In the course of reviewing recorded and printed music, I sometimes come across a new artist who blows me away. Jesse Brown is one such artist. Near the end of last year, Jesse sent me both of his solo piano albums, December
and the sheet music book for Heartwork
to review. I loved the recordings and the songbook was a ton of fun to play, so I thought we should get to know this Canadian composer a little better. It turns out that he is also a very funny guy, so enjoy!
KP: Hey, Jesse! How are things in Saskatoon today?
With the wind chill, it is - 31 Degrees Celsius (-24 Fahrenheit), so not good. I sometimes think of the brave people that settled down here hundreds of years ago and what they must have thought after surviving their first winter in a twig hut. I’m definitely not that tough. I’ve learned to appreciate the cold in the sense that it grinds most living things to a halt. Imagine, if you will, a frozen paradise with crisp clean air and not a single moving insect or snake - just the deer and antelope playing in the field and perhaps the occasional roaming buffalo.
February snowshoeing with Jesse's oldest son, Solomon, at their cottage.
KP: I really can’t imagine that kind of cold. I had some email exchanges with composer Lynette Sawatsky (also from Saskatoon) a few months ago and I complained about how cold it was here. She told me how cold it was there and shut me right up!
JB: I’ve just met her recently myself. How did you meet her?
KP: Lynette saw my reviews of your music and asked if I would review an assortment of her songbooks. We haven’t met face-to-face as yet, but I really like her music!
JB: Where are you? California?
I was in the San Francisco Bay Area until about ten years ago when Mom and I moved to the central Oregon Coast.
I recently reviewed your two albums, December
(2012) and Heartwork
(2014) and loved them both. I also reviewed the songbook for Heartwork
and really enjoyed playing that. Are you working on some new music?
Click on cover artwork to go to Kathy's reviews.
JB: Thanks again for the glowing reviews. I’m sincerely flattered that you enjoyed them so much.
As far as new work goes, I’ve just sent off thirty-six new pieces for the intermediate pianist that I’ve been working on for the past year. It’s a three-volume series of pieces entitled Brown’s Notes, which is not to be confused with the “Brown Note,” which has a very different effect on the bowels. The Saskatchewan Arts Board awarded me a grant to do the work and I’ve had a ton of help from my students at the ‘scool who’ve been guinea pigging them for me for the past six months. I think I’ve got a few hits tucked away in there, so I can’t wait to finish them off and get them on the shelves.
KP: How great to test-drive the new music with your students! That must be exciting for them, too!
JB: I also have a new album coming out in the next few months that I am very excited to record. It’s been a long time coming as I’ve been making some changes to my studio and working on the books, but it won’t be too long now before it is out there. I wrote the pieces almost two years ago, so I’m ashamed of how long it has taken. I’ve just become so much more picky about everything as time goes by. Maybe I should start drinking. Thanks Kathy, I’m glad we’ve had this chat.
KP: LOL!!! I’m aways glad to help!
Do you plan to do a sheet music book for December? Your arrangements are so beautiful. I’m usually already tired of Christmas music by the first part of December, but that album really moved me!
JB: I actually did begin working on that about a month ago, and I hope to have that book published before the next festive season. That album has been a real success for me, and I think that there might be at least eight people out there who would like to have sheet music for it, so why not add that to my to-do list for the rest of the year? LOL.
Seriously though, it seems that I’ve done something right with December. There are so many things that I don’t like about the Christmas holidays, and the album is a nice escape to a simpler time and a peaceful place where everything is frozen to death and night is never ending. I think that I owe it to that album to make the book.
KP: I agree and hope I’ll have the opportunity to review that one, too!
You have had a very interesting journey as a musician. Let’s talk about that a bit. When did you start taking piano lessons?
I’m going to assume that when I was an infant to age 4 sucking rocks on the gravel road in front of my family’s trailer, I had no interest in the piano at all.
Most of age 5, I was playing basement hockey with my older brother and eating the white and yellow bones from the Total Diet dog food bag that was rink-side, so still nothing at that point.
Age 6 or 7 sounds about right, because my mom found a piano when we moved to the intersection of Albertville, Saskatchewan where I spent the rest of my elementary and high school aged years.
KP: It sounds like you had quite a varied diet as a young child! Your bio says that your mom tried to dissuade you from taking piano lessons and then taught you for a couple of years. Was she a piano teacher?
JB: My mom ran the General Store and Post Office in the village of Albertville, and did not teach piano lessons, but gave me my first start on the piano. She had never had any lessons as the youngest daughter in the her family, but the youngest son did, who in turn might have helped her out a bit. I’ve never really thought about it much before, but I guess my mom mostly taught herself to play the piano. She probably didn’t want to navigate the frozen potholes between Albertville and Prince Albert, so we just made do for as long as possible.
KP: That makes sense! Are any of your family members musicians?
JB: My dad played the drums and/or sang and played the guitar in a few bands that would tour the north central Saskatchewan bar circuit on the weekends. We’re talking about some pretty rough places. Some that had a wire fence between the stage and the patrons. I had his drum kit set up in my bedroom for a few years, and he showed me how to play a few chords on the guitar as well. My mom on the other hand, was and still is into singing in choirs. My older brother played the electric guitar and took sax lessons, and my much younger sister played the piano and violin and actually has her B. Mus in composition. My mom’s side of the family has always been very musical, and you don’t have to look too far on my family tree to find some very well respected teachers, performers, and even a well respected Luthier. They all continue to inspire me, and I am easily out-musicianed at family gatherings.
I’m amazed that your mother would drive for two hours each way to take you to Martin Janovsky for piano lessons! That says so much about your teacher! Is he still teaching? Have you stayed in touch with him?
Jesse with his trusty friend and co-producer, Fozzie Bear.
JB: Martin Janovsky lives in my home city of Saskatoon and continues to make other pianists cower when he walks into the room. Once a year, our local Jazz club - The Bassment - has a pianothon fundraiser for the food bank that is put on by Dr. Don Griffith (another sharp toothed beast of the keys), and I always love hearing him and the others play. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it weren’t for Martin. He was always there to support me in everything that I did. He gave me my first real regular job as a pianist playing for the Sunday brunch at the Willow’s Club in Saskatoon and continued to give me opportunities for many years playing for private parties and regular wallpaper gigs at different restaurants. My mom was very supportive of me working with him when I was a teenager, and I will be forever grateful.
KP: It’s interesting the bond that can form between a piano teacher and students - not all of them, obviously, but I’m still in touch with a few students I taught back in the 1980’s as well as more recent students. No pianists cower when I walk into a room, though! LOL!
How old were you when you started composing music?
JB: I guess I just started composing solo piano music five years ago, when I was 38. I’m kind of a late bloomer. Gonna learn to ride a bike when the snow melts.
KP: Cute! You mentioned in your bio that you were able to play by ear as a child. Are you also a good sight-reader? I’ve found that not many people can do both well.
JB: I’m quite comfortable when I’m just jamming and feeling it, or improvising and going with the flow. Playing something exactly the same way twice is nearly impossible for me. I’ve witnessed great sight reading, and I’m definitely not at the top of that game, but I keep getting better. I found out where middle C is a while ago, so it’s slowly coming.
That sounds very promising!
You left home at seventeen and moved around a bit. Were you in bands? Were you able to support yourself as a musician only?
Jesse ice fishing with his dad at Montreal Lake.
JB: I’ve played in a variety of bands since 1991, but I’ve only been able to survive as a musician for the past 16 years or so. I remember the summer that I quit my serving job and just set up my Fender Rhodes piano on the sidewalk and lived hand to mouth for the entire season. Those were good times - trying to find the best locations before the other buskers got there, watching transient drug addicts steal my money while I’m in the middle of a song. I actually wooed my wife from that very piano, and she dusted me off and cleaned me up (literally and figuratively) and we now live in a real house with a real roof and a real family in it.
KP: Great story! That is definitely paying some musical dues!
Did you play in restaurants? I saw that you referred to playing “digestive music.” Great term!
JB: Absolutely. I loved trying to BS my way through requests for a couple of bucks. There is a real art to creating the mood and not being too intrusive. It was all about the energy.
KP: When did you start teaching?
JB: I started teaching when I was about 20, for a year or so, but became more serious about it 10 years later when we had our first son and I needed a job that offered better hours and financial stability, with less VD, drinking, and drugs.
Do you just teach piano or do you teach singing and/or composing? I love the name of your studio - Musicscool - and wish I had thought of it first! When did you establish your studio?
Jesse with his wife, Terri, in the Musicscool.
JB: I established my studio about 12 years ago, and I like to teach in and out of the box, as well as on the edge. Some people just can’t stand reading music, and that is just fine by me. The world wouldn’t have Ray Charles if whoever taught him told him to go home, so I am proud to have a variety of students at a variety of ages that approach it in different ways. Some students obviously enjoy singing more than playing the piano, so I am happy to show them how to accompany themselves on the piano by ear. Some thrive with the structure of Conservatory Canada or the RCM, and I am equally happy to oblige.
KP: There aren’t enough teachers who teach according to a student’s strengths and goals. I think that’s why so many students quit before they develop a real love for the piano and music.
What is your favorite age group to teach?
JB: It really doesn’t matter to me how old they are. I just don’t want to work with anyone who isn’t interested in learning.
KP: Amen to that! Have you done much work as a studio musician? Just piano and keyboards or have you done back-up singing as well?
Not too terribly much studio work lately. I’ve mostly been on the solo mission for the past number of years, but there are a few - mostly piano and keys. If you dig really deep, you can find a few Eileen Laverty tracks out there where I’m singing back up, maybe even an accordion track.
KP: You mentioned volunteering with a community research project with Aboriginal students from Prince Albert. What was that about? Are you still doing that?
JB: My wife was doing her masters project for social work and found a great deal on a musician to work with. It turned out to be quite a fulfilling project as we came together to empower the Aboriginal people in Prince Albert through song. That’s really all my wife Terri’s doing. I’d throw a kitten off of a high rise balcony if she asked me to (hopefully she doesn’t). I’m really just a jerk who limits his good deeds to shoveling the snow on my neighbours' sidewalk - sometimes.
KP: Who or what have been some of your musical influences?
JB: When I was young, my older brother had a nice collection of Van Halen, Metallica, and Iron Maiden cassettes, and my dad had a varied collection of records that I listened to quite a bit like Billy Joel, The Eagles, and Steely Dan. When I was a teenager, I split up with Billy Joel and started hanging out with Bruce Hornsby. I was really into Lyle Lovett for a while, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album was on repeat for a few years as well. I remember having a student come in who wanted to learn a Chilly Gonzales piano piece, and I remember saying to myself, "This sounds a lot like the stuff that I would improvise while folks were enjoying some fine wine and old beef.” Most of my influences have been in popular styles, but I know that there is a dash of the Mennonite church choirs of my youth thrown in there as well. When my new books come out you’ll see a variety of styles from new age to old funk. I’ve thrown in a hymn and a rag for good measure as well as a few bluesy numbers. The music that I have recorded has been created to help people find a calmness and inner peace, and most of that has been for my wife who can get pretty jacked up if she gets too close to my cappuccino machine.
KP: Ha ha! Who are some of your favorite composers?
JB: For film? John Williams, Quincy Jones, and Hans Zimmer. For piano? Chilly Gonzales (who stole my Musicscool name), Chopin, Dustin O’Halloran, and Oscar Peterson. For piano students? Christopher Norton and Martha Mier.
KP: Hmmm. I’m not familiar with Chilly Gonzales. I’ll have to check him out!
What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience?
JB: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve performed one of my piano pieces with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra backing me up (thanks to Eileen Laverty for making that happen), but hearing my piano students play my new pieces at the last Musicscool concert was a pretty awesome feeling too.
KP: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
JB: Enough about me. How was your day?
Many thanks to Jesse Brown for taking the time to chat! For more information about Jesse and his music, be sure to visit his website
as well as his Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com.