Soul Brothers

Musicians Kenneth and Keith Brown may be "a couple of local guys," but they're also furthering their father Donald's jazz legacy

Keith Brown literally swings when he plays, moving his mammoth shoulders in sync with the slinky vamps issuing from his electric keyboard, bobbing his big head in time with his brother Kenneth's shuffling beats. On a Wednesday night at Purada's on Kingston Pike, the four-piece Groove Therapy is in the house, and though the crowd isn't large, it's ready to hear the band bring some serious old-school R&B. Inside two songs, one of the cocktail tables near the bandstand spontaneously empties as its occupants take the floor and break out in an easy, funky step, the kind of dance people haven't done too much of since the 1970s—deliberate, almost carnal in its pacing, with expressive hands and plenty of booty, as if to savor the simple pleasures of movement itself.

Maybe the revelers know that the band—which also features horn ace Will Boyd and vocalist Kelle Jolly—is anchored by Kenneth and Keith Brown, the eldest and youngest son, respectively, of renowned jazz pianist/composer/University of Tennessee faculty member Donald Brown. Or maybe they don't care. Maybe they just want to nurse a couple of stiff ones and chill, after a long day, to the soulful sounds of '70s nuggets from Stevie Wonder or Tower of Power or whoever Groove Therapy is channeling on this particular night.

But if any of them have ever seen the elder Brown perform, they'll surely catch on, especially when Kenneth flashes his father's famous gap-toothed grin behind the drum kit, or when Keith takes a solo flight on keys. The chords and note choices are familiar—sweet, swinging melodies that are taken just far enough astray through clever deployment of choice blue-note fills.

These two Brown brothers, ages 30 and 25—there's also 27-year-old middleman Mista Enz, aka Donald Jr., an up-and-coming hip-hop artist and producer—have always been pretty matter-of-fact about the imposing shadow cast by their famous father. But their unassuming natures may be on course for a headlong collision with the very real possibility of serious careers in music.

"I never really thought about my dad's standing or whatever until I got serious about music," Kenneth says. "His standing didn't really make a difference to me. He was just my dad. And when we were growing up, I was not really interested in jazz. I was interested in rap, and in just being a kid. Now, looking back, there is one thing I remember I wish I could have picked up on at the time. There was one night, some kind of show had been going on, and we had all these people at the house, Harold Mabern and Christian McBride and James Williams and Mulgrew Miller and all these great musicians. Back then, it was just a lot of people at the house. It kind of amazes me now—Christian McBride was at my house, playing Nintendo."

There have been other brushes with greatness since then, concerts and jam sessions and even the occasional private lesson with the likes of Miller, the Memphis piano legend, or Carl Allen, the drum wunderkind who began an eight-year run with Freddie Hubbard before he'd finished college, and Lenny White, the ex-Return to Forever skinsman. As a former keyboardist/pianist for legendary drummer Art Blakey, their father knows all of those cats—he wrote songs for them, played with them, broke bread with them at winsome little cafes in Paris and Milan.

The Knoxville jazz community is a small one, and close-knit: Word is starting to spread that the offspring of venerated composer Donald Brown have inherited their father's chops and then some, adding doses of youthful verve and hip-hop energy along the way.

"I'm starting to hear things during my travels," says Donald Brown. "Other musicians stop me and say, ‘Man, I hear your sons are baaad.' I tell them they're starting to get a name, and that they should start seeing themselves in a different light, taking themselves more seriously. They've played and held their own with world-renowned musicians. But I think they still see themselves in terms of being a couple of local guys."

Both Keith and Kenneth showed considerable musical aptitude from an early age. Kenneth got his first drum set at age 3. Keith, like his father, gravitated to the keyboards. The family keeps an old videotape of 10-year-old Keith playing some of his father's compositions on piano, most of which he learned on his own, playing by ear.

Ironically, Keith credits his mother, Dorothy—a quiet woman who sings, plays piano, and writes songs herself—as much as his dad for influencing his musical tastes during those formative years. "We'd play games in the basement, and she'd always have some R&B or whatever playing, maybe some Stevie Wonder or Luther Vandross," he says. "She was constantly listening to music."

But somewhere between precocious toddlerhood and the brutal advent of puberty, something happened to both Keith and Kenneth Brown. Or maybe some things would be more accurate—friends, sports, girls, hip-hop, things that caused them to fall away from the early promise of their chosen axes. Keith was a jock, playing multiple sports through junior high and during his high school years at West and Bearden. And both boys joined their brother Donald, for a time, as budding freestyle rap artists.

"When we were younger, we all rapped together," Keith says. "As far as rapping and that style of music, Donnie had the upper hand on us. But I think collectively we brought something different to the table than a lot of stuff that was going on in rap. Since I've been into the hip-hop and now some of the neo-soul stuff, it's given me a different approach on keyboards. I listen to stuff like Outkast, what I would consider to be the more musical hip-hop. The phrasing and the feel gives me certain types of improvisational ideas, even certain types of harmonic things."

Perhaps governed by the schedule of some genetic internal clock, both Kenneth and Keith drifted back into music upon graduating from high school. Almost as if he were waiting for his brother to catch up, Kenneth made all of his early onstage appearances with his father, backing up Donald and other local jazz luminaries, primarily at the now-defunct Old City jazz club Lucille's.

When Keith came of age, the two went on to found their first Dad-less musical project, the aforementioned Groove Therapy, which has existed on and off now since 2001, through break-ups and personnel changes. It was the beginning of a partnership that seems set to endure for many years to come. "Playing jazz together, it seems like there are more natural things that happen because we're brothers," Kenneth observes. "It's like we're on the same wavelength. There's an ease of playing. I don't have to worry about certain things I'd have to worry about with someone else. I can naturally feel where he's at, and vice versa."

LOCAL SAXOPHONE ACE BILL SCARLETT, a longtime Donald Brown friend and cohort who has played alongside both sons onstage, observes that their father's influence is also revealed in the nuances of their playing. He says of Kenneth, "Even as a drummer, I see Donald in him," Scarlett says. "You know, Donald started out playing the drums. Some of that may have rubbed off."

As for Keith, Scarlett has watched him tickle the ivories on straight-up acoustic piano, and wax electric on keyboards. Either way, the result is at once happily venturesome, yet pleasantly mindful of his father's style.

"Keith, you can tell, he has that highly creative part of Donald, very open and experimental," Scarlett says. "It comes out in a little different way, but you can tell he's influenced by his dad. Both of them relate heavily to Herbie Hancock in terms of what they do harmonically. The biggest difference, I think, is he didn't have all those years playing R&B in Memphis like his dad."

Says Donald Brown of his keyboard-playing son: "Honestly, I don't see too many ways he's not like me. Pretty much everything he plays reminds me of what I did when I was younger, except that he has much more technique than I do. He has incredible technique. He can hold his own with the really good young jazz pianists out there, or he could play with someone like Prince or Janet Jackson, or anyone like that, if he wanted to."

And dad isn't the only one who's noticed. Earlier this year, when trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis visited the Tennessee Theatre, he made an after-show appearance at a Donald Brown gig in the now-defunct Cha-Cha's in Bearden, playing the whole of the band's last set with Kenneth on drums and Keith on keys. In 2007, the brothers went to Europe and toured as a trio with New York bassist Essiet Essiet, and took part in a show that included a complement of well-traveled contemporary jazzers, including trumpeter Bill Mobley and Marsalis drummer Ali Jackson.

Kenneth even mans the drums on four tracks of Donald's latest Space Time release, Fast Forward to the Past. And come mid-2009, Fast Forward producer Xavier Felgeyrolles will enter the studio with the brothers and record an album of their own, also set for release on Space Time.

None of which even enters the conversation when Keith and Kenneth talk about their plans. They're too jazzed about another project, long in the making, a 10-piece horn-and-guitar outfit dubbed After Party, featuring a host of well-known local jazz, rock, and R&B regulars: trumpeter P.J. Alexander (Gran Torino, the Spades), guitarist Cozmo Hollaway (Dishwater Blonde), vocalist Melvin Ellis, and Will Boyd on sax.

Kenneth calls the band "a sort modern version of Parliament and Funkadelic. For me, there are no bands around the area that I've heard of that you go to see and it seems like a lot of work went into it. I want to have a band that was actually something for people to come and see. A stage show, maybe some costumes. It's still a work in progress. We may get around to all those things."

After Party has already played one show, on Oct. 30, pulling together a set list that mixed a handful of originals with long-form, jam-friendly arrangements of songs by John Legend, Gnarls Barkley, and Erykah Badu. "It was the most fun I have ever had playing music," Kenneth says. "I would really like to keep the band going for a good amount of time—build a fan base and get some good chemistry going, the kind of chemistry you only get from playing together for a while."

So is there a disconnect between dad's urgings, hints, and hopes of burgeoning jazz celebrity, and the sons' vision of building their own story their own way? Maybe. But Donald Brown is no hardass, and no fool. He seems to sense that if he points in the right direction, his savvy sons will eventually find a path.

"I've told them I can start making phone calls any time they want," he says. "But I have to remind myself that sometimes I have a tendency to push harder than I need to. I'm sure that sometimes they're like, ‘Why don't you just go take a back seat somewhere?' But I'm really proud of them, and not just because of their musical talent, but because they're great kids and great people. That means a lot more to me than just music."

WHEN GROOVE THERAPY BREAK INTO the last song of their set at Purada's, the players suddenly seem tuned in to a whole other wavelength, tapping a vein of improvisational creativity a league beyond the comparatively straightforward, classic R&B vamping of the previous numbers. As the band starts to sizzle, vocalist Jolly takes a powder, hitting the dance floor and taking a spot alongside the handful of cocktail revelers who've been clapping, snapping, and wagging tail on and off all evening long.

Whereas the rest of the set was marked by accessible, spit-polished groove, this last number is almost dirty with funk. The Brown brothers lock in like soldiers falling into formation, Keith playing meaty bass riffs on his electric keyboard in near-clairvoyant sync with Kenneth's powerful downbeats. Keith's other hand alternately comps, then fires off quicksilver blues lines in counterpoint to Boyd's aggressive saxophone soloing. The two melodists weave, clash, spar, then join in sweet harmony with one another, before breaking, weaving, and clashing again.

And then Boyd drops out. Keith takes a solo, a long, sinuous flight of fancy that sounds much like his father, in all the right ways—the ineffable swing, the impeccably tasteful melodies, the outre harmonic ornamentation that comes off as both discordant and lovely at the same time. They've got the world at their fingertips, these Browns—at the beat of a drumstick, the stroke of a key.