For followers of New Zealand jazz the name Alan Brown is not unfamiliar. Known from a myriad of quality live and recording projects over the years (Blue Train, The Grand Central Band, Alan Brown Trio), as well as tutoring at MAINZ, it’s interesting that this Hammond organ aficionado has now – after decades of work within bands – begun his foray into solo albums. Sam Carswell talked with him about ‘Silent Observer’ and the sound of space within the room.
It’s not just that this is what might be termed as his debut solo work that makes Alan Brown’s upcoming record notable, but also his fairly dramatic departure from a genre he’s become renowned for.
‘Silent Observer’, described by Brown as being “…a return to my earliest loves,” eschews the more conventional jazz/funk colours of his previous work in favour of ambient textures.
“The only way it’s jazz is, I guess, it’s improvised. Even harmonically, I kept it very, very simple. Very straight forward. Because I wanted that sort of ambience.”
Interestingly, the genesis for this change of direction came from Brown’s own studies.
“Part of teaching at MAINZ is that it’s a requirement for you to be currently researching. I’ve always wanted to explore this idea more, and this was the opportunity to do it.
Recorded in the Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber by Paul Streekstra and Chanelle Keoghan, the dozen tracks of ‘Silent Observer’ are piano improvisations, with the intent of reflecting the environment they were recorded in.
“I was trying to be informed by the sound and the atmosphere, and the actual ambience of the space, so that what I was hearing back was what I would respond to.
To add to the research, the frequency response of the Concert Chamber was also measured by Dr John Basset.
“I want to compare the results to what I was playing, analyse the frequency of certain keys or notes, and see if there’s some sort of correlation to what I played. Maybe the hall has an actual tuning about it, which highlights certain frequencies. From that research, you could, hypothetically, produce (or select) compositions to play that could be enhanced by the space.”
Incorporating this into improvisation was an unfamiliar process initially.
“I started to play the piano there and listened to the notes in terms of the reverberation of the hall. Certain things, to me, sang a bit more than others – certain notes or certain frequencies would actually hit a sweet spot. It was just trying to find how I could use the sound of those notes and then developing an idea or direction from there.”
The result is, to some degree, what you would expect, given the method employed. The album sounds spacious and resonant, and the ambiences of the hall ring clear within the music. The space Brown leaves in his improvisation gives him an opportunity to respond to the atmosphere, but also creates an atmosphere within itself. Thus listeners find themselves placed in an intriguing position where they’re able to focus both on the mood created by the relationship between the space and instrumentalist, and also on the dynamics of the relationship between instrumentalist and space.
In the simplest terms, this album uses the space quite literally as an instrument. Noteworthy for an album that might have been easily labelled as ‘free jazz’, the structure of each piece plays a very central role. Many of the tracks rise and fall in intensity in a very natural way.
“Wanting it to be very stripped back, and not wanting it to be as free, I guess I relied on coming up with an idea and seeing how I could work with that idea… I didn’t want the tracks to just be meanderings. I wanted to develop some kind of form or structure.”
Throughout our conversation Brown talks about making music that can be both ignored and focused on with great intent. A large part of this stems from the use of structure within the improvisations. He uses his knowledge of convention to develop abstract musical ideas in a more traditional way. Through structure, we find a familiarity in what can seem like a very unfamiliar environment.
This dichotomy, combined with the space in Brown’s playing, emphasises the listeners’ focus. They can tune in to the ideas, or the way they are being developed, or the sound of the space, or the timbre of the instrument and backing synthesisers/samples, as well as a plethora of other subtleties that Brown’s low-key improvisations bring to the forefront of the listening experience. To an extent, the music highlights that the listener has as much freedom as the improviser. It can become backing music to the mundane bits and pieces of one’s life, in the same way as it can be listened to studiously.
There’s a subtle sense of freedom to Alan Brown’s new direction, freedom born from structure and convention, as much as improvisation. A measured, calculated sense – to the point of taking frequency response into consideration – but simultaneously, a highly emotive and natural sense. Brown’s music has taken acute turns over an expansive career, but as our conversation wraps up, it’s easy to get the sense that this latest direction has the potential to be his most thoughtful and interesting.