Interview and story by J Hunter

It was one of those extremely rare moments when I just sat there, totally agog, unable to think anything except, “Man… just when you think you’ve heard it all!” That was the moment I first heard Jaimeo Brown’s 2013 Motema release Transcendence. The disc opener “Mean World” starts with a sorrowful, almost painful field recording from the Gee’s Bend Singers, which is then wrapped in a dizzying two-layer mix of East Indian drone and through-the-stratosphere free jazz. Hissing cymbals and crashing drums fight with unhinged tenor sax for position inside a piece that is equally split between the visceral and the spiritual. I was poleaxed, two steps away from drooling uncontrollably… and this was only the first track on the disc!

On the surface, the fact that Brown created something so unbelievably mind-boggling should not be surprising: Sure, Brown’s been the drummer for Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana, but he’s also played for Pharoah Sanders and Kenny Garrett, who both stepped outside the box about five minutes after they got their first saxophone. The tenor player on “Mean World” (and on the rest of Transcendence) is J.D. Allen, who is firmly rooted in the over-the-top tradition Sanders established and Garrett continued. On top of all that, guitarist/co-producer Chris Sholar contributed musical and production elements that truly makes Transcendence like nothing that’s passed this way in a long, long time.

After I’d recovered from my initial exposure to Transcendence, I thought, “Well, I love it to death, but will anybody else?” I got my answer this summer, when Brown brought Allen, Sholar and a laptop full of samples to SPAC for Saturday’s closing set at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival’s Gazebo stage. The sun was blazing, and the heat had brought the big hammer that afternoon, but as far as the three-deep crowd that surrounded the space was concerned, it wouldn’t have mattered if the sky was raining frogs and bacon. There wasn’t a space to be had on any of the benches, and the all-ages audience – to a man – was absolutely rapt, only breaking out of their own brain-wave-as-sine-wave stupor to bathe the trio in wild applause.

There’s so much to examine and discuss on Transcendence – not the least of which is the hypnotic recordings from the Gee’s Bend Singers. If you’ve got a second, Google “Gee’s Bend” to find out about a community that got its start in the Civil War and has an interesting place in the civil-rights movement of the ’60s. At the end of the day, though, the music simply has to be experienced, with or without historical context. That said, when I found out Jaimeo Brown was bringing Transcendence to the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy on Saturday (December 6), I knew I had to talk to the man whose creation had shocked me into abject speechlessness:

Q: When did you first become aware of Gee’s Bend and the Gee’s Bend recordings, and when did you decide to create a project centered around those recordings?

A: I became aware of the music of Gee’s Bend around 10 years before I decided to create music around the spirituals. Their spirituals became the most important music in my life. I would always listen to them for my own spiritual strengthening, and eventually I did my Masters’ thesis at Rutgers on how the black church affected jazz music. Transcendence was born out of my deep respect for the history of the African American spirituals and the Gee’s Bend community.

Q: “Transcendence” combines two musical elements that (on its face) seem completely disconnected: Free jazz and the African-American spiritual. How did you make the connection between the two?

A: In my opinion, the African American spirituals and the earliest forms of blues are where jazz came from. Free jazz is just one of the extensions of the many expressions of those roots. In my view, what are more apparent are the social and spiritual similarities, and not the rhythmic and harmonic differences. The intention in both forms of music is where I find so many common denominators.

Q: There’s also a heavy East Indian influence in “Transcendence” as a whole. Was the spiritualism in that music something you heard in the Gee’s Bend recordings, or was that something that developed as the project unfolded?

A: I am a student of the tabla drums, and many of the ideas that I was learning seemed to logically fit into the framework. I think that it is important to note that Transcendence didn’t start as an intellectual concept. In my view, it was a natural by-product of the music that I have a deep love for, and all of the people that I am around on a daily basis.

Q: You’ve worked with some really next-level players when it comes to operating at jazz’s boundaries: Pharoah Sanders, Greg Osby and Kenny Garrett. How much did your time with those players impact “Transcendence”?

A: Each one of the players you mentioned all are extremely serious about the languages that they have developed on their instruments. They have all sacrificed (and are currently sacrificing) their lives to perfect and clarify what they want to say musically. Their passion plays a major role in Transcendence, and a major role in every serious musician of younger generations. I would also say that John Coltrane is my greatest musical influence, and all of those saxophone players were greatly impacted by him as well.

Q: One of your cohorts on “Transcendence” is J.D. Allen, who is pretty much on the same creative line as those other three players. Did you always have him in mind when you were putting this project together?

A: Similar to Duke Ellington, I feel as if I like to write the music for who is playing it. JD Allen was my next-door neighbor, and we spent a lot of time together sharing musical ideas before Transcendence was born. Several of the compositions I wrote were focused on bringing out what I love about his playing. This goes for everyone on the album.

Q: How much of this music was in place when you went in the studio with J.D. and Chris Sholar, and how much of it was created as the sessions went on?

A: We performed all of the music before we went into the studio so much of the structure was already there. Chris Sholar was extremely instrumental in the process of bringing production aspects to the live playing. We have had hours of conversation about merging ancient concepts to this technological future. He is truly an amazing thinker, producer and musician.

Q: When “Transcendence” was completed and you started playing it for people (not in concert, but to friends/colleagues/recording executives), what was the initial reaction?

A: Initially, there was much surprise and respect. I had no idea how people would react. What I most appreciate about the reactions to Transcendence is that there everyone takes something different from the music. There hasn’t been a specific demographic of people that gravitate to the music. Everyone seems to be moved emotionally by the music, and I am thankful.

Q: You brought “Transcendence” to the Gazebo at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival this summer. I know touring becomes a blur, but do you remember anything about that show and the reaction you got from the crowd?

A: I remember that performance well. I was struck by the attentiveness of the audience in Saratoga. Sometimes outside performance can be a little less focused, but I was surprised at the attentiveness of the audience. I was greeted by several warm personalities at the end of the show. Beautiful festival!

Q: Am I wrong in thinking that you still find discoveries when you play this music live?

A: I recently realized that all of my favorite movies are adventure movies. What I am motivated the most about music is discovery. Every show I am excited about what we will find together – the audience included. Transcendence is evolving very rapidly because each live performance contributes to conceptual evolution.

Q: One off-topic question: In addition to your Master’s from Rutgers, you’ve got a bachelor’s degree from William Paterson University. What are the pluses and minuses about jazz education – I mean, besides working with heavy hitters like Rufus Reid and Harold Mabern?

A: That is a pretty big question that I could talk a lot about. I am big fan of discipleship-style learning. I believe that you often learn more about music in a holistic context. The positive aspect about my education is that I was able to develop personal relationships with so many of my heroes at WP or Rutgers. These relationships have taught me the most about music and life. I have found that the idea of a jazz system can be very detrimental to a student if there is not balance. It is very difficult to create a universal jazz system.

Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence performs at the Sanctuary’s at 7pm on Saturday (December 6). Joining drummer Brown in concert will be saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and guitarist Chris Sholar. Tickets are $15. Or you can GO HERE to enter to win FREE TICKETS to the concert…

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