Steve Brown's been playing drums in Knoxville for more than 25 years, most notably with Hector Qirko, R.B. Morris, Terry Hill, and the rock and R&B combos the Curb Feelers, Bluefish, and Crawdaddy, and the klezmer band Dor L'Dor. This weekend, he's finally stepping into the spotlight as a bandleader with the release of his first CD, Within, recorded with a handful of friends and family members and featuring 13 compositions that Brown's been working on since he was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee's jazz program in the 1970s.
"It's almost everything I've written," he says. "I don't know that I'll release another one. This is a lot to take in for most people."
Within is a lot of music to absorb. It's a long disc, at more than 70 minutes; it's also instrumental, and dense, combining traditional post-bop jazz with classical and international music and pop.
"The diversity, I hope, is a strength," Brown says. "My motto was, ‘There's something on here to offend just about anyone.' I'm only half-serious, but I think there's stuff on here that will make people go, ‘Okay, next cut.'"
Within was recorded in a couple of months last year with several notable Knoxville jazz performers (saxophonist Joe Thompson, guitarist Mark Boling, pianist Bill Swann, and bassist Rusty Holloway) as well as Brown's colleagues from the HQ Band (Qirko, saxophonist Dirk Weddington, and bassist Jim Williams) and members of Brown's extended family. Most of them will be on stage for the CD release show at Knoxville Museum of Art's Alive After Five series on Friday.
The disc is almost neatly cut in half, with traditional songs on the first half and more experimental pieces on the second. That's a very rough approximation, anyway. The midpoint is the title track, a 10-minute excursion into what sounds like chaos (but isn't) based on two Indian ragas. The song descends from Qirko's emotional, expressionistic interpretations of those ragas into a dissonant swirl of impassioned horns, with Brown providing a bare rhythm but also echoing and playing off the horns. It then rises back with a delicate sax interpretation of the original raga figures.
"One thing music does is it evokes emotions like nothing else I know, at least for me," Brown says. "There's a broad spectrum of expression that can come out of music, and a lot of people avoid the darker emotions. This song doesn't avoid them."
Within is hardly a downer, though. There are jokes spread throughout, like a Vince Guaraldi reference and the title of the song "Wanna Waltz," which isn't a waltz—Brown's playing a straight 4/4 beat—except it is; the melody is in waltz time. There are technical details most listeners won't ever notice, except in the emotional effect they produce. As the album shows, Brown has an expressive side that can often be difficult for a drummer to communicate. He's always been an equal partner in his music associations, contributing more than just a beat and resisting the old catalog of drummer jokes.
"I'm a musician who happens to play drums," he says. "Drums can be an accompanying instrument, laying down a solid, fairly unchanging bed for the song to be presented on, or if there are solos, for the soloist to solo on. That's still the way it is in blues and most popular music. In jazz it was never quite like that. Even in New Orleans, during the birth of jazz, the drums did that but they also did more. They had a dual function—they also made comments on the music. Then with Max Roach and Art Blakey, suddenly drums were an equal part of the conversation, talking and contributing. Now, that's one of the parts that really bothers some listeners about contemporary jazz."
As the culmination of 30 years of songwriting and composing, he wanted Within to reflect all of his interests as a musician. He also wanted it to be pretty—the lyricism and occasionally mournful beauty of the piano and horns on all but the most discordant parts of Within were deliberate.
"As a drummer, I don't get to play pretty very often," he says. "I don't usually get to express myself in a traditionally melodic way, even though drums can be melodic and lyrical."