Picante Latin Xpress Magazine
Sept 2002
Interview with Nick "Brownman" Ali after his salsa group
MARRÓN MATIZADO performed at Berlin Nightclub, Toronto
by Leslie Aros
Leslie: Mr. Ali, it's a real pleasure to be interviewing one of Canada's young jazz trumpet luminaries.  So how old are you?

Brownman: Uh... 25... well... I turned 25 for the 7th time last December... but don't make me say it out loud... I'm nursing a really serious Peter Pan complex here!

LA: Q: Where did you grow up?

BM: Born in Trinidad, schooled in New York and now based in Toronto... but I grew up - as in went to highschool and such - in a suburb of Toronto - Bramalea.  Ack... suburbia.  *holding head*  The only good part about going to school where I did (where the music program was tragic at best) was that the music teacher gave me free reign and I got to do a lot of things musically that I wouldn't have been able to had I been at a different school, like play lead trumpet AND take all the solos and play in the big band and all the combos and the orchestra, etc... Whereas if I had gone to a school of the Arts I would have been pigeon-holed as a soloist and never been allowed to do some of the other things on trumpet that I was given the chance to simply because there weren't that many others who wanted to.  So being at this crappy school with a crappy music program was a blessing in disguise in the end since it gave me opportunity to grow in ways I wouldn't have otherwise.

LA: I read that you are originally from Trinidad? Do you have any Latin blood in you?

BM: In spirit only I'm afraid.  The Caribbean and South America share that same passion for art and music, so I believe our pulses are very similar.

LA: I know that you also lived in New York, what part?

BM: I was going back and forth to study with trumpet legend Randy Brecker. I spent a lot of time in Harlem... playing streetball and stuff, but most of the time I was just practicing and trying to assimilate the sounds I was hearing from New York.  New York really is an epicenter for modern art and to be in that environment was a life changing experience.

LA: When did you come to Canada? Why Canada?

BM:  Well, my folks moved to Canada when I was just a baby... my dad wanted to get more involved in the computer industry and Trinidad, being the bustling technological metropolis it is... so he packed up his family and came here... the land of opportunity for all men of all creeds and colour.

LA: Did you study music or was it a hobby that became serious?

BM: I'm a studied player... it was never a hobby for me... it was always very serious.  I started playing in Junior High and it was love at first sight.

LA: When did you first pick up a trumpet and how did you feel? Is that the moment you knew you wanted to play the trumpet?

BM: I knew I wanted to play trumpet from very young.  There was no question in my mind that THAT was what I was put here to do.  I think it was started because of all the jazz that would float around our house... though from Trinidad, my parents always had jazz and classical music playing in the home (and some very very bad Boney M records... remind me to beat my dad for that).  I knew I wanted to make those sweet sounds before I even knew what was causing them.  In Grade 7 I had my chance to join the brand new music program at my jr. high and on the forms where you can write your instrument choice (there were 3 spaces), I wrote trumpet for the first choice, trumpet for the second choice and trumpet for the third choice.  And just to make sure I got my point across - I drew a fourth line and wrote trumpet on it.

LA:  Did anyone in particular motivate you or did you have anyone that you looked up to in the music industry?

BM:  Absolutely.  There are maaaany... Freddie Hubbard for his intensity, Miles Davis for his ideology, Dizzy Gillespie for his grace, Duke Ellington for being a great leader, Tom Harrell for his sense of line construction, Joe Henderson for his depth, Wayne Shorter for his harmonic mind, Woody Shaw for his risk-taking, Clifford Brown for his lyricism, Ruben Blades for his sheer poetry, Chucho Valdes and Irakere for breaking down the borders, and lastly and most importantly Randy Brecker for teaching me to never never never live in the past... to always look forward and move forward musically.  His influence on me is a profound one extending to musical ideology and not merely technique.  When I was in New York I spent most of my time studying the great jazz lineage - particurly tenor players... I think that has a lot to do with why I'm such a "notey" (plays a lot of notes) improvisor.  Coltrane's sheets of sound approach facinated me as did Lennie Tristano's long lines and deep harmonic approach.  When I'm soloing I tend to be very verbose.  The trio (N.A.T. - Nick Ali Trio) is the best example of that ideology.  We try not to talk to each other when we play, but to instead play tunes and let the tune (usually a standard) take shape as the 3 of us vibe off each other.  We're trying to captivate that magic trio spirit of interactivity the way Keith Jarret and more recently Brad Meldeau does - to listen to each other and let the musical motions of the other 2 players influence your own improvising.  I'd like you to hear that group... it's very very different from what I'm trying to do with CRUZAO and is rooted deeply in tradition while we try to make new musical statements.

Editor's Note - I had the chance to see N.A.T. at the Rex last week and the group is truly mindblowing in their interpretations of jazz standards.  On Nick's website there is a quote from a CHRY jazz DJ Scott McLaren that best sums up the group : "Performing organic jazz in the classic trio  setting, this group strives to embody the jazz improvising spirit from of 50's and 60's - communication.  Playing selections of standards all linked together in one organic mish-mash of sonic goodness, this unit brings classic jazz themes into the new millenium

LA: Do you come from a musical family?

        Nope!  That's the weird part... my brother and I must be genetic misfits!  Maybe we look like the milkman.  *grin*  We come from a family of professionals... lawyers, doctors, dentists... and don't it figure - that WE end up the poor long-haired musicians!

LA: I read about how your name “Brownman” came to be and I know that you faced a lot of racism growing up. How has this experience form you as an adult?

BM:  Well... it makes one tolerant of difference I think.  A fundamental lesson about the universe is that (a) nothing is what it seems and (b) we know less than we think.  The same applies with people - a good rule of thumb is to always give people a chance to show what
they have on the inside - despite what your eyes tell you.  We would all do a lot better off if we would stop trying to listen with our eyes.  Blind-fold yourself and listen to MTV sometime ... THEN tell me how many of those groups are REALLY great.

LA: What do you do in your spare time besides music?

BM:  What spare time?!?!  Between running 4 groups and playing trumpet with everyone that'll have me, I don't have much spare time.  Before I went to New York, I did a degree in physics at the University of Waterloo, so what little spare time I have is usually filled in with science related sorta things... a lot of reading... I try and keep up on the physics journals, but it's hard with limited time and knowledge... some of those journals are geared at those with a Ph.D, and my meager little B.Sc. isn't enough for me not to read some of them without getting a headache.  I find complex harmony much easier by comparison. 

LA:  How do you come up with these amazing pieces? Do you compose on your own?  How do you know you have a hit song?

BM:  Hey thanks for that!  Yeah, I do all the writing myself, and my tunes are always driven by personal experience (as was Duke's, Bill Evans' and Wayne Shorter's - 3 of my biggest writing influences).  Here's an example - I was snowed into my little basement apartment 2 years ago... I live at the bottom of a stairwell and it filled with snow in that terrible winter in 2000, to the point that I couldn't open my door!  AND my landlady have split on vacation!  My ego wouldn't let me call anyone to dig me out, so I stayed trapped in my basement eating every can of tuna in the house and studying the compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Over the 6 days I was trapped down there I wrote a tune based on some of the harmonic functions.  When my upstairs neighbor finally dug me out on the 6th day, I figured I'd call the tune "El Hermitano"... which means - The Hermit, in commemoration of my exile.
        As for knowing when I have a hit song - I have no idea.  I don't write hits... not in the sense your asking... I write tunes that I feel captivate the spirit of an intent... whether they're "hits" or not isn't up to me.  I wrote Mago Malpensado after I read Faust... I wrote Carpe Diem to try and express the comic joy I see in Robin Williams eyes... I wrote Catorce Dias after not having any trumpet work for 14 days in the dead of winter one year... see what I mean - personal experience plays a big role in my writing... I just hope people enjoy what it is I'm saying musically.

LA:  I know that you and your band “Cruzao” have won numerous awards, how do you feel and were you prepared for so much success?

BM:  Totally unprepared for this little taste of success.  It really doesn't seem like huge success to me... maybe because I'm a jazz musician before I'm a latin musician and a consequently realist and know that all spotlights move on or fade, so my real goal in the next little while is to try and parlay these wonderful opportunities into future musical opportunities to express myself as an artist and not sit idly by and bask in a very small glow. What an egomaniac that would make me and I'm just not built that way, you know?

LA:  How did you end up signing with Justin Time Records – Canada’s largest jazz label and the place where Diana Krall started?

BM:  Ahhh... that was from winning the 2001 Montreal Jazz Festival's fancy pants "Grand Prix du Jazz" award... part of the award was a one-record deal with Justin Time.  It's a real honour to be on that label.  I hope that relationship lasts for a while, because they're wonderful and put out a lot of quality jazz in this country.

LA:  I know that you are busy with your National Tour, how has that been going so far? What are the public responses

BM:  Surprisingly good.  I'm always amazed by the response of people... I guess cuz it's all so deeply personal to me and I kinda half expect no one to like it... I mean, just cuz it comes out of my head isn't really a very good reason for it to be good, you know?  And when people genuinely seem to enjoy the tunes and particularly the interplay of the group - which, after 2 months on the road, behaves like telepaths musically - it knocks me out.  It's very very gratifying.  We played to 250,000 people on Canada on the main stage for the Montreal Jazz festival.  Was insane.  Then we had our CD release in Toronto and there were like 4 people there... ha!... reality, I love it!  :)

LA:  I heard your amazing new CD “Shades of Brown” what influenced you to make a band of Latin Jazz and not just the average Jazz band that everyone is used to hearing?

BM:  Not sure what you mean by "average jazz band"... but I'll tell you what motivates in terms of latin music - I've had a deep love for latin music since I was a child... I grew up listening to Paquito D'Rivera, Claudio Roditi, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Irakere, Ruben Blades and would come to Toronto often to see Memo Acevedo's groups play, so that latin sound was already in my ears.  When I moved to Toronto in '95 I started getting calls from the latins to record or perform, and slowly over the course of the next 5 years those calls, and the intensity with which I was studying latin american music - went up.  I wanted to do something different with this group though, and CRUZAO was born of that ideology.

LA:  What do you describe the sound as?

BM:  The amalgamation of latin rhythm, jazz harmony and funk groove in a CHORD-LESS setting.  It's the chord-less part that makes this is a unique group... according to my sources, never in history has there been a latin american jazz group that combined these 3 musical philosophies WITHOUT the presence of a piano or guitar.  The group started as a
musical experiment for me... to try and compose tunes in such a way that the piano or guitar would not be missed... this had been going on for almost 60 years in the great jazz lineage, but never in latin america had this been attempted, due to the dominance of the piano "montuno".  So I wanted to give it a shot.

Editor's note - Nick sent us examples of chordless groups in history and asked that we include it that our readers might be inspired to purchase a recording of some of these historic groups and artists.  Click here to see them.

LA:  When does the tour officially end and what are your plans when it’s done?

BM:  First and foremost - SLEEP!  *grin*  Then get to work on trying to get the group to Europe... and, of course, continuing writing for the next CD... and spend some time focusing on my other groups a little more... CRUZAO is my whole life right now, and once the tour's over I'll dedicate some time to my other groups... particularly the trio as the depth of jazz exploration we're attempting is rather seductive.  I hear players like Chris Potter and Joe Lovano doing similar explorations and it excites me to hear and inspires me to continue.

LA:  What other projects do you have going on?

BM:  Besides CRUZAO, I lead 3 other groups - MARRÓN MATIZADO is my 10-piece salsa band, and we perform "salsa duro"... hard-hitting salsa tunes from classic latin masters - DLG, Ray Baretto, Isaac Delgato, Marc Anthony etc... we're at Berlin Nightclub in Toronto on Tues Sept 3 actually.  The NICK ALI TRIO, as I mentioned earlier, is another chordless group who's focus is on interpreting standards in a New York kind of way.  And Brownman & GRUVASYLUM is my jazz-hip-hop unit which features freestyle rapper MC Enlight rapping, myself on electric trumpet, Marc Rogers on the 7-string electric bass and Daniel Barnes on
drums.  ANOTHER chordless group... I'm really facinated by that tonality, as you can see.  This group is a 100% improvising group - all tunes are composed on the spot... all bass parts, all drum grooves, all trumpet lines, all freestyle.  Hip-hop with a jazz ideology.  All the groups will have CDs coming out within the next year, so please keep an eye on the website for when they'll be released.  And thanks for talking with me Leslie!!!  Big love!  A'ight... I'm out.  Peace.

Please check out www.brownman.com for more information on Nick "The Brownman" Ali and his musical exploits.

[ Main ] [ Gig Schedule ] [ Photos ] [ Email ]
Webpage design by
Copyright © 1998 Brownman Music Inc. All rights reserved.