"I consider myself more traditional. I play melodies that are recognizable. Even though I play sonically oriented stuff, it doesn't really have a tonal center that doesn't sound like a melody."
Brown balances on the line that separates the avant-garde from the traditional in a performance this Saturday night at the Mat Bevel Institute. For this rare summer concert in Zeitgeist's Jazz at the Institute series, Tucson guitarist Matt Mitchell and Santa Fe drummer David Wayne join Brown on stage.
"It'll all be improvised, although I might map out some kind of overall structural thing, if there is time, beforehand," Brown says over the telephone from his New York City apartment.
On a brief mini-tour, Brown will play Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico before hitting Tucson and then moving on to Los Angeles for a solo concert.
When he gets to Tucson, Brown'll have played just two gigs with drummer Wayne, a member of the Zimbabwe Nkenya Quartet. And the gig here will mark the first meeting for Brown and Mitchell, the busy local guitarist known for his catholic tastes and adeptness at playing straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz, industrial-noise rock, Klezmer and Moroccan music, among other styles.
Brown speaks slowly and with great care, pausing regularly to choose the right words before each statement, not unlike a fencing master picking just the right blade. Or a sax player picking the right ax; Brown also plays tenor, flute and clarinet.
Listeners familiar with Brown might find this methodical manner of expression directly opposed to the fiery, fluid free-jazz blowing he employs on recordings by such avant-garde contemporaries as pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, drummer Whit Dickey and guitarist Joe Morris.
But the 41-year-old saxophonist is also regarded for his superb control and self-discipline.
On Brown's own recordings--including the recently released Round the Bend by the Rob Brown Trio and the live solo disc Silver Sun Afternoon--his stream-of-consciousness playing swells and zooms like a primal force. But he also shows off an instinctual tenderness, such as when he delicately interprets Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing."
Brown grew up in Hampton, Va., where he studied piano as a child and took up the tenor sax at 13 because his brother also played it and "there was always a saxophone around." He played in concert bands and jazz bands throughout junior high and high school. His listening included Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and a little Eric Dolphy.
"But we also had the Smithsonian collection of jazz, the one that was out of the 1970s, a big box set of LPs, and that was a huge influence," Brown says.
Brown concedes that as a teenager, he didn't feel a pull to the avant-garde.
"When I was in high school, I guess I started to listen a little bit to the modern players. There was one library that had some Albert Ayler records and some Ornette Coleman. But at that time I wasn't really ready, I didn't know what they were doing."
But heading off to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston helped Brown refine his tastes and style.
"When I went to college, I was surrounded by very straight-ahead jazz and funk. All the saxophone players want to sound like (Michael) Brecker or David Sanborn. Boston felt to me kind of closed, not very open-minded. So I started getting into Cecil Taylor, Ayler, Roscoe Mitchell, Ornette. Those people became much more important to me. When I left Boston I was actually trying to purge my playing of any traditional elements."
Brown left Boston in 1984 for New York. He and his pal Matthew Shipp both moved there the same year. They have played together on and off ever since.
He was impressed by the adventurous, all-encompassing musical community of New York in the 1980s. He started playing at clubs such as the Knitting Factory, now a legendary home of the avant-garde.
"It definitely felt a lot more like a vibrant, open atmosphere. I was being exposed to an artists' community, especially one with artists of other disciplines such as theater, dance and art."
Brown's education didn't end after leaving Berklee, though.
"I took lessons because I had to, just to keep up. We used to rehearse all the time. We were really developing our improvisational languages. You'd just learn from being around people, and playing with them. And then there were the things you learned from people you didn't think you learned anything from. Or the opportunities that you let pass by because you thought you knew better."
One musician from whom Brown learned much--and from whom he continues to learn--is the bassist and composer William Parker, one of the most prolific musicians and bandleaders in the avant-garde. Brown continues to play with Parker in his groups such as In Order to Survive and the Little Huey Create Music Orchestra, and Parker is a member of the Rob Brown Trio.
Parker and his wife, Patricia, also are responsible for starting, in 1997, the annual Vision Festival, a New York-based summit of improvisational jazz. "I think since then the New York scene has became more internationally recognized."
This year's Vision Festival, held over the course of six days last month, gave Brown the opportunity to play in the quartet of legendary bassist Henry Grimes, who recently returned to the stage after an absence from music of 35 years.
Brown has appeared on about 50 recordings, including the 12 on which he is the leader or co-leader.
He also has done several sessions that are in the can. Awaiting release are: another CD with Dickey; a disc by the trio Stone House (Brown, Joe Morris and drummer Luther Gray); and a promising quartet album with trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., drummer Hamid Drake and William Parker.