Otis Brown III: In Dad’s Footsteps
Posted 8/7/2012

Drummer Otis Brown III, who had raised about $13,000 from 200 donors for the purpose, entered New York’s Sear Studios in April 2011 with a top-shelf crew of generational peers—pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Ben Williams, saxophonist John Ellis, trumpeter Keyon Harrold and, on separate tracks, singers Bilal, Esperanza Spalding, Gretchen Parlato and Nikki Ross— to record his leader debut, Thought Of You. The program, supervised by bassist Derrick Hodge and propelled by Brown’s unpredictable, immaculately executed beats and timbres, coalesces an unruly array of feels and syntaxes common to hardcore jazz expression circa 2011—fiercely melodic improvisations through highbrow harmony and asymmetrical meters; impressionistic tone poems; sampled spoken word; J Dilla beats; smoldering modern gospel; and bravura signifying on a “new standard” (Shania Twain’s “You’re Still The One,” by Parlato) and the Great American Songbook (Richard Rodgers’ “Look No Further,” by Spalding). The ensemble renders each song with virtuosic cohesion, serve-the-function attitude and communicative sensibility.

“There’s a scripture that says, ‘Whatever is good, think on these things,’” Brown said of the CD title, paraphrasing Philippians 4:8. “I wanted a feeling of much love, and these are people I came up with, with whom I have some connection other than music. We’re not playing in a formulated way, like, ‘This bar will be 14, the next one in 6.’ It’s the way we grew up, hearing hip-hop or playing in the church. It feels natural.”

This New Jersey native’s first instrument was saxophone. As a church-going youngster, Brown sang in choir and subbed on drums for his father, who spent time on the road with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Al Green and other stars. “I know what it takes to project through an instrument or a voice, and these experiences influence my sound,” Brown said. “There’s a rhythm to the African-American church service, and you learn so much. Sometimes you interact with the preacher’s sermon in a way that’s similar to accompanying soloists in jazz, and you learn a lot of feels—how to play in 3 or a strong 2-and- 4. It was a fertile environment to learn things that apply to what I play now.”

Brown has toured with saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five Quintet, in which he and Francesco Mela each play trapset, along with Spalding on bass and James Weidman on piano. The relationship started 12 years ago, when Lovano heard Brown at the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony in Aspen, Colo. At the time, Brown was nearing the end of his three-year matriculation at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, where Bilal, Ellis, Glasper and Harrold were classmates.

Along with engagements with Lovano’s various groups, Brown has played with each singer on his CD, as well as vocalists Kurt Elling, Kate McGarry and Somi, not to mention accordionist Victor Prieto and bassist Anne Mette Iverson.

Brown attributes his craft and finesse to early lessons with his father, who is now a high school principal. “The funky stuff was in the house, but my dad was also a huge fan of Elvin Jones and Max Roach,” Brown recalled. “He showed me independence things—like time on the ride cymbal and comping with the snare drum—that I didn’t know were somewhat advanced. When I started hearing how they related to music, it was an easy transition from saxophone to drums.”

That transition coincided with the arrival of trumpeter-educator Donald Byrd as Artist in Residence at Delaware State University, where Brown, following in the footsteps of his parents, was entering his junior year as a music education major. “It was life-changing,” Brown said. “I was content to be a band director, but when I was about to finish, he told me I should think about going to New York. He exposed me to a lot of people, and by his example showed me how many hours go into being a working musician—not just practicing, but listening to music, researching why this does that.

“If I don’t know what something is, I love the challenge of figuring out how to play it authentically. Once I’ve learned those things, even if I never play with that person again, it becomes part of me, and I carry it into the next situation.”

Ted Panken


Otis Brown III (Photo: Andrea Canter)

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