On the day Portland drummer/composer Barra Brown entered the studio to begin recording his second album of original compositions, he got the news: a family friend he’d known all his life was in the hospital. Valeria Ball, a close friend of Brown’s mother who led a Southern Oregon dance company that once included Brown, had a brain tumor, and needed emergency surgery.
Brown, a Lewis & Clark College alum who’s one of Oregon’s widest-ranging musicians, was devastated, but “she would want you to make the album,” his mother told him. He forged ahead with Dreaming Awake, released in 2015 and dedicated to Ball, who died the following year, and others who have battled cancer. Since then, Brown, now 30, has unleashed a flood of music in varied styles, playing various instruments, as though he needs to try everything now and take it as far as he can — before it’s too late.
“I think I have a sense of urgency just because I don’t know when I’m going to die,” he muses. “Maybe that comes from my friend dying. There’s no excuse for not doing what it is that you’re meant to do. There’s this urgency: all these ideas are here. The struggle is having time to get them all out.”
He’s going as fast as he can. Since 2013, Brown has led or appeared on two dozen recordings, most under his own name and via his Korgy & Bass project. His latest, the four-movement song cycle These Souls, which drops this week, was actually written and recorded two years ago as he dealt with grief over Ball’s illness. It marks a creative breakthrough for Brown — but don’t expect it to signal a new artistic direction. The music he’s since made explores multiple paths, with more to come.
Brown pursued multiple musical paths from the start. His mother, a ballet teacher who immigrated to Oregon from Ireland, helped persuade the elementary school in Lookingglass, the southern Oregon town outside Roseburg where he grew up, to create a band program, and Barra picked up the flute there. His parents also bravely installed a drum set in the room he shared with his brothers, thereby giving Barra early hands on experience with creating both melody and rhythm. He also danced in the Irish dance school his mother founded, and modern dance in his mother’s friend Ball’s company Traduza.
Brown continued his flute studies at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College — the first member of his family to go to college — and his drumming in the great Portland jazz drummer Alan Jones’s celebrated academy, where he met future collaborators such as the band members in the Wishermen, a young quintet formed in 2010 with Brown as drummer. Even then, though, Brown knew he wanted to create his own music.
But composing in what style? His early training was classical, he’d written a piece for his high school band, but encountering jazz in college made him eager to play with, and write for, the superlative musicians the genre attracts.
“I came across jazz way later than everyone else,” Brown remembers. “I thought, ‘This is the epitome of musicianship.’ I wanted to play with them. I’ve always thought of [my music] as compositions with heavy improv sections. I was struggling with, ‘Am I a jazz musician? Am I classical? Am I a flute player?’ It’s always been an identity crisis at every turn.”
His mother helped him sort it out when he raised those questions at his college graduation. “The instruments you’re playing don’t really matter,” she said. “They’re all just different ways of expressing yourself, depending on where you are in your life. You’re always going to be making music.”
Brown took the message to heart, resolving to learn and play whatever he needed to express the sounds he wanted to make — guitar, synths and keyboards, drums, flute, a little bass. “When I was younger I was either/or. Now I’m both/and. I’m all of them: now I’m a flute player, now I’m a drummer, now I’m gonna learn the bass. When you learn the instruments, you write better. It’s all tools to get myself out of my own composing patterns. If I write on a new instrument, these things that stick in my body don’t exist. It’s when you don’t know what’s happening that you stay in that wonderment of music.”
After college, Brown embraced both/and. His drum skills earned him early entry into Portland’s indie rock networks, including gigs and tours with Shook Twins, Old Wave Ages and Ages, Alameda, Morning Ritual. He also put together a crack jazz quintet that released a pair of albums on Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble label, sandwiched around an EP (released by the indie rock Cavity Search records) with his Wishermen friends. While that first PJCE album from 2013, Songs for a Young Heart, leaned on its lead players (saxophonist Nicole Glover, acclaimed trumpeter Thomas Barber, and rock guitarist Adam Brock from Old Wave), it also displayed a compositional assurance and surprising for a debut, and a decided emphasis on song forms rather than extended improv.
One track, the Bacharachian instrumental “Poem” (derived from Claude Debussy’s gorgeous, ever-popular “Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) inspired an entirely different album. Brock covered it so persuasively — and so differently from his original — that Brown included both versions on Songs for a Young Heart, then wondered: how might other musicians interpret it?
He asked eight musicians from Portland, Austin, LA, and New York (including members of Radiation City, Ages and Ages, and The Westerlies) to create their own versions, with their own lyrics and, in one section, even melodies. Released in 2017, The Poem Project album could have ended up as a mere gimmick or unbearably repetitive, but the mostly gentle, surprisingly varied results — ranging from folky to ethereal to groovy — demonstrate how robust music can beget — not clone — more vital music.
Brown’s 2015 PJCE quintet release, Dreaming Awake, extended its predecessor’s accessible jazz rock while featuring most of the same core musicians, augmented by guest string players and vocalists. “My brother recently said that the quintet music felt nostalgic,” Brown says. “Like it was when we were kids in Oregon captured in sound: [growing up in the] forest, outside exploration, uninhibited creative time, a sense of the importance of place, and our place in it. That really resonated because my music is often described as cinematic, which I think is fair, and I do think a lot about mountains and pastoral images when writing or hearing things after they are recorded. Like soaring over the Cascades in song.”
After those recording projects, Brown’s touring schedule with his various bands, especially the Shook Twins, accelerated. He performed with nationally known musicians including jazz/hip hop stars Robert Glasper and Makaya McCraven, singers Ani DiFranco and Gregory Alan Isakov, and more.
After four years of touring, along with starting a new jazz trio with powerhouse lineup of Portland avant guitarist Mike Gamble and bassist John Lakey, a new duo project with Alex Meltzer, and continuing to process his grief over Ball’s death and his musical response to it, Brown was ready to get off the road. By fall 2018, propelled by a pair of new partnerships — one musical, the other marital — the newly married Brown embarked on still another creative path.
Korgy & Bass: Brevity and Variety
Freed from the demands and distractions of touring, Brown has devoted most of his abundant energy recently to his inventive Korgy & Bass project with Meltzer, whose background is in beatmaking and hip hop. After meeting at a jam session in 2015 while Brown was still touring with Shook Twins, Meltzer invited him over to see what music might emerge. They released their first EP the next year.
“Four albums just appeared out of nowhere while I was working on something else,” Brown recalls. “I’ve never had an experience like that. It just felt so easy.”
In various EPs and singles that have unceasingly streamed forth since he forsook the road, Brown and Meltzer are compiling an impressive compendium of concise, cogent, and compelling sounds. The first thing you might notice about most recorded K&B tracks is how short they are, most clocking in under three minutes. On record, the duo generate such a wealth of musical ideas that they seem happy to just keep unleashing rather than overcooking them, never allowing them to overstay their welcome or outlast their considerable charm.
Live, it’s a different story. “Recorded experiences and live music experiences are different and each has strengths that can be highlighted when in those environments,” Brown explains. “ We stretch out and improvise much more in our live shows because it’s a good environment for that.”
Liberated from the standard jazz or rock band configuration, the lineup can adjust to suit the sounds Brown and Meltzer want to create, from the instrumental (and occasionally vocal) hip hop of this year’s Agrocrag (which featured vocals from rappers Alexander Mackenzie and Oregon poet laureate Anis Mogjani), to near-Aphex Twin-style electronica in 24000:4=2500 Side-A and 2500=4:26000 Side-B. When working on an instrumental track, Brown will often “hear” (in his imagination) another player’s sound that might add a needed dimension that he can’t imagine. “You hit them up and see if they wanna go play on it,” he says. ”We’re constantly bringing in other ears and energy.”
For last year’s LP Remote, New Orleans trumpeter Cyrus Nabipoor sent the duo melodies and textures (tape drums, sampled sounds, phat synths, trumpet, and bass lines from Milo Fultz and Sam Arnold) that they then added to, chopped, and re-sampled. “It’s kind of a community with Alex and me at the center,” Brown explains. “But the band is what it is depending on the album, with a different set of musicians every time. It’s really expansive, creatively and conceptually. We can do so much more, depending on who we’re working with and what we’re trying. We’re collaborating a lot.”
Collaboration has been one of the few constants, the compass in Brown’s meandering creative path. “There are all these great musicians and bands in Portland, and I want to work with those people,” Brown says. “Everyone is good at a different thing. Actively releasing music [with guest artists] is beneficial for the whole scene. We can lift each other up. You can widen your umbrella, grow your community and grow yourself creatively.”
On These Souls, Brown’s collaborators include four singers, three guitarists (along with Brown himself, who also played synthesizers and percussion), three string players, two horn players and a pair of bassists. “I wanted to challenge myself as a composer,” he remembers, “to do some tracks with vocalists, to arrange it like classical music, to take my first step into being a producer.”
And he wanted to process his grief over Ball’s death through music.
“She was a huge part of my life and my mom’s bestie for sure,” Brown recalls. “I still remember she helped me significantly with purchasing a laptop for college. Valeria was so passionate, creative, and uncompromising in her creative pursuits and I carry that with me always.”
A friend from Roseburg, Matt Brown (no relation), whose wife had also danced in Ball’s company, sent him a poem that turned into lyrics and a storyline. When composing the music, Brown was listening to the song cycle Penelope by contemporary composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and singer Shara Worden (now Shara Nova), which he admired for “taking elements from Radiohead and indie rock, but with all this classical instrumentation plus production. I connected with how she was bringing all these elements together.”
Another collaborator was the cover artist, Madge Evers, whose work he’d spotted on Instagram. Finding a visual concept was the final key to unlocking the recordings, which had awaited release for two years. With only four songs, so many collaborators involved (and “the music was going to be a pain in the ass to learn live”), Brown wasn’t planning to tour the song cycle, so this spring’s enforced break from live performance provided an opportune moment to release it.
These Souls’ belated release hardly leaves Brown’s capacious cupboard bare. “Being home for the last two or three years has been a really fruitful transition,” he explains. “I have time and have a studio, shifts that have allowed me to focus on living a creative life.”
The virus-enforced break from live performance has only granted him more creative space. He’s just finished mixing a trio studio recording of “impressionist folk jazz” laid down last summer, which includes a guest appearance from the acclaimed young Seattle/New York ensemble The Westerlies.
He’s cultivating an album of co-written compositions with various jazz musicians, including veteran Portland jazz guitarist Dan Balmer, Noah Simpson and more. He’s cut a couple of “dark classical indie pop” tracks with Portland harpist/singer Sheers, then there’s a collaboration with Portland’s Brown Calculus “I’m working on in the background.”
Next month, Korgy & Bass will release two tracks and videos recorded on a recent trip to New Orleans. And the next full-length Korgy & Bass album is underway, with Brown, in true 21st century collaborative style, sending tracks to musicians he admires to see if they want to sing on it. He recently got back a track with vocals added by London’s Native Dancer.
And when the pandemic permits, he’ll be back on stage, with K&B and with his trio. “I consider myself a performer, so that will always be a huge part of what I do,” Brown says. “What has shifted is this desire to be performing nightly as a sideperson [or] oversaturating my audience. I’ve really enjoyed playing about once a month with each project I lead and making each show a unique experience. Having time to plan and promote has opened a lot of possibilities with collaborations and adding visual elements to our shows.”
The visual dimension, apparent in record covers and videos, expanded to projections in a multi-sensory experience they designed and performed at Oregon Museum of Science & Industry Planetarium last year.
Brown looks forward to “more arranging, co-writing with vocalists, exploring more writing with strings,” he says. “ A ballet or composing for a play would be a big push and an experience I’d like to have at some point. I hope my continued collaborating brings me to unforeseen and challenging new creative spaces.” Like practically every other musician these days, Brown’s live concert calendar may be on hold, but his ideas and his music keep flowing, urgent and unbound.
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