Derek Brown is a wildman. Or, as one of the band members who played with him at the Auditorio de Ribera in Ajijic Friday night said, “Derek Brown is Jim Carry with a saxophone”. Ans he was. The Grand Rapids, MI, native is not only a world-class sax player, but he does impossible things like sing while playing, create a rhythm section in the sax while playing, and hide his singing father inside his instrument. Needless to say, the audience in Ajijic’s largest and best equipped venue were treated to far more than they bargained for when they encountered Derek and his Beatbox Saxophone.
Brown is a big, broad shouldered guy with the build of an Olympic swimmer. His sax looks a bit tiny in his hands. But what he did with it was amazing. He started the performance not onstage, but in the back of the theater, coming down a side aisle, followed by a phalanx of cellcams, playing not only a jazz melody but a marching beat. He mounted the stage and added clavé-like rhythmic clicking and then a third set of percussion sounds – all while playing the melody and never seeming to breathe.
He finished the song to applause, greeted the mostly English-speaking audience in a few phrases of Spanish and then switched to English to explain what he was doing.
He made the marching beat with his mouth puckered to put a short sharp note into the reed between melody breaths (I am not sure when he actually breathed) which he modulated with the keys. The clavé-like clicking was done with a ring on his thumb striking the bow of the horn. He explained the ring by saying that as he was innovating new sounds he realized that his thumb was not doing anything useful, so he put a ring on it and put it to work. Later on, he added a kickdrum by tapping his foot to the beat next to a microphone mounted on the floor, creating an entire rhythm section in a saxophone.
During his performance he kept up a funny patter, including that this was his one and only trip to Mexico and it was sure different from Grand Rapids. He had spent the previous day in Guadalajara, Mexico’s “Second City,” giving a masterclass workshop to local musicians and seeing the nearly 500-year-old state capital. And of course he got to hang out with the opening band, Trialogo, one of the region’s best jazz bands, which joined him in several songs. Brown exclaimed several times during the performance that he had no idea that a small town in Mexico had such world-class jazz artists, and he gave them plenty of room to shine.
The audience loved it. Not only was his percussion/melody playing astounding, he drew the people in the seats into being part of the show. “Do you think it is possible to sing while playing the saxophone?” he asked. When audience replied “No,” he said “of course you can’t…unless, you can. And I can”. He proceeded to show them that it could be done by playing the melody and the beat on the sax and pulling his mouth quickly away for lyrics and then instantly going back to the reed to continue playing. He did it so fast it was seamless. And we really didn’t know when he breathed because with the melody and the lyrics, he was always exhaling.
After each song he took a long drink of water from one of three plastic bottles on stage, pointing out that when the water ran out, so did his performance. We all watched the water levels with him after that.
But there was plenty of water left when he said he wanted to play while his father sang, but his father couldn’t come. So he brought us the next best thing. He took out his phone, turned on a recording of his dad singing, put the phone inside the elbow of the sax where the horn mic could pick it up, and proceeded to accompany his dad in perfect harmony. Later in the performance he put other things in the bow of the horn, like a Latin shaker egg which he activated by waving the sax rhythmically while he played to add a beat from the sound of the beads moving in the horn.
He go the audience singing on several songs, at one point breaking them into two sections and actually getting a round going while he played the sax. Trialogo came back on stage to accompany him and he did a special song with Trialogo master sax player Eleazar Soto.
But eventually the water ran out and with it the performance. But a standing ovation and cries of “Otra” (another!) brought him and the other musicians back on stage for an encore and a second standing ovation for the wild man with the saxophone.
It was chilly Monday night but the lineup at the Roxy was all Latinx and …