If I giggle uncontrollably during the next Rich Brown gig, it’s not my fault. The Toronto-based bass player, composer and bandleader has just explained to me that the brain likes patterns. However when it is surprised, neurotransmitters are released, activating the pleasure centres. ‘When I play,’ he says, ‘I like to incorporate that idea, so that for the audience and the players on stage with me, things are a little unexpected.’
Born in Canada to Jamaican parents, Brown recalls when he fell in love with music. ‘I was about four years old. My dad would make a complete mess of the living room with 45’s everywhere and it was all Jamaican music. It made me feel really proud.’ The influence of Jamaica on music globally is indisputable. ‘My Dad always said, “If we were as big as Cuba, we’d a rule the world.”
As a teen, Rich became deeply rooted in Black American music – funk, R&B, jazz.
He also played in progressive rock bands in high school. Then at age 19, Brown heard Steve Coleman and Five Elements for the first time and ‘found home’ musically speaking.
He learned their music and within a short period of time, was recording with Andy Milne, one of the Five Elements and later did an American tour with Coleman himself.
Since then, Brown has recorded and/or performed with Canadian greats such as Bruce Cockburn, Carol Welsman, Molly Johnson and Jane Siberry. As well as with many international stars including Rudresh Mahanthappa, Trinidad’s Clive Zanda, Gambian kora master Yan Koba Saho and New Zealand’s Mark de Clive-Lowe. Brown has also appeared in films such as ‘The Natalie Cole Story’ and ‘Glitter’ staring Mariah Carey. In Toronto, Brown leads his own band, rinsethealgorithm.
Obviously, Rich Brown has more tools in his musical tool box than most. ‘I’m lucky to live in a city that is so multicultural. I was able to do a gig with Vuja Dé with its Brazilian influences or the Montuno Police. Then I can play an African gig with Kobena Aquaa Harrison or perform with Rob Corb (music from China and Japan) or with autorickshaw(a JUNO winning ensemble rooted in South Asian music). In getting into these bands, I was introduced to more traditional music from each of these cultures. It was a great way for me to expand my vocabulary.’
Brown’s most recent passion is for ‘broken beat’, an underground sub-genre of dance music.
‘I love this music. It’s electronic, syncopated, based in funk and R&B. The lyrics are always positive, about peace with cosmic references and about universal love.’ Incorporating ‘every nuance, every growl and tremolo’ of the voice, Brown says that ‘small, specific information produces a vocabulary and an evolution, and conveys a story. People get it.’
He lists singers Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Kim Burrell and Stevie Wonder, as most influential to his playing.
‘I’m still not sure how any melodic content has worked its way into my playing but there is something about the aesthetic, at the very least, that I want to incorporate.’ Whatever that elusive quality is, it helps to convey the deeply spiritual aspect present in his music.
When asked, how he balances the role of the bass with this interest in melody, he says, ‘I just think everything is a melody. From a rhythmic aspect, from a harmonic and melodic standpoint, things can always be rooted and musical. The root is always going to be implied by somebody and it doesn’t always have to be me.’
A gifted player who is largely self-taught, much to his own surprise, Brown is also in demand also as an educator. ‘I don’t deconstruct, because I don’t know how to do that. Students say that what they get from studying with me, they don’t get from anyone else. To me, it is important to keep that emotional connection to the music and I give them the tools to develop their own vocabulary.’
Rich Brown has been invited to teach internationally, as well as here at home.
Hot on the heels of a fantastic solo album 'Between Heaviness and Here' is the brand new recording 'Abeng'.
The Abeng is Kevin Turcotte - trumpet, Luis Deniz - alto saxophone, Stan Fomin - piano/keys and Mark Kelso - drums
© Gloria Blizzard is a Toronto-based writer