Vol. 11 No. 12 • March 24 – 30, 2005






click to see Press Release

By Sarah Cairns, View Magazine

27-year-old Trinidad born, NYC schooled, Toronto based award winning jazz visionary Brownman Ali is in town this week playing with Gruvasylum, one of his six—that’s right six—diverse bands.

The four–piece group was born out of Brownman’s hybrid experiences growing up as a man of colour in Toronto and New York. “I went through that acoustic upbringing with soul and R&B and hip hop, and then later on drum and bass and that UK electronica sound that made its way down to New York. A lot of it started to bleed into each other and broke down borders,” he relates.

That coalescence of sound provided Brownman—a nickname that emerged from childhood taunts, now used as a positive moniker—with the ability to see similarities in two perceptually distinct genres, jazz and hip hop. “I believe that the distance between the true core of hiphop and the true core of jazz, which is improvisation, is absolutely one and the same. The people who are separating them are doing so for cultural reasons and perhaps even racial reasons rather than artistic reasons,” Brownman reflects. “When you get back to the core essence of hip hop—you know in the 80s when Public Enemy, KRS-1, Gangstarr, Run DMC, Grand Master Flash and those great groups that were making political statements—so much of what they were doing came from the freestyle form, that improvised element.  And at the core of all great jazz is the improvised solo—a lot of people will argue that jazz is just a musical vehicle for the solo. It’s certainly true of Coltrane and Miles and the proponents of the 1960s Blue Note era. A lot of those records that were made, the melodic content was just a vehicle to get to the solo, and that’s where the artist made his greatest statement. So Gruvasylum is my attempt to bridge that gap and get back to both of those elements.  The distance between hip-hop and jazz isn't so big when you look at it from that improvisational perspective.”

Another element that makes Gruvasylum unique is the belief in the evolution of the jazz art form. While traditionalists may scoff at this modernization of the domain, Brownman remains true to his ideology. “Jazz needs no preservation. That’s what CDs are for, to document and catalogue music. Jazz needs to evolve.”  The same is also true for hip hop. Before Brownman toured with well–known artists The Pocket Dwellers, (Brownman.com editor's note - and in 2006 he would be tapped by the legendary GURU of Gangstarr fame himself to replace Donald Byrd in Guru's Jazzmatazz. Wonderfully ironic when you see how much Brown idolized Guru when this article was written in 2005) he felt that hip hop was dead, that it had been corrupted by the record labels who were only interested in selling as many units as they could. But the tour opened his eyes to a socially conscious thread wrapping itself around the groove. “My favourite guys on the scene were The Roots, Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane, P.E., Common, Dead Prez, Gangstarr, KRS-1,  and all those conscious brothers that were making REAL statements.  There’s so much filth out there now, you know, the yo yo yo posturing and all the superflueous bling you seen in the videos. But there are artists out there that are trying to get back to making statements about the world - like Guru. Enlight, my rapper, is exactly that kind of rapper.  He’s cut from that cloth.  Something he likes to spit a lot is ‘if George W. Bush gets CNN, then I get this mic for the message that I send.’  Or 'live the life of love so you can love the life you live'.  That’s the kind of conscious attitude that he has.” 

Finding a rapper that fit with Gruvasylum proved to be difficult for Brownman because the band backs up Enlight with live music as opposed to a prepackaged computer mix. “Most rappers don’t understand this concept (of working with a band) ‘cause they get up there with a microphone and a DJ back there and they play over beats,” Brownman relates. “So they don’t really have that musical sophistication. Most rappers know how to deal with beats and that’s it. But you put a guitar player back there or a great band—a band that will stop on a dime or take a hard left turn behind you—and suddenly they lack the ability to adapt. So it was really hard (to find someone).” 

“I was looking for a rapper who could freestyle consciously, who wasn’t just standing up there saying garbage or whatever because it was going to be truly improvised. I was not going to write tunes actively for the group, so I needed someone who could think compositionally and essentially write his own on the fly while making some real statements.  And then (I needed) a rapper who understood how to deal with music, real music, musicians—and then high level musicians at that. Marc Rogers, Danny Barnes and myself, we’ve all won a stack of awards and our reputations are quite large and we didn’t want a kid who would get intimidated by all that. Enlight - he’s fabulously bad-ass.” 

Brownman promises an energetic evening with a fusion of urban and jazz philosophies. “We tend to stir people up with the depth of the groove that we can create.  There’s something really powerful about watching four guys continuously create.  It’s birth, you know. And if you’re really into music there’s nothing more exciting than watching musical birth. I love watching a great solo, ‘cause as a great solo it was born.  That thing crawled out of that guy right there and the metaphor is life. I would like to think  that I feel really alive when I play because we are really alive and there is so much spontaneous birthing happening on stage. A lot of the grooves are really intense, but it’s very danceable.  It’s not something that you’re going to want to sit down and cross your legs to.”

But don’t take Brownman’s word for it. “I’ve seen a 65–year–old women sit at the back of a club with her fingers in her ears, but when it’s over come up and go ‘I really enjoyed what you guys did, I never thought I would like a rapper. You reminded me of the time I saw Duke Ellington.’ Then she has this crazy story about that time she met Duke at the Sands, and I think that’s so heavy.  Then you’ve got the 16-year-old kid who’s going ‘whoa dude, you guys are, like, off the hook man, that rappers like ridiculous.’ And those two people will approach me back to back, 65 and 16. That means were doing something right. It means the music has become more than just an idiom or a genre, it’s become a force that touches people. And when a force touches people, they don’t care what it is.”

Brownman & Gruvasylum play Pepper Jack Café
on Saturday March 26, 2005.

Check them out before the show at
Brownman.com  &  gruvasylum.brownman.com

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