"There's so much emphasis on doing something important with a capital 'I' — I'm not diminishing that," says Brown."I'm just trying to have a good time. And if I have pleasure, maybe it brings pleasure to other people.People say to me: You're keeping these songs alive. No, I'm just keeping myself alive. I care about it, but not as any kind of cause. If you're bringing joy into people's lives, that's the job description. And it might be corny, but that's what it is." As for how Brown believes he has evolved since arriving here in 2003, after moving from his native Cincinnati to New York in 2002, he says he hears a lot of Chicago in his playing, though "it's totally subconscious. I'm still into the same things I was into 20 years ago," he says. And still honing his art.
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7/21/17 | by Howard Reich
Andy Brown and the Zen of mainstream jazz
Chicago guitarist Andy Brown recently watched a video interview of eminent cornetist Warren Vache that raised a fundamental question.
"They asked: What do you call the kind of music you do?" remembers Brown.
"And he was sort of at a loss to put a name to it. He said: It's hard to sell it when you don't know what to call it.
"They used to call it mainstream, and you kind of knew what that meant," continues Brown.
"And it was that area where swing and bebop and good tunes and just swinging earthy playing all kind of met."
Surely that description also characterizes Brown's music, a joyous celebration of familiar jazz vocabularies that never has lost favor with the listening public. Perhaps that's why Brown works so prolifically in Chicago and across the country, including a featured engagement Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club (where he's also in residence for the early show every Wednesday).
The "mainstream" jazz values he represents may not win the media attention that often lands on more cutting-edge fare. But past jazz idioms never really go out of date, as Brown's busy calendar and ebullient music-making attest.
"Now there's a lot of suites and (long-form) writing and multimedia things, a lot of things being brought into the music, lots of influences and lots of fusions of different musics, which is all interesting," says Brown.
"But when you just play the tunes and play the mainstream style, there isn't a lot of that. So the main focus is on the moment, on the playing. … To me, that's the core of jazz. Everything else should come after that.
"That's where it's still at, that's still what makes it a music worth listening to: that element of people coming together and playing tunes. And it's hard to do that."
Harder than it may appear to the casual listener who's enjoying free-flying riffs riding a buoyant swing backbeat. But that's what Brown long has focused on, and Chicago-area listeners, especially, have been the beneficiaries.
To summarize, he leads a quartet weekly at Andy's; plays solo every Thursday evening at the Green Mill and every Tuesday at Cellars Bar and Grill; fronts a trio every other Sunday at Winter's Jazz Club; performs steadily in the Recession Seven band led by singer Petra van Nuis (his wife); and more.
In all these settings, there's no mistaking the fluidity of Brown's playing, nor his tenacity in pushing himself artistically within his chosen repertoire. A few weeks ago, for instance, he co-led a quartet with guitar virtuoso Howard Alden at Studio5, in Evanston, playing deftly alongside an exceptional instrumentalist who long has been a mentor to him.
That the repertoire featured jazz standards, Brazilian classics, gypsy jazz and obscure gems reminded a large audience that the sometimes-maligned "mainstream" in fact embraces a wide breadth of material and performance practices.
All these musical idioms, says Brown, require at least one factor.
"You have to figure out how to stay relaxed," says Brown, who points to an engagement he played earlier in the year at the Jazz Showcase with saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen.
"They're both such relaxed players, that was the thing I took from that. Petra even asked Scott: How do you sound so great?
"He said: time, feel and being relaxed. Harry is like that, too. They just stand there, and the music pours out of them. The relaxed feeling is hard to describe, but you feel it as soon as you hear them. … It's almost like a Zen thing."
That sense of relaxation, however, applies to a musician's emotional state, not necessarily to the content of the music itself, which can bristle with rhythmic tension, fleet finger work and breakneck tempos. When Brown and Alden concluded their first set at Studio5 playing Red Norvo and Tal Farlow's "I Brung You Finjans for Your Zarf" (yes that's the title), they built to an exultant swing finale that made it difficult to sit quietly in one's seat.
Yet their approach to their instruments was loose, their spirit freewheeling, their music an exuberant affirmation of life.
These days, "There's so much emphasis on doing something important with a capital 'I' — I'm not diminishing that," says Brown.
"I'm just trying to have a good time. And if I have pleasure, maybe it brings pleasure to other people.
"People say to me: You're keeping these songs alive. No, I'm just keeping myself alive. I care about it, but not as any kind of cause.
"If you're bringing joy into people's lives, that's the job description. And it might be corny, but that's what it is."
As for how Brown believes he has evolved since arriving here in 2003, after moving from his native Cincinnati to New York in 2002, he says he hears a lot of Chicago in his playing, though "it's totally subconscious."
"I'm still into the same things I was into 20 years ago," he says.
And still honing his art.
I felt like we balanced each other pretty well. We're both coming from the same sources - we just have our different takes on it. When you play with someone on your own instrument I think its actually good for you, musically. They are always going to have stuff that you don't do, or you didn't think of. It's inspiring - seeing what the other guy comes up using the same ingredients.
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November 2013 | by Thomas Cray
East Meets (Mid)West
How Howard Alden came to record an album with Andy Brown in Chicago
I initially planned on approaching this article as a “New York meets Chicago” themed piece. Howard Alden is your quintessential New York guitarist, pushing time and melody to its limits, and whose technical skills enable him to play at lightening-fast tempos, even on a guitar with an extra string. He’s recorded four albums with master guitarist George Van Eps and even taught Sean Penn enough guitar to look like he was really playing in Woody Allen’s 1999 Sweet & Lowdown. Chicago's Andy Brown, 17 years Howard’s junior, is one of the most versatile of the Chicago guitarists. He plays solo guitar and leads his own groups, as well as being a first-call accompanist for singers, an ensemble player in a 7-piece traditional jazz combo, and the guitarist in an organ trio who played a weekly gig at Chicago’s legendary Green Mill for nearly 7 years. Once I began my research, however, I learned that Howard’s formative years were actually spent learning and playing in southern California, where he was born. Andy largely developed his playing style while under the tutelage of Cal Collins and Kenny Poole, two world-class but lesser known guitarists, in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was there, while just out of high school, that Andy first heard Howard play.
Andy: I was hearing Cal, and then I got turned on to Kenny Poole, and Kenny was a Van Eps disciple. And through Kenny I came to realize Howard had recorded several records with Van Eps. He also played the 7-string like Van Eps. So when he came to town I was eager to hear him. He came to Cincinnati and played in a trio, with a bass player and drummer.
TC: Did Howard and Kenny know each other?
Andy: I believe they met that night. Kenny brought his guitar and sat in the front row, and Howard asked him to sit in. I think they did a whole set together. Cal was in the audience, too. He kept looking at me and smiling, and saying things like, “Did you see that?” and “Check that out!” So Kenny went up and played and it was a good combination.
TC to Howard: Do you remember playing with Kenny?
Howard: I do. I had heard his name from various people… Michael Moore, the great bass player who had grown up in Cincinnati, had talked about him and I was delighted when he came in and introduced himself. Playing with him was very enjoyable. He was a great player with a comfortable sense of time.
TC to Andy: How did you start playing with Howard?
Andy: Well, I didn’t really meet Howard that night. It was actually a few years later. My dad lived in New York and I would visit. One time when I was there a friend of mine who had played with Howard gave me his phone number so I called him up.
TC: Just cold-called him?
Andy: Yeah. I told him I knew someone he played with and told him I was interested in a guitar lesson. He said, “Sure, come over” and so I went to his place. After about 10 minutes it was clear to him that I was into a lot of that same stuff – we played together all afternoon. He didn’t even charge me (laughs). He was really encouraging and said the next time I was in town he’d have me sit in with him.
Howard: Andy came over and we had such a great time that we just sat and played for most of the afternoon. We tried to exchange a few ideas but mostly just enjoyed a nice guitar rapport.
TC to Andy: This was when you were still living in Cincinnati?
Andy: Yeah, this was when I was in my early twenties. So, anytime I would go to New York I would let him know and he would tell me where he was playing and let me sit in. Sometimes he’d have me come over to his apartment and join in when he was playing with friends. He was really giving and generous with his time and knowledge.
TC: Were those first times on stage with him pretty intimidating?
Andy: I was nervous, for sure, but my playing was together enough where I was able to keep up.
Howard: It’s not a matter of keeping up, though… It’s a matter of having the same sense of time. He might have asked me a few questions about some chord voicings or harmonies or something like that…
Andy: I still do that. Every time he comes to town (laughs).
Howard: When I first got together with George Van Eps I had been listening to him for a long time and I knew a lot of the music. It was a thrill and I had my eyes and my ears open all the time but we just felt very comfortable playing together right away and that’s kind of the way Andy and I work together, too. It’s an ongoing thing – people getting together and continuing the tradition of playing together.
TC to Andy: Would I recognize the mid-nineties Andy Brown as the Andy Brown I’ve seen and heard in Chicago over the past 5 years?
Andy: (Without a pause) Oh, definitely. (laughs) I haven’t learned anything in twenty years – I’ve just gotten better at what I knew already (more laughing). Anyway, I moved to New York in 2002, and Howard was a really great resource. I would go and hear him, and he would throw me gigs – he probably gave me more gigs than anyone else.
TC: Why New York and then Chicago?
Andy: I was a fan of the blues early on and used to come to Chicago to see different blues artists, and Petra (Andy’s wife, singer Petra van Nuis) and I wanted to move to a big city. Since I had grown up around New York, and my dad was there, we figured we should try New York first. We were thinking we would get that out of our system (laughs). I don’t think either of us had that kind of “we gotta make it in New York” drive. I had seen Cal Collins and Kenny Poole playing in Cincinnati and I guess I learned from them that if you were going to do it, what I wanted to do, you could do it anywhere.
TC: How long did you stay in New York?
Andy: I was there about a year and a half. In retrospect we probably should have stayed longer. It was our first home outside of Cincinnati, and we didn’t realize, at the time, just how much of an adjustment period there is in a move like that. Being a professional musician is a lot like running your own business – you have to “set up” that business, and that takes time.
TC: Did Howard have any opinion about your decision to move to Chicago?
Andy: (smiles) I think that he was pretty much like, “Do what you think is best." He basically gave me the same advice a few years earlier when I asked if he thought I should move to New York (laughs). He’s a very laid back guy.
Howard: I remember I was really disappointed because Andy was one of the few people I could recommend whole-heartedly for a lot of gigs I couldn’t make so it cut down on my sub list significantly (laughs). But seriously, Chicago is a real nice town, and there are a lot of great musicians there. It’s worked out great for Andy.
TC to Andy: When did you come up with the idea for a two-guitar quartet show with Howard at The Green Mill?
Andy: It was like a lot of things in life – if you sit around waiting for things to happen, they might never happen. I really liked hearing Howard play, and playing with him. We had played together at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua weekend, and it was so much fun I wanted to do it again. So rather than wait for Howard to come to Chicago I decided to try to make it happen myself. So in 2010 we played our first two-guitar quartet gigs together at the Green Mill with bassist Joe Policastro and drummer Bob Rummage completing the quartet. Howard had been through Chicago before with packaged tours and played Orchestra Hall and places like that, but I don’t believe he had ever played a smaller jazz club like the Mill.
Howard: Yes, that was my first time at the Mill. I loved it. It’s a great, relaxed room, and the audience was really attentive and everyone was having a good time. The last time I played a jazz club in Chicago would have been in 1987, when I played the Showcase with Flip Phillips, the tenor sax player, when it was located in the Blackstone Hotel.
TC: What kind of preparation was necessary to play three sets of music, two nights in a row that first weekend?
Andy: No preparation. (shakes his head)
TC: So the two of you were able to just call songs and keys and have at it?
Andy: Howard has a humongous repertoire and mine is pretty big too. We both love a lot of the same songs – even some obscure jazz guitar classics. There is sort of a tradition of guitarists playing together; Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd, Tal Farlow… there’s a lot of recordings with two guitars, bass, and drums so it kind of made sense. That first year I had everyone over to my house before opening night and we picked a bunch of tunes. Since then we’ve just emailed back and forth song ideas. We wanted a good blend of standards, songs that have lines we can harmonize, some Brazilian songs, maybe feature Howard and Joe on a song, maybe just he and I together, maybe a solo tune or two somewhere in the night…
TC: I was lucky to catch the very first night in 2010 and I’m wondering; did you ever feel any communication problems as a result of your different approaches to jazz guitar, or your difference in geography or anything?
Howard: Andy and I speak a common language that we both understand and can relate to. A great friend of mine, cornet player Ruby Braff, used to say, “When I play with someone for a couple minutes I can immediately hear if he’s dined at a lot of the same restaurants I’ve dined at”. Our material may come out in a different way but we have a lot of the same reference points and an appreciation of the same values.
Andy: I felt with Howard, from the start, that we had a special connection. That’s why I’ve tried to keep doing this with him every year. I can play anything I want and know he’s going to get the joke (smiles). Sometimes I feel like I go through all the work of booking the gigs, the airplanes, the hotels, and everything, just for that moment where it’s like, “yeah, this guy’s getting my jokes!" (laughing) There’s times when it’s just so right. He’ll say something about my playing, or make reference to something that tells me he got the joke… and he might be the only guy in the world who got that joke! And I guess I hope it goes the other way, too.
Howard: It’s all worthwhile when we play a couple of things and someone will hear something in a certain way and respond to it, or perhaps it points you in a different direction than you might have headed otherwise.
TC: Was it easy to pick up from where you left off, a whole year later?
Howard: Each year is like a continuation of our conversation. It’s like it’s going on in our subconscious and then we’ll get together and things will be even better than the year before. That’s one of the things I love about these ongoing partnerships that I’ve had with Andy, and various other musicians.
TC to Andy: I know you record all your shows so I’m wondering; what did you think listening back to the performances the first night?
Andy: I felt like we balanced each other pretty well. We’re both coming from the same sources – we just have our different takes on it. When you play with someone on your own instrument I think it’s actually good for you, musically. They are always going to have stuff that you don’t do, or you didn’t think of. It’s inspiring – seeing what the other guy comes up with using the same ingredients. When I listened to the recordings there were things I liked more than others but I didn’t feel I was making a fool out of myself or anything like that (laughs). And I think the other guys held their own as well – it wasn’t like we were backing up Howard – we felt like a band.
TC: At the time you set up your third annual weekend, were you already thinking about touring and recording?
Andy: I wanted to do more. I figured since he’s going to be here, let’s have him here longer, and he was up for it.
TC: How many shows did you play?
Howard: We played six or seven more shows in addition to the nights at The Mill. We went to Cincinnati, Madison, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Lafayette, and we did some workshops. We did one workshop with Fareed Haque at Northern Illinois University, and one at the Conservatory in Cincinnati.
TC to Andy: What was it like being on the road with Howard?
Andy: It was great. Howard is a real road warrior. He’s been on a lot of trips with a lot of great players so it was interesting to see how he managed his time and his life on the road, and how even-keeled he was. He was always working which was so inspiring. In the van he’d be trying to learn the new version of Sibelius, and he was writing out Van Eps’ transcriptions. From memory! He was always using his spare time wisely. The rest of us play a large amount of our gigs in Chicagoland. Occasionally we do a couple days in Iowa or go up to Madison, but Howard is on a perennial trip. It seems he’s always flying to London, or to Germany, or going to Seattle, or whatever. He’s much more at ease traveling because it’s the norm for him.
TC: How about the recording?
Andy: We did one day of recording at Studio Media in Evanston. The recording was on a whim, really. I knew I wanted to record with them so we just found a day we weren’t traveling. I didn’t know what we would get but I just said, “Hey, we’re here so why not?” We’d been touring and we had worked up some things and we were pretty tight. We recorded “Louisiana,” which is an old standard. Bix Beiderbecke and everybody played it. It was kind of a blowing tune for the quartet. “Chuckles” is a blues that Tal recorded years ago and it has a nice fast arrangement that we play. “You And I” is a bossa that we do. “I Had The Craziest Dream” is a standard ballad that he and I play as a duo. “Three And One” is a bebop tune by Thad Jones where we all play the melody with the bass. “No One Else But You” is an old Louis Armstrong thing from the twenties that Howard used to play with Ruby Braff, and we use that arrangement when we play it together. “Brigas Nunca Mais” is another bossa, by Jobim. “Heavy Artillery” is a Django tune. “I Brung You Finjans For Your Zarf” (smiles) is a Red Norvo/Tal Farlow up-tempo tune. Howard actually worked with Red early on. And then “If Dreams Come True” is another standard played by just the two of us.
TC: Thanks to Howard and Andy for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk with me. The CD was released on Delmark Records in August of 2013 and Howard will be back in Chicago on November 1st and 2nd for the CD release party at The Green Mill.
I like playing for audiences and interacting with people who like music. I think it's in our job description - making music for people. I think when you see me, or others playing this kind of music, you get authenticity. We, as artists, have found our medium. We've put honesty and authenticity above versatility and I believe our audience benefits from it...
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February 2010 | by Thomas Cray
I've lived in Chicago for 20 years and over that time I've had the fortune of meeting some great Jazz musicians. I've especially treasured the conversations I've had with guitarists; some who were visiting this great city and others living down the block. I've attended in-store appearances/workshops by the likes of Doyle Dykes and Herb Ellis (compliments of Terry Strayker's Guitar Works, LTD.), I've met gypsy stylist Stephane Wrembel, in town performing with local sensation Alphonso Ponticelli at our annual Djangofest, I've heard Fareed Haque practice on his backyard patio, and I've enjoyed many conversations with Neal Alger between sets at the legendary Green Mill where The Patricia Barber Quartet packs the house on Monday nights when not touring overseas. More recently, though, I've found a kindred spirit in Cincinnati transplant Andy Brown, who I initially discovered performing with his wife, vocalist Petra van Nuis, at one of my favorite Chicago bistros, Katerina's, where I was having dinner with my daughter.
I hardly noticed the pasta arrive as Andy began playing some cascading chord changes and harp-like artificial harmonics on his ES-175. His wife Petra joined him and from the first song I knew I'd stumbled onto something special. We spoke between sets and through the conversation it became abundantly clear that we shared a love of jazz history, vintage archtop guitars, the Great American Songbook, and all the classic jazz guitarist greats. When we began discussing books I wasn't surprised that we had both read the biographies of Bucky Pizzarelli, Wes Montgomery, Lenny Breau, Les Paul, Martin Taylor, Tal Farlow, Steve Jordan, and even Billy Bauer's (we also both picked up copies of the Summerfield book on Barney Kessel when it was published last year). He also read 'Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes' which I happened to be finishing the week of our interview.
How long have you been performing in Chicago?
Close to 6 years now. Previous to that I lived and played in New York for a couple of years, and before that Cincinnati for about 11 years. I started playing professionally when I was 17 - the summer before my senior year in high school.
Were you playing jazz from the beginning?
Initially I was playing blues; Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. From there it was Albert King and B. B. King, and from there it was T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian and from there a leap over to Wes Montgomery. Wes Montgomery was what first helped me make the transition to jazz. I had heard Charlie Christian but I wasn't ready yet... I wasn't aware of what it was yet... how to listen to it and how to relate to it. Looking back I'm really happy that's the path I took - from the blues, because blues really teaches you to play from the gut.
How many days a week do you perform?
6 or 7 days a week.
Do you follow any sort of practice regimen?
I don't do a lot of warm-up sort of calisthenics. I do that a little bit, but for me practice is more learning tunes, or licks, or new chord voicings that I may have heard. I might set up my recorder with a goal of playing a few tunes on solo guitar and see if I can get through them. I'm into playing my instrument by itself and having it be a legitimate musical performance. So I think it's good when you're practicing to work on what you actually do on a job, as opposed to trying to get all your scales and arpeggios and so forth in. I take a song like Sophisticated Lady and play an intro, a nice ending, maybe a modulation or whatever, and practice that.
Is your Sophisticated Lady of June, 2009 different than your Sophisticated Lady of June, 2007?
For sure. I don't have set arrangements. That's what I practice. I may pick a key where a song lays well but I try to improvise the voicings and counterpoint and the treatment of a tune so it's different each time. You know, another thing I consider as practicing is listening to music. I might turn off my cell phone, and other distractions, and listen to a particular CD or, for instance, a Ted Greene or George Van Eps concert. The more I do that the more my palate grows, the more colors I'll have to choose from.
Do you ever hear something that causes you to stop and rewind it, and try to work out how it's played?
Yeah. I keep a little notebook where I write licks, phrases, intros, chords. It's full of those things. The hard part is opening it again and revisiting things rather than just turning the page and writing down the next thing. Sometimes I go back but I should do that more. It just takes time to go back and drill it into your playing. Imagine how many things we could get into our playing with more time.
Do you think the act of writing things down helps you learn?
I think that the act of writing it down means it doesn't get lost... and maybe the half hour it took you to figure it out helps... but I also think, sometimes, that writing something down is contrary to you learning something, because if you write it down you think, "Oh yeah, I got that", but then you never actually go through the process of learning it and being able to call upon it and play it.
Many famous guitarists have been known to advise younger players to listen to other instruments for ideas and to reference as they learn. Do you subscribe to that thinking?
That's an interesting topic because you hear that all the time but I feel there's merit in both. There have been so many guitarists over the years who have contributed with chordal playing and single note playing that you could certainly just listen to guitar and be fine. I think it's somewhat of a cliché. Maybe it was applicable when there was Charlie Christian, or Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow and that was it for single-note playing. Even that would have been enough. But nowadays you can get all the harmony you'll ever need from Ed Bickert and George Van Eps and all the single-note lines from Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. On the flip side, of course, I have gone through periods where I didn't listen to guitar and it takes a minute for your brain to adjust. You might be listening to solo piano, for instance, and at first you might feel you can't relate to it, but then, all of the sudden, you start to hear it as if it were a guitar, and you start to wonder, "Well, what if this weren't Dave McKenna or Hank Jones but instead it was Joe Pass or Ted Greene pulling off all this stuff" and you start to realize this pianist is pulling off way more than the best solo guitarist that ever played. If you can get into that mode it'll blow your mind.
There are still things at the disposal of pianists, like basic everyday vocabulary, that have yet to be worked out on the guitar. Time, for instance. Time/feel/groove can be the hardest to achieve playing unaccompanied guitar. To be successful you need to create something that feels as good groove-wise as a band or a solo pianist. As a rule, pianists seem to achieve a better groove than guitarists. They seem to be able to create a better relaxed yet forward propulsion.
What is an average week of your schedule like?
It varies. Chicago is a great city to play the kind of jazz I play. There's a fair amount of work. Much of it falls under the category of Service Industry - we play a lot of restaurants, parties, events where the music may not be the focal point of the evening... but Chicago has a lot of great Jazz clubs, too, where I can bring my group. I recently broke down gigs into four categories; Concerts, Jazz Clubs, Restaurants/Bars and Hotels, and Private Events (weddings, corporate parties). It's like a pyramid, too - the Private Events are at the base, and pay the most, then the Bars & Restaurants which might be a little more musically interesting but pay a little less, then the Jazz clubs, which allow for more creative focus, and then at the top are the concerts - theaters, halls, university concerts. The ideal is to draw from three or four of those every week.
What have been some of your career highlights?
Definitely playing with Harry Allen this past year (twice actually - in Chicago at the Jazz Showcase, and then in Europe). Anytime you play with a world-class player it's a great experience. Playing with Kenny Poole, who was one of my mentors and favorite musicians, was always a highlight. Playing with Cal Collins was always fun as well, early in my career. There's been a lot of players that have been inspiring to play with; Howard Alden, Joe Cohn. Moving to Chicago was good too. When I first got here I went to see a lot of great musicians and before I knew it I was on stage with them, at places like The Green Mill - playing there every week is definitely a highlight. That's a club with a lot of history... a place that I knew about before I moved here, where lots of great people played, and where I dreamed about playing someday.
Have you released any recordings?
I've done one album under my own name called "Trio and Solo" that I'm proud of. I have done an album with my wife Petra, and some great Chicago horn players featuring arrangements by bass player Joe Policastro. Right now Petra and I are working on a new duo album that I'm really excited about because we've been performing together now for 10 years so it's about time we did a duo record. We have some good stuff in the can already so I'm looking forward to releasing that this year.
How does working in Chicago compare to New York?
I love New York. I lived there, my dad lives there still, I grew up near there... but I don't really feel there's an epicenter anywhere, right now, for what I'm interested in. New York may have more marquee, showcase-type gigs, but Chicago has more of a grass roots, working scene. I play 5-7 gigs per week, 52 weeks a year here, and I don't have to go completely out of my mind to get those gigs... and I think at this stage in my life the best thing I can do is to work all the time. New York might be a better place to launch an international career but Chicago is a much better place if you're looking to play, and not have to supplement your income doing other kinds of work.
What do you think international musicians/guitarists should know about the Chicago jazz music scene?
I think they should know that Chicago is a healthy, functioning American city, which is, unfortunately, rarer than you might think these days. Chicago is a real hot bed of culture; art, theater, writing, visual arts, and music all thrive here, much like in New York.
Do you play anywhere outside Chicago?
Yes, I'm lucky to be able to travel a bit. This year I will have played in Europe twice, as well as traveling a fair amount regionally. I play in New York once or twice a year, and I always enjoy playing clubs like the Blue Wisp in Cincinnati, the Firefly in Ann Arbor, and NightTown in Cleveland.
Do you have any students?
Not really... I mean, the main student I'm teaching right now is myself. It's enough effort right now to find time to do my own homework and complete the assignments that my teacher has assigned me (laughs). I suppose that if a student approached me and loved the music and seemed to think I had something I could give to him I would consider it... but I'm not necessarily interested in opening shop at a guitar store, or even a university. I'm more interested in it as an oral tradition that's passed down. I was lucky to learn in this way.
Can you describe the kind of Jazz that you play?
Sure. The title I most prefer is Mainstream. It's that core that runs from Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster... all the guys that I love. To me, it's the heartbeat of all Jazz. I remember reading Nat Hentoff's liner notes for the first Poll Winners album - he said no matter what style of jazz you listen to you will always find at the heart of it what Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne did on that album. These days it's a very specialized, smaller sub-genre, but it reaches a large audience and is what many think of when they hear the word Jazz. The repertoire is largely from the Great American Songbook and jazz compositions written in that era. It's played with a certain feel and approach to playing. There's a swing to the music. It's less brooding and self-conscious than other genres. Happy, maybe... it's accessible. I like playing for audiences and interacting with people who like music. I think it's in our job description - making music for people. I think when you see me, or others playing this kind of music, you get authenticity. We, as artists, have found our medium. We've put honesty and authenticity above versatility and I believe our audience benefits from it.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What do you think is or will be your contribution to this genre?
I think if you pursue your career honestly then you can't help bringing something new to it. I don't, however, feel any need to reinvent the medium. There seems to be the idea that you have to do something new these days, not only in jazz but in other mediums. I don't feel that way. I think there's already plenty to work with there already. Plenty for me to play around in. I just want to do it well. I want to do it the best I can. I think being "good" is vastly under-rated... buried under what's new or never been done before... but I think it's underrated.
With all the accompanying you do, you must know a lot of songs. How many do you think?
Probably 1500, more or less, in varying degrees. Some I might know the changes but not the melody. Sometimes I'll use sheet music though I prefer not to read on stage because I think you use a different part of your brain to read than to play. I took piano lessons as a kid and learned to read music early on (my dad encouraged me) but I think it's better for improvisation if you have the chord structure of a song internalized because you'll use that other side of the brain to play.
Tell me about your gear.
My two main guitars are a Tal Farlow reissue from 1999 and a 1981 Blonde Gibson ES-175 that I tune down a whole step for solo and vocal accompaniment - it has heavier 14-59 strings on it that allow for a fuller sound and more sustain. I learned that early on from Kenny Poole, George Van Eps, & Ted Greene. Both guitars are plywood, which I like because I can play them loud and they won't feed back. I usually play through a Peavy Bandit - it seems to give me a warm, rich sound that I can't get out of a tube amp of the same size. A Vibrolux I sometimes use seems to distort at too quiet a volume for me... I've tried Evans, Polytone - they're great, but the Peavy gives me the most tube-like sound, with the extra headroom... plus it's only worth like $60 so I can keep it in the trunk of my car which actually makes a big difference.
What advice can you give young guitarists that might be interested in a career as a mainstream jazz guitarist?
Well, the word"career" is an interesting term. One thing I've learned over the years is that there are two things; your music, and your career - and they are almost separate. Your music, your passion, the material, your musical goals... they are really separate from your career. I mean, they can help you - you need to learn songs, in all the keys, and that will help your career, but you need to love the material if you're going to pursue this. Many teachers will tell you, "You gotta learn the tunes...," but not if you're not passionate about the music. Having a career in music is something in and of itself. Business, politics, ambition - it's really a separate thing, and should be treated as such. Most of my favorite guitarist's careers were really secondary to their music. Even Wes Montgomery - he lived in Indianapolis with his family... but every time you saw him play he had a big smile on his face. A career is a serious undertaking - it's important to balance your career, your passion for the music, and your life.
Thanks for taking the time to share with us from your experiences.
Thanks for the interest.
"We have become specialists in older songs and we gravitate there," Brown says. "We explore music we care about, but we also have to make a living and play what people want to hear."
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May 18, 2014 | By Rick Kogan
They fell in love, first with one another and then with jazz.
They were teenagers at Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts. She was born and bred. He had just moved there from New Paltz, N.Y. They were starting 11th grade.
"Andy was a hot item because he was new and cute," says Petra van Nuis.
They met in American history class. After that class they talked, and that was that.
"Our first conversation was brief, and I know it sounds silly and I was a hormonal teenager, but I felt like I knew him right away and was in love with him by the time we got to the stairwell," she says.
"I fell in love with her five minutes after we met," says Andy Brown.
He was a guitarist and saxophonist, focused firmly on the blues. She was a vocalist, focused on musical theater and dancing.
Now, these many years later, they are firmly part of the local jazz world, busy and happy and happily married.
But back to Cincinnati for a moment.
They graduated high school, and "our moms let us live together. … Crazy, huh?" says van Nuis.
She went to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and earned a bachelor's degree in musical theater. Brown dropped out after a month at the same school and started playing around town six nights a week with a bluesman called Cincinnati Slim.
Then Brown got hooked on jazz and went back to school to study saxophone. He switched to guitar and dropped out after a year — "taking the early exit program," he says — deciding to teach himself by hanging out with the local jazz musicians and listening to and transcribing classic recordings.
Van Nuis did a couple of years of musical theater and was often on tour. She didn't like being away from Brown, and while recovering from a foot injury suffered on the road, she, too, began to be drawn to jazz and "decided to do what Andy was doing and teach myself in the old-school way of sitting at the feet of local elders and also transcribing from recordings." In 1999 they married and began performing together. Then, as do many ambitious young people of all creative stripes, they moved to New York.
"We were there for a little more than a year and met and saw some of the best musicians in the world," Brown says. "But there just weren't enough places to play. We would meet the greatest players on the planet, and they'd be hustling around to get a Sunday brunch gig."
And so they came here in 2003, and here they have stayed.
Onstage they are exciting in the most intimate ways. Off it, they are charming and thoughtful.
They also appreciate the value of their elders.
"I don't know what it is about us, but we've always hung out with people older than us," van Nuis says. "It is an amazing thing to see and hear those of a previous generation still so vital and still growing creatively. It is so inspiring."
She speaks with deep affection of the amazing pianist-singer Judy Roberts "and all the great advice she has given me," and remembers a conversation she had with the great jazz trumpeter Bobby Lewis. (Catch him whenever you can; bobbylewis.com.)
"I told him that my favorite singer was Peggy Lee," says van Nuis, adding that Lewis recalled, "Oh, I played with her many times," and then proceeded to tell the young singer many stories.
This sort of connection with the musical past is meaningful to van Nuis and Brown. They know there are all sorts of lessons to be learned and they are eager students.
A few years ago, Brown was booked to play in a trio for Barbra Streisand's appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "During rehearsal, the producer tells us we have to cut (down) a song. He said, 'America can only hear a minute and 30 seconds of music,'" Brown says. "Instead of getting angry or protesting, Streisand and her pianist simply cut the song ('Make Someone Happy'). And she nailed it. They showed what it means to be consummate pros."
The couple has no plans for kids. "Between the weird hours and low pay, it just wouldn't be prudent," says van Nuis. "One of us would have to get a 'real' job, and that doesn't seem to be in the cards."
What is in the cards is more performing — and learning. "We have become specialists in older songs and we gravitate there," Brown says. "We explore music we care about, but we also have to make a living and play what people want to hear."
That included four renditions of "In Your Easter Bonnet" at one recent Sunday brunch, but it has also compelled people to approach them and say, "I thought I hated jazz, but you guys …"
They play frequently as a couple but just as frequently with others. (For schedules, see petrasings.com and andybrownguitar.com. There you will also find critics praising their work: DownBeat magazine wrote that van Nuis has "a light, gorgeous, and fairly delicate voice … a gift for melody and plenty of rhythmic confidence"; the Tribune's Howard Reich called Brown's work "superb but serenely understated.")
Sunday is a particularly busy day for both. In addition to their weekly Sunday 5-9 p.m. engagement at Pete Miller's in Evanston, they play the Riverside Arts Festival early in the day, and Brown will perform with organist Chris Foreman late night at the Green Mill.
Sunday also happens to be their 15th wedding anniversary.
The wedding was a simple affair. "Just a trip to the courthouse with our moms," van Nuis says. "Afterward, we had lunch at my mom's house, and it was raining, so we went to see the new aquarium. Music? I do remember dancing in my mom's living room to Rosemary Clooney singing 'Tenderly.'"
Any special plans?
"In classic jazz musician 'can't say "no" to a gig' fashion, we're booked all day," says van Nuis. "It's cool, though. We'll celebrate another day."
"When I lived in Cincinnati, there were a couple of really great - if not genius - guitar players," says Brown, referring to Kenny Poole and Cal Collins."Both of these guys were world class musicians, and I saw that they were doing this in Cincinnati...and it made me realize that great art can happen anywhere."
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November 11, 2011 | By Howard Reich
It was one of the more joyous enagements of last year: Chicago guitarist Andy Brown collaborating with New York guitarist Howard Alden at the Green Mill, in Uptown.
Though separated by geography and generations, thirty-something Brown and fifty-something Alden rejuvenated a buoyant brand of swing rhythm you don't encounter very often anymore. It harkened back to the pre-bop era of the 1930s and specifically referenced the music of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose partnership with violinist Stephane Grappelli in Paris gave European jazz one of its first great chapters.
Yet Brown and Alden didn't merely mimic an earlier era in jazz history — they built upon it, tweaking harmonies and offering a freshness of spirit that transcended any particular period style. The exuberance of their performance developed from a musical relationship long in the making.
"When I was in my early 20s, Howard was already one of my favorite players," says Brown, who will again partner this weekend with Alden (plus two comparably minded swing players, bassist Joe Policastro and drummer Bob Rummage).
So Brown, who was living in Cincinnati at the time, made his way to New York, introduced himself to Alden and found himself in the orbit of a new mentor.
"A musician I knew gave me his phone number, and I called him for lessons and he invited me to his home," remembers Brown, 36. "But instead of giving me a lesson, he gave me a three-hour hang. He knew we were interested in the same titles and guitar players: George Van Eps, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel. From then on, whenever I'd visit New York, he'd have me play with him."
And when Brown lived briefly in New York, in 2002 and 2003, Alden "threw me a lot of gigs," says Brown, who thereafter settled in Chicago and built a reputation as a first-rate player and a sensitive accompanist to singers such as Kimberly Gordon and Petra van Nuis (Brown's wife).
Ever since, Brown yearned to bring Alden to Chicago, a dream he realized with last year's engagement at the Mill.
So why have Brown and Alden continued to collaborate so many years later?
"Andy and I enjoy exploring music out of the jazz guitar tradition freshly in our way, with our own fingerprints, so to speak," writes Alden, in an e-mail from Vienna.
"Naturally we've listened to a lot of the same players, both on recordings and in person — or as cornetist Ruby Braff used to say, 'We've dined at a lot of the same restaurants.' We enjoy using our common knowledge and history as a point of departure."
One of those key points is the music of Van Eps, revered by connoisseurs as a kind of Art Tatum of the guitar, thanks to the technical prowess and harmonic ingenuity of his solos. In the 1930s, Van Eps conceived the seven-string guitar, the instrument enabling him to expand the scope of his virtuosity and the vocabulary of the solo guitar.
Alden was a Van Eps protégé and recorded duo albums with him in the 1990s, before Van Eps' death in 1998, at age 85. In partnering with Alden, Brown in effect extends Van Eps' legacy. And if Alden idolized Van Eps for his innovations, Brown reveres Alden for his multiple contributions, including famously playing the guitar part for actor Sean Penn in Woody Allen's 1999 film "Sweet and Lowdown."
Alden, meanwhile, holds his protege in high regard.
"Andy has a relaxed but rock-solid sense of time and is an intelligent and sensitive accompanist as well as a swinging soloist, which makes him very easy and liberating to play with," notes Alden, 53. "So basically we have a ball playing together!"
All of which begs a question: Why didn't Brown just stay in New York, near to Alden?
"The big debate for me was always New York or Chicago. When I lived in Cincinnati, there were a couple of really great — if not genius — guitar players," says Brown, referring to Kenny Poole and Cal Collins.
"Both of these guys were world class musicians, and I saw that they were doing this in Cincinnati. … And it made me realize that great art can happen anywhere.
"I'd always grown up liking Chicago and always thought it was a great town. So I thought, 'I don't need to work three jobs and live in a tiny apartment (in New York).'
"My wife, Petra, and I both just thought the music here would be wonderful to be a part of, and who needs all the hassle (of Manhattan)?"
For anyone in Chicago who loves jazz guitar, Brown's choice has been a fortuitous one.
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