The Transcendence trio plays Dundee Rep on 16 November, as part of Dundee Jazz festival’s most ambitious programme yet, going on to appear the following night at Aberdeen’s Blue Lamp.
Brown and his colleagues guitarist Chris Sholar and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, both powerful players, will perform material from last year’s widely acclaimed album Work Songs, a series of vivid “digital tapestries”, weaving their live playing through samples and particularly archive recordings that give a voice to the hitherto voiceless and forgotten, from African-American backgrounds and others.
The idea for the album and its predecessor emerged from the period when Brown, who has worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana and rapper Q-Tip, was researching for his masters at Rutgers University, New Jersey. “I had the opportunity to research subjects which I’d always felt connected to,” he tells me, “and in a historical perspective, which really helped me understand more about myself, about the blues and jazz, and the very roots and fabric of the music that I feel connected to.”
In the process, he went to the archives of the renowned Alan Lomax, doyen of American folk song collectors, whose work, preserved in the Library of Congress and by the Lomax estate, proved an inspiration. Then there was the “transformational” visit he made to the Gee’s Bend Quilters, an African-American community in rural Alabama whose women have become renowned for their spectacularly woven quilts and who sing on a couple of tracks from Work Songs.
Encountering the quilters and their church music, says Brown, was a real catalyst. “They helped me to understand a lot about myself, from an African-American perspective – the philosophy that people have from hardship, especially coming from slavery, and their outlook of creating art as a way of transcending difficulties.”
As well as its impact on his thinking and music, the Gee’s Bend community suggested to him that “deep community ties represent one of the strongest forces on the planet”.
From the quavering blues singing of penitentiary inmate Leroy Brown to the clink and chorus of Japanese stonemasons, Brown sees these songs as a universal expression of the human impulse “to survive and create”. Despite the troubled times in which we live, his message remains an optimistic one: “There’s a lot of darkness that I delve into, but the goal is definitely to have hope at the end of it.”
In putting this over on stage, the sampling and other digital media employed by him and Sholar, who co-produced Work Songs, is spliced seamlessly into their live act.
Things, clearly, have come a long way in the century since the first jazz recording. Apart from Transcendence, Dundee Jazz Festival marks the centenary with singer and violinist Seonaid Aitken, who scooped “best vocalist” award in this year’s Scottish Jazz Awards, in a celebration of the songs of Ella Fitzgerald (whose centenary also falls this year) and an evening of classic New Orleans jazz with Alison Affleck and the Copper Cats. Another US guest is the fast-rising vocalist Becca Stevens, while other performers include former Average White Band members Hamish Stuart and Molly Duncan, as well as another young award-winner, pianist Fergus McCreadie, whose trio will support Transcendence. ■
Dundee Jazz Festival runs from 15-19 November, www.jazzdundee.co.uk; www.jaimeobrown.com