To those who feel that the future of jazz is linked to its ability to absorb other styles, this drummer, who has worked extensively with leaders such as Bobby Hutcherson and Geri Allen, is beating a path full of promise.
Exploring common musical denominators is something that seems to come naturally to Jaimeo Brown. On his unforgettable debut album as a leader, Transcendence, the drummer and his handpicked crew produce an organically blended, emotionally charged sampling of Alabama spirituals, Deep South blues, flavors of Indian raga, and flights of free jazz, with hints of hip-hop.
Brown, thirty-four, grew up around music. His mother and father, pianist/ flutist Marcia Miget and bassist Dartanyan Brown, are active players and educators in northern California. But it wasn’t until his junior year at San Rafael High School that Jaimeo even considered music as a career path. “In high school,” he says, “music became a social thing for me. I had friends who listened to jazz in their free time. I didn’t know that people my age did that.” Brown smiles. “It was huge to be in an environment where I could see young people playing it.”
The drummer in the school jazz ensemble at the time was Ryan Moran, now behind the kit with the band Slightly Stoopid. “Seeing Ryan studying because he wanted to study—that gave me a work ethic that I still hold on to today,” Brown recalls. “My ears were really developed because of what I’d heard, but I had to catch up in terms of technique, to get my body to do the things that I was hearing.”
Brown’s parents arranged for lessons with the respected Bay Area drummer Sly Randolph. “Sly instilled the power of groove in me right away,” Jaimeo says. “And those lessons eventually made me a lot of money, because, especially for a young drummer, it’s easy to not understand the importance of groove.”
Guru’s 1993 Jazzmatazz album showed Brown the possibilities of fusing hip-hop and jazz. “That record began the process of really starting to get into the music that my parents were so experienced in,” Jaimeo says. “I had this history that I’d listened to growing up, inadvertently, just being around my parents. All that was able to come out, but in my own way of hearing it.”
Brown studied for a year with George Marsh at Sonoma State University. In 1998 he transferred to William Paterson University in New Jersey, where Rufus Reid chaired the jazz studies department and Horacee Arnold taught drums. After that, Brown applied for and received a scholarship to do masters work at Rutgers University with drummer/composer Victor Lewis. He dove headfirst into research on his thesis, “How the Black Church Affected Jazz.”
“Digging into the early black church gave me a deep insight into the origin of the blues,” Brown says. “Within that journey I eventually came across the Gee’s Bend Quilters out of Alabama. On a personal and musical level, a lot of their songs felt like they were singing my own story. That experience gave me a lot to explore, a lot of fundamental building blocks in those old spirituals that I could apply to my drumming, no matter what style of music I’m playing.”
Brown’s move to New York was, in his words, “kind of liberating. There were so many interpretations of rhythms. It caused me to discover who I was on the drums. Every night I would see something very different, and it would continually give me a new way of looking at the instrument or thinking about music, period.”
After encountering some tough times, and having to briefly live out of his car, Brown found that faith began playing an important role in everything he did on the drums. “Things I was learning about patience or wisdom were things that I was immediately excited to apply to what I was exploring musically,” he says.
Brown gained entrée to the New York scene through gigs he had cultivated on the West Coast, with artists such as pianist Ed Kelly and mallet man Bobby Hutcherson. “Bobby was extremely influential, even just in how he lives his life,” Brown says. “He has a real balance—he’d play very serious music on a super-high level, but then he also knows how to live, how to enjoy his family and life in general.”
While playing gigs in New York with the Mingus Big Band, Geri Allen, Joe Locke, and others, Brown stayed in close touch with his former William Paterson classmate Chris Sholar. Well versed in jazz, Sholar had found success as a producer with Kanye West, Jay-Z, and others. Brown enlisted Sholar to help him orchestrate around the Gee’s Bend Quilters samples and realize the sound of Transcendence. “Having a jazz background and the hip-hop sensibility seemed applicable to what I wanted to do with this project,” Brown says. “I first came to him wanting almost a live producer, in a sense similar to a DJ.”
Tenor saxophonist JD Allen lived next door to Brown, and long before Transcendence the two were experimenting with music on a daily basis. “The nature of the record in general is based around family and community,” Brown says, “and Chris and JD are like family to me.”
Brown, Sholar, and Allen put the music together for a live show first. “We performed live before we even knew we were going to record,” Brown says. “The things that we developed to have all of these elements together in a trio or quartet on stage, we eventually brought into the studio—that mentality. We were triggering samples while we were actually recording. There is some postproduction stuff in there, but the majority of it is live. With all of the samples and the soundscapes and the things that we trigger, we really wanted to have some organic interaction with the acoustic quality of jazz—improvisational music. That interaction between the computers and man, or the technology and man, is something I’m continually thinking about.”
To Brown there is a sacred quality to the vocal samples he uses. “I really wanted to honor the music and the place where the music came from,” he says. “Even though all this modern technology was used, there’s also something very old that I was trying to preserve, which I think reflects truthful interaction between human beings—real communication that creates real community.
“The way the Gee’s Bend Quilters sing together is for a purpose beyond just performing, and it came about by being with each other and going through difficulties with each other. It’s music they made to support and encourage each other, and for worship—music for things that really have human value.”
What made everything come together on Transcendence was the fact that Brown
was experimenting daily with the concepts in his practice. “I was already studying tabla,” he explains, “and I had already done a lot of research on the history of the spirituals, so it was very much of an organic product. It was these things that I was already living and breathing, and I could just hear the music. The technology came as a way to express the things that we were hearing first, the important things. Without that it seems overwhelming, because there are so many options of things you can do. If you don’t hear the idea clearly in your head first, then you’re just moving your hands and your legs, and it’ll only have so much of an impact.”
The drumming was actually the last piece of the Transcendence puzzle. “I was hearing all these soundscapes involving different elements, and there were so many different options of what I could play,” Brown says. “I eventually just tried to honestly support the music in a way that connects, that tried to combine all the elements. The blues, the deep blues, then some of the ideas that have to do with Indian music—just being in New York and seeing all of the different styles, that’s kind of what the music drew out of me.
“The most important thing is the composition,” Brown continues. “That trumps all other needs or desires of the drummer. To have the technical ability and humility to serve the song, that is what I practice. To be sensitive, to be able to adapt, to hear outside of my own drumming is extremely important to me.”
A trip to Africa before the recording of Transcendence inspired Brown to, as he calls it, “keep those big-picture ears. I was able to perform and see music there and be a part of the atmosphere. That affected the drumming on the record a lot, brought out a lot of African elements that I wasn’t able to really recognize in myself until I was there. That was also a route to other elements within the music, because a lot of the music that’s rich around the blues, spirituals, jazz, or hip-hop really has roots in African music—they’re African rhythms.”
Brown tries to get in four hours of practice every day, always calming himself first with a cup of tea. “Even though it’s easy to sit down and want to move your arms and legs and just play, I try to identify the things that need to be worked on and adjusted, or the things that I just want to explore and develop,” he explains. “So I’ll sit down and force myself not to touch the drums, just try to think about things from a strategic standpoint. And if I’m disciplined to do that for like fifteen minutes before I start practicing, practice is always indefinitely richer and more directed. When I’m developing on my drums, it feels like I’m able to give back to everyone around me better too.
“I’m excited about continuing to dig and learn more about the roots of the music that Transcendence started to scratch the surface of,” Brown adds. “There’s so much more in these ideas, from a historical standpoint, a technological standpoint, and a philosophical standpoint.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Brown plays Sonor drums, including a 5.5×14 snare, 8×10 and 9×12 toms, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 16×18 bass drum. His Sabian cymbals include 14″ Vault Artisan hi-hats, a 22″ prototype ride, an 18″ Fierce crash, a 22″ Artisan crash, and a 16″ Evolution crash. He uses Remo Coated Ambassador heads and Vic Firth 5A sticks.