KITCHENER, Ont., Feb. 23, 2016 --- Cutting-edge, electric-trumpet icon Brownman Ali uses his own label to catalyze jazz art creation in the Toronto scene.
As if he is not busy enough gigging, touring, arranging and composing for his own seven bands, Brownman Ali has his own record label, Browntasaurus Records and is a partner in the Euphonic Sound recording studio. For background on the man the Village Voice calls Canada's preeminent trumpet player, go to www.brownman.com.
The studio has been a hiphop hotbed in recent years. Only fitting for a master-fusion artist like Brown. He was born in Trinidad, raised in Brampton, studied physics at the University of Waterloo, and then spent 15 years in and out of New York City, studying under Randy Brecker.
The label was initially created as a home for the groups he leads, but in the last year -- at the urging of his New York management -- the label has been expanded so any bands that feature Brownman on trumpet or flugelhorn are now eligible to join.
The record's website is here: www.Browntasauras.Brownman.com.
"My management made a compelling argument to me that recordings that feature me may be just as interesting to fans as recordings that I am a leader on," Brown said in a recent interview with New City Notes.
"I play with so many different groups, the idea was: 'Why not offer the resources of my record label to artists that I play with who just are going to put out their records independently anyway?'” Brown said.
“We’re not a conventional label, in that we don’t have anything to offer anyone other than resources and access to my network of connections. 100% of all profits go straight back to the artist themselves, with the label making exactly zero. We are a real Not-For-Profit, in the truest sense."
When did you ever hear the owner of a record label talk like that?
Browntasauras artists are offered --- lower rates for studio time in Euphonic Sound, which includes an engineer, reduced costs for mixing and mastering with some of the nation’s top engineers, including tone guru Nick Blagona, who has worked with everyone from the Police to Deep Purple to Sinatra to the Brecker Brothers.
Browntasauras artists also get access to Brooklyn-based, world-class publicist and logistics specialist Andrew Nicholson, who also co-runs Browntasauras. They also get manufacturing via Brown’s direct deal with Sony for CDs, an established Website for online sales, a team to help with online aggregates such as iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.
You don’t have to use these resources to be on the label, but the reality is that an artist can make recordings at a significantly reduced cost to themselves if they do. Which is Brown’s entire point in getting these artists on the label. To catalyze the creation of their art, at a price they can afford.
The label’s genesis dates back to 2009, during his tenure with legendary rapper Guru (of Gangstarr fame) in his jazz-hip-hop JAZZMATAZZ ensemble (Brown replaced Donald Byrd in the group). As they toured the world, they watched as big labels and retail sales imploded. Brown realized this was not the time to be on a major label, and that the paradigm of the music biz was shifting. This was now the era of the independent artist.
Brown sets up Browntasauras as a label for artists motivated by the need to create jazz art for the sake of art’s creation. Period. There are no hovering label executives with an agenda, no scrutiny of sales figures, no concern about being part of Popular Culture – just Brown over-seeing each albums creation, and making sure it fits the over-all vision of the label.
When it comes to album covers, Brown only gives very general directions to the creators.
“I only give the artists the following parameters – ‘Dark, exploratory and just a little bit sci-fi’ – and then leave it to them to choose their own imagery and deal with their art. The music on the label is reasonably summed up that way as well – dark, exploratory and just a little bit sci-fi!" Brown said.
A quick glance at the last two Brownman Electryc Trio’s cover art presents a clear picture of exactly what Brown describes. The 2009 “Juggernaut” featured a trumpet playing cyborg on the cover in front of a burning city under seige, and the 2013 release of “Gravitation: A Study In Freefall” continues that narrative with the same cyborg now in a spacesuit, burning through the atmosphere during planet-fall.
Both albums were long-listed for Junos for artwork, the result of an online contest held by Brownman Music Inc. 70 artists from around the world (17 countries in total) competed to be the Brownman Electryc Trio’s cover artist, with Orange County, California’s Dean Shu winning the opportunity to handle the art for "Juggernaut." He work was so loved by Brown, he was asked back again to handle the art for "Gravitation."
Brown’s own recordings on the label have won, and continue to win, international class awards --- the Montreal Jazz Fest’s "Grand Prix Du Jazz Award," a CBC Galaxie Rising Star Award, a SOCAN award for composition, two National Jazz Awards, two Toronto Independent Music Awards, an International Independent Music Award, and far too many more to list here.
The paucity of good-paying gigs, rampant theft of recorded music on the Internet, and an anemic global jazz music buying audience have left more and more talented musicians chasing a fast-shrinking piece of the action. That is the backdrop for transitioning the record label into something more than just another commercial label, or solitary home for Brown’s own projects. This visionary trumpet player wants Browntasauras Records to become a catalyst for creating a community of mutually-supportive artists, all making music on their own terms.
"The idea is that we need to link arms, and help each other out as much as we can. Climb the ladder together. Because coming up in Brooklyn, you can't survive without being part of something bigger than yourself," Brownman said.
Brown’s firsthand knowledge comes from his close to 15 years of travel, study and residency in Brooklyn, New York. He studied under the Grammy-winning jazz trumpet superstar Randy Brecker.
"Man, it's really exciting because what's happening is the various band leaders on Browntasauras are all getting to know each other because they’re now label mates. They’re coming out to each others' shows. Guys are guesting on each others gigs. And some of these guys are a solid 40 years apart in age!" Brownman said.
"They might never have known of each other without the label to connect them. I love the idea of label-mates hanging out, sharing and being part of this brotherhood we’re building."
In the last year Browntasauras has signed five new bands --- SNAGGLE, MODUS FACTOR, JOHN CHEESMAN JAZZ ORCHESTRA, ROBERT BALL and JASON WILSON & DIVISION ONE. All five anticipate CD releases in 2016. The first will most likely be Nick Maclean’s SNAGGLE.
"Nick Maclean is 24, an Ottawa transplant, a UofT Masters program grad in jazz performance, and one of the hottest young piano players in the Toronto scene right now", Brown said. "He leads and writes for an electric-jazz group called SNAGGLE, which often gets called ‘Canada’s answer to Snarky Puppy."
Maclean -- who confesses the group’s sound is definitely influenced by Brown’s own Electryc Trio – is often on stage next to his mentor these days. He was the piano player for Brown’s Halloween Thriller, held at the Jazz Room in Waterloo back in October 2015, while more and more of Brown’s own productions seem to feature Maclean.
Their relationship has been growing steadily for 2 years now to the point that Maclean has asked Brown to produce the upcoming SNAGGLE disc. Working as producer and bandleader, they are putting in long hours to move the now-tracked record through the mixing/mastering stages of recording, and onto manufacturing.
"It’s really interesting, adventurous, take-no-prisoners hard-grooving stuff that Nick writes for Snaggle," Brownman said. “And working with Nick and the boys has been effortless. These guys may be in their 20’s, but they are consummate pros, who put the music first and foremost."
Further evidence of their ever deepening musical relationship -- Maclean recently asked Brown to join his newly formed NICK MACLEAN QUARTET, which is the antithesis of Snaggle and reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s primordial 60’s quartet that featured Freddie Hubbard.
You can read more about MacLean and his music here,
www.SnaggleMusic.com, and here www.NicholasMaclean.com.
Brownman is a also a featured soloist with the JOHN CHEESMAN JAZZ ORCHESTRA, who are regulars in the Monday night Big Band rotation at Toronto’s Rex Hotel. Brownman calls Cheesman "one of the unsung heroes of the Toronto jazz scene."
“John’s jazz orchestra never really had the kind of profile bands like the Boss Brass, Dave McMurdo Big Band or the John MacLeod Rex Orchestra has," Brownman said.
"He writes really modern sounding super dope shit that grooves. It’s really not your standard big band fare," Brownman said.
He attributes the band's lack of profile to the eclectic nature of the writing and what he calls John Cheesman's "infinite humility."
“John would never wave his own flag – so me and Bruce are gonna do it for him."
Brownman and Blood, Sweat and Tears alumni Bruce Cassidy are just two of the soloists in the 17-man large Cheesman Orchestra, which is stacked with a who’s who of some of Toronto’s finest including William Carn, Colleen Allen, Andy Ballantyne, Adrean Farrugia, Don Englert, Sandy Barter & Russ Boswell. Brownman has been with the band for just over three years now, and is the youngest member.
“I grew up idolizing many of these guys and it blows my mind that I get to stand next to them now. So about a year ago when the nature of my label changed to include bands that I’m featured with, John announced he was intent on recording a CD finally. I mentioned the label to him, how I was going to do things for artists, how nuts and wrong it was that he didn’t have a disc out yet since the band had been around since the 80’s, and asked if he would be interested in being on the label. He was immediately."
Unfortunately, this recording project has been sadly delayed as Cheesman recovers from a stroke that saw the drummer/composer air-lifted to London's University Hospital last year. A near-death experience, which will hopefully end in the joyful release of John’s new disc within the year.
Brownman and Bruce Cassidy together hosted a fundraiser for Cheesman at The Rex last summer to raise funds for John's recovery. All tracking was completed before John’s stroke – produced by Cassidy -- so it’s now onto mixing and mastering. Jeremy Darby of Canterbury Studios, Bruce and Brown are all working hard with the recovering Cheesman to get this recording out the door.
“This disc will be a testament to John’s brilliant mind as a composer. The world needs to hear John’s work. I think they’ll be staggered by it," Brownman said.
You can read more about Cheesman here, www.JohnCheesman.ca.
MODUS FACTOR is an electric trio with a similar configuration as Brownman’s own Electryc Trio, sporting trumpet, bass and drums. But make no mistake – this band sounds nothing like B.E.T. Under the leadership of drummer Chris Lesso, they explore highly improvised groove music with world music flavorings. Lesso has toured the world with Tony “Wild T” Springer & the Spirit – a Trinidadian blues-rock guitarist who settled in Toronto playing in a Jimi Hendrix tribute band. Springer was an original member of Rough Trade. When Rough Trade broke up, he launched his own band with Lesso on drums.
"So Lesso has a great reputation in the rock studio world, but he has the heart of a fusion drummer and chops like Journey’s Steve Smith," Brownman said.
"And he's always wanted to have a project where he could spread his wings in that realm while folding world music elements into the mix. That’s how Modus Factor came about. And listen – this trio features Ian De Souza, the astonishing bass player from Kevin Breit’s Sisters Euclid. That cat is just ridiculous. One of my favourite bassists anywhere," Brownman said.
Very little is written down. About 90 per cent of the material is improvised. Brownman, Lesso and De Souza break out all of their vast arsenals of electronic gadgets for these sessions. Basic melodies are charted on sheet music…
"And then we just cook up a vibe, live, with a whole lot of electronics involved. There’s a lot of bleeps and bloops on stage," Brownman laughs. "So it ends up sounding like some kind of world-jazz version of EDM (electronic dance music). It's almost like EDM improvised by jazz guys on a world music tip."
The tagline for this very interesting band is “electro-ambient improvisational bedlam." You can read more about it here, www.ChrisLesso.com/modus-factor.
New York-based jazz singer ROBERT BALL has recorded a three-tune EP on Browntasauras so far. Brownman gushes about Ball, who is in-demand in New York's musical theatre scene.
"He’s just take-your-breath-away amazing. He’s this tall, gay, black man who sings like, fuck, I don’t know. It's mind-bendingly hard to try and explain him! He has so much control and texture in his voice. He’s like a cross between Al Green and Prince!" Brownman said.
"Think old school R&B and soul, but now mix it with a huge range and attitude from deep growl to high falsetto, like Prince does, and then throw in a dash of straight-up theatre and jazz harmony -- and you’ve got Robert Ball. The dude is deadly" Brownman said.
"The three tunes we recorded are standards, but my own weirdo arrangements of them. Imagine my writing style supporting a guy like that, using standards as the springboard to try and showcase his gifts. It’s really, really fun to approach standards this way, as an arranger. The 3 tunes we tracked are a sultry take on the Miles Davis classic ‘All Blues’, a dirty funkified take on Cole Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, and a haunting version of ‘Nature Boy’. Robert will make you weep.”
The EP also features new to Canada from Portugal -- Yamama endorsee drummer Marito Marques, who toured Europe for years with Brazilian legend Ivan Lins before moving to Canada. Check out Ball here, www.RobertBallMusic.com.
Jason Wilson was twice nominated for Reggae Artist of the Year at the Junos and has won a Canadian Reggae Music Award. WORD magazine said: "You can make a legitimate argument than no Canadian artist has ever done more to innovate within his genre and expand popular perceptions of what his art-form represents than Jason Wilson has for reggae music."
His latest project, DIVISION ONE, is only about four months old. Brownman describes the music as Marley meets Monk meets Miles.
"He's this white, university-professor-looking dude, and when you see him on stage at a reggae concert, you might have to check yourself. Do a double-take. But then he opens his mouth and it's like: 'Jesus Christ there is a black man living in there!" Brown said.
This new group collides roots reggae ala Bob Marley, with Wilson’s piano hero Thelonious Monk, with the always searching ethos of Miles Davis. Marley meets Monk meets Miles. It should be mentioned that Wilson holds a Ph.D in history, has written four books and was the subject of a special mini-documentary entitled "The Grateful Dread" that appeared on The National with Peter Mansbridge.
"But then I got the call to tour with Guru’s Jazzmatazz and that pulled me out of the scene for 4 years as we toured the world. So when I split, my kid brother had subbed for me as the primary horn. Jay often used us both, but when it was a single horn gig, it was my chair – until I left for touring. The funny part is that now that I am back -- my brother ain’t giving it up! So now that’s Marc's gig, and he totally kills it."
Wilson’s two groups are called "The Perrenials" (which features Marcus) and “Division One” (which features Brown) respectively.
Wilson can also been seen commenting on Brown’s abilities in the 2007 BRAVO! Channel documentary on Brownman’s life entitled "The Life And Times Of Brown," which you can watch here: https://vimeo.com/16725046.
The dynamic siblings Brownman and Marcus will soon release a recording on Browntasauras as the ALI BROS, playing originals penned by both brothers in the style of the illustrious Brecker Brothers.
Together the brothers also appear as the front line in Brownman’s own Latin-jazz groups CRUZAO, CRUZAO GRUPO MONSTRUOSO and MARRON MATIZADO. All are slotted for release in the next two years. Brown is also working hard to get recordings out the door from his other Latin-jazz group ARECIBO, his New York based jazz-hip-hop crew GRUVASYLUM & his mainstream hard-swinging jazz unit, the BROWNMAN AKOUSTIC TRIO.
AND he just received a Canada Council for the Arts grant to compose material for the new BROWNMAN ELECTRYC TRIO record.
With so much talent all lined up for one of the most creative, original, exploratory, boundary-busting jazz artists alive today -- look for all this exciting stuff to hit hard on the Browntasauras Records label very very soon.
For more on Brownman Ali, check out: