Saxophonist Christian Brewer spoke to Charlie Anderson about his musical development, his extensive teaching and his upcoming appearance at The Verdict in Brighton.
Tell us about your background in music.
I went to Leeds to do the degree course around 1985 and I dropped out so I really only had one year of college, and that was the Guildhall postgraduate jazz and rock course in around 1987. From then on I’ve just been trying to make ends meet as a musician. I spent about three years in Spain and I played with quite well-known musicians such as Chano Domínguez and played a lot of jazz throughout Spain and on television. Chano Domínguez is quite a famous jazz and flamenco pianist now in the world. I had quite a lot of good exposure in Spain, playing at pop festivals and clubs, also on a jazz radio programme called Jazz Between Friends which is one of the jazz programmes that no longer exists. We had a band, Decoy, that were featured on that.
Since returning to the UK I’ve been leading my quartet, I’ve played with so many people on this scene. My quartet mainly features Leon Greening on piano. I also have a quintet with trumpeter Damon Brown. Myself and Damon went to school together so the Christian Brewer/ Damon Brown Quintet has been a long-standing group of mine.
I’ve also been playing for many years with guitarist Jim Mullen. I have a funk band with him called Brewer’s Crew, which featured in the 2018 London Jazz Festival. It’s a very popular jazz-funk band based in North London. I’ve also played a lot with Jim in organ quartet. I’ve also played with some very fine international players. I had a CD and collaboration with a top Italian player, Andrea Pozza, and I’ve played with quite a few European players as well.
What are the qualities that you look for in a good musical partnership?
I think a share of the same style. I like to have tradition in my jazz. I come from Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker but I also like the contemporary New York sounds of Kenny Garrett, Jon Gordon or Steve Wilson and players like that. They’re people that can turn on the bebop whenever they want but they also have found their own language, like Dick Oatts. A lot of the younger guys have missed out on bebop, not all of them but some of them just start listening to Michael Brecker or Branford Marsalis, whereas for me it’s really important that somebody can really swing and has the bebop language, as well as taking their own language a bit further and sounding contemporary. That, to me, is the really important ingredient, to have the knowledge of the past as well as sounding contemporary.
You’ve done a lot of jazz workshops. How do you approach teaching?
I ran a jazz workshop for about 3 years in North London and it was a very enjoyable experience and people said I was very good at it. I made it a lot of fun and thought a lot about how to learn jazz and how to put everything together. There’s a lot going on with jazz. Like Wynton Marsalis said, it can be very hard to get good at jazz. There’s a lot of copying going on, you have to know your instrument well, you have to learn tunes, you have to listen to the music, understand the rhythm, and know the harmony. What I like to do is get the correct feel and swing, and you can only really do that by listening and studying the players, where they place their emphasis, how they play their eighth notes. The rhythmic aspect is probably the most important thing, which is why not everyone has a good feel. Harmonically, there’s chord and scale relationships. Learning tunes, that’s a big thing for me because so many people play tunes and look at the music. If you’re playing jazz, you can’t be reading at the same time; you have to internalise the tune. So I get everyone to completely memorise the tune, from the melody to the chord sequence. And that’s a lot of fun to do because only then can you be playing with that side of the brain, where you’re improvising. There’s no point improvising unless you’ve really learnt the structure of the tune and the harmony.
Is there anything that you’re working on at the moment, in terms of your own playing?
I’m always trying to improve on how I lock in with the drums, trying to improve how I lock in with the rhythm section, my articulation and just trying to play with a good sound, with really strong ideas and always locking in. For me it’s all about that: good sound, good feel, good time. I’m always working at that. The great players always have that so I’m always working at trying to better that, trying
to improve the sound and feel. I’m thinking about where I want to direct my practice because I’ve been a bit rudderless of late, in terms of what to practice. I haven’t learnt enough new tunes. I think I’m going to choose ten and just work on them over the next few months, not repeating the same repertoire. We need to challenge our laziness and play new tunes.
Tell us about your upcoming gig at The Verdict in Brighton.
I love playing down there. I’m very much looking forward to it because Darren Beckett is such a good drummer. I’ve played with all of them but not together in the same band. Darren has played with me at Ronnie Scott’s and done a couple of gigs. I’ve also played with Mark Edwards in Brighton a few times before and I’ve played with Nigel Thomas a few times as well. But it will be nice to play with them all together so I’m really looking forward to that. Mark is a very fine player and Nigel too, he’s got a big heart. And Darren’s been playing with world class players for the last twenty years so it should be great.
Christian Brewer Quartet
The Verdict, Brighton
Friday 7th June, 2019