I’m doing great! It’s been a whirlwind these last few months, finishing my 2nd solo album, planning my “FiftyFifty Tour”, and editing my recent “America: The Beautiful Collaboration” video. But things are really happening and I love it!
Can you talk to us more about your new single and video, “America: The Beautiful Collaboration”?
A few months ago, I put a call out on social media asking any US sax players to video record themselves playing various segments of my own arrangement to the tune “America the Beautiful.” Soon enough a diverse group of about 60 sax players from all over the country started sending me videos. After panicking a bit over what to do with all this audio and video footage (did I mention I did all the editing/mixing by myself?) I got to work piecing everything together into one giant arrangement (seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Z070i6RJdo)
Did any event in particular inspire you to adapt/re-interpret this song?
After beginning to plan for my huge upcoming US tour (see below), I thought it would be fun to kick off the idea with a US themed video for the Fourth of July.
Also, with all the political division in our country right now, I wanted to focus on something that makes the US great: its diverse people! Why not make a video that showcases this? Knowing that my upcoming trip would take me “from sea to shining sea,” across America’s beautiful landscape, “America the Beautiful” naturally came to mind.
Can you talk us through the filming process and experience behind creating the video?
The easy part of creating the video was filming/recording my own saxophone part (which you can see in one continuous shot in the center of the video throughout). The hard part was organizing the hundreds of clips I collected from all the saxophonists that sent in footage. When announcing the submission process I gave detailed instructions about what to play as well as the tuning and tempo of the piece (very important when combining over 60 sax players!). After reviewing everything that was sent in, I ended up changing a lot of the piece to fit everything I had to work with. This process involved moments of joy (when I saw/heard things finally taking shape) as well as more than a few moments of telling my wife “Remind me to NEVER do this all by myself again!” But I’m very happy with the final product, and extremely honored that so many people took the time to learn the music, record themselves, and trust that I’d make something of all the craziness!
The single comes off your upcoming album FiftyFifty – what’s the story behind the title?
A lot of things actually. The most obvious reason is the tour connection; the idea of playing over 50 gigs in all of the 50 United States. However there are actually a few other strong reasons for the name: throughout my music career, and since studying both jazz and classical styles of music in college, I’ve always wondered to which genre I actually belong. With my love of improvising and experimentation, is this jazz music? Or because of the advanced, extended techniques I use and the compositional nature of my pieces, am I more of a classical musician? I’m sort of eternally split between the two: fifty-fifty. Also, on this album half the songs feature my singing, while the other half is strictly instrumental. And finally, about half the songs on the album feature collaborations, while half are me playing by myself.
How was the recording and writing process for this project?
Slow… I often wonder why it takes me so long to compose a new piece, working on multiple songs slowly for months and months sometimes. But then I have to remind myself: ‘Oh yeah, I’m trying to alternate rapidly between a melody and bass line on the saxophone, while playing percussion on the sax with rings, while stomping a kick drum part with my feet, while singing words in the split seconds between saxophone notes. And did I mention this is all happening at the same time with no electronics or looping? So yeah, writing all those parts and figuring out how to play the darn things take some time!
You brought a significant number of guests onto this record (as well as the video) – did you handpick them and/or how did they come on board?
With the various collaborators on the album, it was first and foremost about making great music with musicians I like both artistically and personally. I’m constantly experimenting with new ways of playing the saxophone but also experimenting now with different group settings. And you’ll notice that like with my solo saxophone compositions, I never actually feature traditional rhythm section instruments (drums, bass, etc.), as I love pushing the boundaries of instrument roles, as well as making things hard on myself, I guess!
The guest artists came about through a variety of ways, but mainly I reached out to each of them for the specific songs. For instance, I started thinking about dream collaborations I’d do if given the chance, and one of my favorite sax players Jeff Coffin (currently playing with the Dave Matthews Band) was at the very top. I had some ideas for some high energy playing that he’d be perfect on. So after some phone calls and a trip to Nashville, lo and behold we recorded some tunes together! My favorite of these on the album is called “The Jackalope” which was completely improvised and done in one single take!
What did these collaborators bring to the table, in terms of your goals for the project?
Regarding rapper Keith Harris, at some point I began to recognize that most of the music I personally listen to has words. Almost begrudgingly, I’ve come to grips with the fact that despite the unique power of instrumental music, sometimes words can add something that music alone can’t. That’s why I’ve started writing my own words to songs as well as called in my Chicago friend Keith Harris to rap on our song “Empathique.”
I’m also not afraid to get a little personal with my music and thought it would be fun to ask (or more like “force”) my wife to sing a duet with me on my arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” If asked, she most definitely wouldn’t identify herself as a singer, but I think it turned out great!
The album is rounded out with some new friends from France, saxophonist Philippe Geiss and pianist Marija Aupy, as well as the aforementioned US saxophonists on “America: The Beautiful Collaboration.”
Do you tend to take a different approach when you are collaborating, as opposed to your solo touring/recording? Was that approach a specific goal of FiftyFifty?
Definitely. I spend so much of my musical life just being inside my own head, doing everything by myself. Practicing by myself, writing by myself, traveling and performing by myself. It’s not a surprise that I can start to get sick of myself! Also, as much as I try sometimes (being the closet introvert that I often am), I have to admit that no one can continually create brand new things in a bubble. We all have to be inspired by other things, other creators. Playing with and writing for other musicians forces me to get outside my own head and come up with new ways of making music. Plus, as hard as I try, there will always be some sounds and ideas I can never do by myself with a solo, acoustic saxophone. So just add a few other musicians to the mix, and it’s a whole new musical dimension to play in!
How are you preparing for your upcoming tour?
Well, after booking all 65+ gigs myself (yeah, you heard that right…) I’m currently trying to sleep a little. Ha, who has time for that!
After getting these gigs all lined up, now it’s mostly down to the nuts and bolts of how am I actually going to get to all these states, and stay sane while doing it for so long away from home? But amazingly a good friend has just donated an RV for us to borrow for the whole nine months, so we’ll actually be taking our home with us!
What are you looking forward the most about the FiftyFifty Tour?
As a musician, there’s a lot to love about touring, and there’s also a lot to NOT like (for example: time away from family, crappy hotels, airports, etc.). But with this tour, in an RV with my wife, driving from state to state (except for Hawaii of course), I can avoid all those things! I’m bringing my home and family with me!
Plus, when I see a club or hall full of people that gave up their evening to take the chance of listening to one guy and a saxophone on a stage for 90 minutes, I feel so energized. And on top of that, when I can make them smile, clap, or sing along with me, this is truly “living the dream.”
What made you want to play over 50 gigs?
After realizing I wanted to play more in my own home country, I started sending out a lot of emails. With such a positive response from all corners of the country and so many people excited about the possibility of me coming to visit, my wife and I thought, ‘We’ve got a lot of the US covered here. What if we just go all the way and make the challenge to do all 50?” Plus, as some people say, we’re young(ish), (maybe a bit naive?), without a big family yet, so why not? And as cliche as it may sound, we both realized we’d probably always be wondering “what if” if we hadn’t tried it.
How challenging was it to book/coordinate?
Honestly, despite doing this alone, because of some strategic thinking, it hasn’t been that difficult. I like to think of my music career as my own start up company. And the experts always say you need to know and target your specific audience. Instead of going after any and every music club, performing arts center, or whatever, I went after the people that were most likely to know and appreciate my music: other saxophone players. My music videos have been seen by literally millions of people around the world, but if there’s one group of people who are familiar with my music, it’s sax players.
So after finding contact info for any and every sax player in any leadership role at a university, festival, or club, I reached out to EVERYONE. And then things started rolling and haven’t stopped! I’ve heard someone say, “To make it in the music industry, it’s 10% artistic skill and craft and 90% business.” I’m starting to realize they’re not wrong!
What process did you use to figure out routing, and how complicated has it been to plan logistics for the upcoming tour?
Google Maps and my wife. (Thanks Honey!)
What can audiences expect when you come to town?
Other than one dude on a stage with a saxophone, expect the unexpected. Honestly. I really pride myself on keeping things exciting and surprising. Using humor, audience participation, and some surprise collaborations (did I mention my wife is traveling with me?), I put a lot of thought and effort into crafting my entire performance. I want to stretch people’s imagination of what’s possible with just one acoustic saxophone. And I’m coming up with new ideas all the time!
So if anyone reading this has a chance to see my live, despite what you think you know about the saxophone, I don’t think think you’ll be disappointed. I dare you to show up!
What else is happening next in Derek Brown’s world?
Good question. But with all the non-stop planning I’ve been doing for this tour, video, and recording, this is the one question I don’t even want to think about! Keep up with the latest news from the tour at www.fiftyfiftytour.com! Thanks for listening everyone!