it's just percussion and one tenor sax. I've been trying to catch that feeling since then.
Aside from the Coltrane connection, your playing here reminds me a lot of Albert Ayler. Would that be an accurate observation and, if so, could you talk a bit about Ayler as an influence?
Ayler could move the earth with that horn; he's a great soul player, and I guess he inspired me to do what I do with whatever I have. I don't have that much really but on a good day I never let that hold me back. Life is full of distractions these days and those players back then played as if every moment could have been their last. I actually don't think he's that much of an influence but what I would like to address here is the importance of individuality. Nobody sounded like Ayler, Kirk, Lester, etc.; they all had their own tone. Today, so many people have that pretty Coltrane sound ‘cause that's what people want to hear and that's what people have been taught to sound like for forty-plus years now. My sound is more messed up now; I don't know where it's coming from and don't always like it but it reflects the moment I'm living in. Ayler always sounded like he had a huge struggle; that's natural to humanity right?
Incorporating vibes strikes me as an inspired move. What prompted you to include vibes here and throughout the album?
My roomate had vibes at the house and I had to use them. I like vibes better than piano; it makes everything feel like it's floating.
2. “Ain't No Such Thing as What If...”
The bluesy Eastern-influenced style reminds me of wonderful explorative albums that came out in the ‘60s, material by Don Cherry, the AEC, and of course Coltrane's “India.” Is this the tradition you had in mind when creating this piece?
This song was created as a dedication to my high school English teacher Mrs. McDonald. I was a horrible student who really gave her trouble and she used to say "Ain't no such thing as what if" pretty often. After I graduated, I ran in to her at the mall and let her know how much I appreciated her as a teacher even though I was a real jerk. I was nineteen I think, and really, she was a cool person. I thought she would maybe like this piece. She was really happy to get some support for being a teacher!
I love the loose and raw feel of this piece and the others. Were they all single live takes and how through-composed was the material?
Some of the tracks are live except I overdubbed the vibes since the vibes player blew off the session, so you gotta do what you gotta do. I composed this record and recorded it in the space of a couple weeks. I like to work fast so not to shut myself down with a bunch of doubt and other crap. Plus, I hate perfection; I mean, I love Mozart but we need music today. This music, if I work too hard at it, it could get too refined and that's where most music loses interest for me.
With his ferocious attack, Barry Hampton at times sounds like he's channeling Elvin Jones. Could you talk a bit about the other musicians and their contributions?
Barry and I have known each other for seventeen years; he's an incredible musician that few people know about. You can find him on myspace. He plays any instrument well and writes his own soul music. I hope that someday the world hears his music. He taught me not to be afraid of a little cheese and a lot about focusing your intention. We're both from Baltimore.
Mitch Brown I've known for thirty-eight years; he's my brother and easily one of the finest electric bassists you'll ever meet. He's got that old style down with none of that Jaco / Flea junk. He just knows where to put the notes....
John Vassallo is a great friend and again isn't afraid to be vulnerable with music which is great for me to be around. He's always creating and has that ability to get you out of your shell and do the goofiest stuff. He'll pick up anything and make music out of it with no fear of what people around may think. It's important to surround yourself with folks like that!
Daphna Kohn: Where to begin??? She's my sweetheart. I can't really say enough about that so I'll keep it simple and say that having her around me has been such a positive influence. It's amazing when you feel fucked up about something and maybe say something fucked up or do something fucked up and not get judged for it. I've learned to forgive myself so much better due to her influence. Man, I'm surrounded by loving people! Not to mention, she's an incredible singer. It's not unusual to see people cry while she sings with the band. Last year we were playing “Devotion” and the song went way far out into space, time, and feeling. When we landed we played Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" and she sang it of course. People were looking for the record player or sampler insisting we were doing some way-out "experiment". When they realized we were playing and she was actually singing, people started crying. It's rare to have that experience these days; so much music, especially vocal music, is shrouded or masked or just watered down emotionally. Nothing immediate about it. We're all so tired of that. It used to be common to hear something as simple as a great singer pouring her soul through a microphone. I feel so blessed to work with her.
This piece, and especially its dirge-like character, reminds me so much of the kind of boundary-pushing experimentation one associates with Henry Threadgill. Did Threadgill's influence enter into the creation of your piece?
It might sound odd, but while I've heard the name, I have no idea who Henry Threadgill is! If you liked this piece, you'll really like the new version on the next Evolutionary Jass Band album! Paul's releasing it this fall. Also, we just did a whole album of dirges for Mississippi Records which should be out this spring. It's called What's Lost and it's really heavy!
Daphna Kohn's desperate vocal is incredible, especially at the end. Was it a single, first take? Did you give her a lot of direction, or did you more step aside to let her do her thing?
I just wrote the lyrics and left her to her own devices. All my music is loose and has the element of trust in it. People I play with have good taste and are freely vulnerable when making music. I never want to clamp down on anyone; it makes for dull music. When people are afraid of making mistakes, their playing becomes boring or they make too many mistakes and feel bad. If we feel supported even when we fail, we simply make more interesting music and choices.
This entire piece is a meditation that was done in about two hours from writing to mixing . I was born in July of 1968 which supposedly was the most violent month of the Vietnam war, so I feel I was born in a state of disharmony. I've had to work really hard to fix that. The band plays that one too and it's getting more abstract each time, kind of like the times I was born in. In August '68, Hendrix played down the street and, loud as he was, I like to think I heard some of that noise!
5. “Floatin' On A Cloud of WHAT?”
The full title is "Floatin' on a cloud of titties." It comes from the lame movie Rush. Barry, Landis Expandis, and I were watching that movie at the Charles Theater one hot, Baltimore summer day and, man, is that a shitty movie. We were so wanting to laugh but the audience seemed to be liking it so we kept it under wraps. Then this scene happens where there's this heroin dealer who makes the two undercover agents shoot up before they leave with their purchase and as their nodding off he says "Feels good don't it, like floatin' on a cloud of titties." We lost it and couldn't stop laughing and pissed a lot of folks off. People should laugh at crap like that; why be so serious????
Is it a live improv?
It has structure, but that piece is the most meandering one. What a weird image the title has; I guess that's what it feels like, drugs or floatin'.......
6. “Change Has Got To Come!"
Change is about anything it needs to be. Obviously, it refers to the current political war-like state this world has moved into, but I'm also tired of music that needs de-coding. This generation is really cryptic and it bums me out. I find so little new music I can deal with and, after years of playing free-form, masked hip stuff, I wanted to make something that was inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar. I've played guitar now for twenty-five years and wanted to play some blues licks on a record for once in my life. There's been so much bad guitar in the last three decades it's no wonder people don't try to go there, but I got good taste so why not! We need change, and we have to make that change cause nobody else is gonna do it for us. We need to lift each other up and be solid in our own identities to do that. I like cheesy soul music; it's a part of my life and a part of my identity. Somehow, I hid that for so long; people can really shut you down if you let them.
Ending with a blues comes as a surprise after the heavy jazz emphasis of the rest of the album. Why did you opt for a rather traditional blues to end the album?
I thought I started with a blues!
Did you have a specific “change” in mind—musical or otherwise—that you think does need to come?
Change what you need to change, without need there is no progress. We need to stop fighting, stop beating our kids, and turning them into violent people. We need to make room for spiritual growth and not of the dogmatic religious variety. We need to live and let live. If we work on our needs, we can break the spell, and when we break the spell, anything is possible but that means no more malls, no more bars, no more drugs, no more shitty movies like Rush, no more predators that operate on human despair, make money on human distress, and create more distress to make more money. Without distress, society will collapse, I mean the whole thing, and that would be the best thing for all of us. We gotta think big and move toward that light. We're all tired of this One-percent World we're living in; we have the power to enjoy the rest of it.