Brownman blows up a storm

This young jazz trumpeter, based in Toronto, leads no fewer than seven bands, and can switch styles as easily as he changes his socks.

Brownman Electryc Trio, 2007 Canadian National Electric Jazz Group of the Year. Photograph courtesy Brownman Music Inc/Jason HendrikBrownman fans show their love as he tours the world with Guru`s Jazzmatazz (Montreal). Photograph courtesy Brownman Music Inc/Chelsea GrayBrownman is a guest soloist in the filming of a 2008 PBS special, Mediterranean Nights. Photograph courtesy Brownman Music Inc/Bruce GiffinNick Ali, better known as Brownman, a dynamic Trinidadian performer. Photograph courtesy Brownman Music Inc/Steve Stober

In an intimate jazz bar in mid-town Toronto, a well-fed horn is making some startling statements to a rapt, respectful crowd. Attached to its mouthpiece and blowing up a storm is The Brownman – a tall, whip-thin manifestation of pure kinetic energy who cannot, apparently, stand still for more than 30 seconds.

His real name is Nick Ali, but don’t make the mistake of calling him that: it’s Brownman or nothing, according to his publicist. And everyone (except his mother) cheerfully accepts the nickname which, we are told, grew defiantly out of a childhood taunt.

Behind the determined mythmaking is a genuinely talented jazz trumpeter who some in the business are comparing to a young Miles Davis. Multiple award winner and prodigious studio musician, Brownman is creating waves on the local jazz scene with his revolutionary improvisations that fuse everything from bebop to hip-hop to the edgiest of Latin stylings. Next to him, almost everything else sounds like lounge music. It’s little wonder he’s been signed on as resident trumpet-player on hip-hop icon Guru’s Jazzmatazz project, touring and recording in Europe, the USA and Japan.

Originally from Trinidad, Brownman’s family moved to Toronto in 1971, when he was two. His mother, Molly Ali, recalls that as a child “he was a handful: a high-energy person, but always a joy. He gave the impression that he was glad to be here; that life was his playground.” “A very energetic kid,” agrees his father, Faiz. “We had to be on the lookout for him hurting himself.”

Young Nick competed in track and field, played chess, solved Rubik’s cubes in 32 seconds (so he claims); and excelled in academics. Then, in Grade Seven, his school launched a music programme; he picked up a trumpet and his life changed forever.

“I knew, I really, really knew,” Brownman insists now. “I’d been hearing the sound of this horn for so long, and I wanted to make that sound.”

He’d been exposed at home to “a steady diet of Miles and Sinatra – and Nancy Wilson, my mom is a great fan of Nancy Wilson,” he recalls. But neither parent was particularly musical, so they could not have foreseen what would happen next – that their son would become totally obsessed with his new “hobby”. Faiz, a former science teacher and computer analyst, says wryly, “We thought we had a scientist; and his younger brother, Marcus, an engineer.”  (Marcus ended up playing saxophone, often alongside his sibling.)

Throwing himself into his new passion without restraint, Nick virtually commandeered his high school’s music programme, tackling everything from jazz to classical. “He knew more than his teacher because he studied more,” recalls Faiz. “So he was given free rein.” By the time he graduated, he had won every music prize the school had to offer.

“I was really addicted,” Brownman confesses.

“It takes about three years before a trumpet starts sounding like a trumpet. In the meanwhile it sounds like a braying mule being hit by a truck.” Molly recalls finding him in the kitchen at 2 am some nights, insomniac, blowing through his mute to keep the mule from waking the household.

At 15, another fateful event: he heard Randy Brecker play at a nearby high school. The American  trumpeter – a double Grammy award-winner – is a legend in his own right, renowned for his hard-driving fusion of jazz and funk. Brown got hold one of Brecker’s business cards and stashed it away.

Years later, having reluctantly completed a BSc in physics to placate his parents, but still with only one burning desire – to play music – he would retrieve the creased and crumpled card, buy a bus ticket to New York, and present himself at Brecker’s door. “Do you remember me?” he would ask; and it would take the great man a few moments to make the connection.
“New York was the best experience in my life, and in a lot of ways, the worst,” Brownman muses. “It did a number on my head, because everybody is so freaking good. Every day I’d see a guy (playing music) who was unbelievable.”

Twenty-one years old, the young musician practised eight hours a day, boarding in a Brooklyn crackhouse (“I didn’t know it at the time”) and living “a pitiful, solitary existence, me and my twisted little head.”

But the main thing about New York was Brecker, who became Brown’s mentor. “He was just really gracious. I guess he saw the burn, the desire. Sometimes he didn’t even take my money, man; I would just go over there and we would play, and I would learn. He was my guide light in the world of jazz.”

Brecker himself downplays his influence on Brownman’s development. “I wouldn’t call them lessons, given how casual it all was,” he told Coda magazine recently, for a cover story on Brown. “We’d just play… and he’d ask a million questions. I barely thought of Brown as a student, really,” he added. “He would have found his way regardless of me.” Brownman’s New York phase continued on and off for about five years, with him returning to Canada whenever he ran out of money, and working at sundry jobs – driving forklifts, for example – until he’d saved some more. “Everything that I learned of value as a real artist came from New York City,” he says. “I think we need to do it.”

In 1996, still lacking direction and still his own harshest critic (he would refuse gigs, thinking he was not good enough), he applied to the Banff Jazz Program in Alberta. “It’s a very elite programme, sort of a finishing school,” he explains. Three trumpeters were accepted that year at Banff; Brownman was one of them.

The most valuable lesson he learned there – from programme director Hugh Fraser, another mentor – was to give himself a break and acknowledge his own worth as an artist.
At the end of 1996 Brownman moved to Toronto, where he’s been based ever since. Finally ready to launch his career as a professional musician, he felt comfortable in the place he now calls the Manhattan of Canada. “I like living in Toronto,” he says. “It’s the place to be if you’re interested in evolving multicultural music.”

Hooking up with a Latin combo named Dominicanada, Brown soon found himself doing 20 gigs and more a month. “I’ve loved Latin music all my life,” he confesses. Within a year he was “the most called-upon Latin-jazz trumpeter in town”, honing his skills as sideman to a wide range of other band leaders; doing hip-hop, funk, R&B.

In 2000, he decided the time had come to form his own band; to write and play his own music.  Cruzao – originally called Shades of Brown – was launched in 2000.

The band is revolutionary in more ways than one. Its name – concocted the following year for the Montreal Jazz Festival – is Cuban street-slang for when a musician accidentally “crosses” the sacrosanct rhythm of the clave, which is at the heart of Latin music. It implies, says Brownman, “crossing into places you shouldn’t be” – which, upon consideration, could easily be his motto.

Shades of Brown was “a kind of laboratory” for Brownman’s ideas. He started off from a rebel premise: to create a Latin band without piano or guitar – the two instruments responsible for the montuno musical structure that defines the genre. Instead, there would be two horns (Brown and Marcus), bass, drums and congas. “A unique sound,” explains Brown; “chordless Latin jazz. Very strange.” An American academic has described Cruzao as the first band of its kind – in the world!

In 2001, Shades of Brown recorded a demo CD which was sent across the country, but was ignored. But then, the Cinderella factor: someone at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival heard the CD, and submitted it for competition. Five hundred bands applied, says Brown; ten were chosen to play.

“That gig, we could do no wrong, man; it was just an incredible performance.”

Brownman currently leads seven different groups – he is nothing if not eclectic.  “The great jazz musicians of this era were multi-disciplinary,” he says, pointing out that Miles Davis – one of his idols – changed styles five times.

“I’ve tried doing only one thing, and I get bored. I like to mix it up, change the framework a little bit.” His different bands afford him as a way to explore each style fully, rather than trying to force one band to do everything. “I don’t like dabblers,” he says flatly. “I like to dig deep and really run in deep waters. To me, that’s just being respectful to the art.”

This blurring of the boundaries has not been popular with all jazz aficionados; some, he says, feel he is “diluting the art form by messing around with Cubans and hip-hop, etc.”

But for Brownman, jazz is about evolution, not preservation; about taking risks and braving the void. “Every time I get up to blow, man, I’m playing right on the precipice,” he says. “I might fall off the rails, but that risk is at the core of my artistic being.”

Seeing Brownman on stage is like taking uppers: he wakes you right up. Continually bouncing, jigging, dancing, grooving, he’s like an overgrown teenager. He could almost pass for one, with his hip hairstyle and disarming boyishness; irreverently, he has celebrated his 25th birthday more times than he can remember. Marcus, his junior by five years, jokes that he is now older than Brown.

But behind the hi-jinks is a serious artist who is focused and mature. Other musicians line up for the chance to play with Brownman. Bassman-about-town Ross McIntyre, who has gigged with Brown for many years, declares, “There’s nobody who plays like him. The way he leads a band is really amazing. There’s so much freedom with Brown’s music and he really encourages his musicians to play stuff they normally wouldn’t. It’s a lot of fun to play with him.” And Gruvalysum’s resident rapper Enlight (Trinidadian Randy Le Gendre) declares, “He’s an innovator; he’s not doing the same old boring stuff. You don’t feel limited with him.”

“I like the frenetic pace,” Brown confesses. “That’s when I’m at my best. I’d much rather burn out than fade out.”

Brownman’s bands

  • Club band Cruzao 15-member version, Cruzao Grupo Monstruoso (aka The Monster)
  • Marrón Matizado (salsa)
  • Permutaçoes (Brazilian)
  • Brownman Electryc Trio (a driving electrification of trumpet and bass)
  • Brownman Quintet (straight-up jazz, à la classic Miles)
  • Gruvasylum (Brownman’s beloved fusion of jazz and hip-hop)

More Brownman

•    The newly-renamed Cruzao won the General Motors Grand Prix du Jazz award – which included a recording contract with Justin Time Records
•    The CBC Galaxie Rising Star award
•    In 2002, Brownman won the Canadian National Jazz Award for Jazz Composer of the Year, and was first runner up for Jazz Trumpet Player of the Year
•    Cruzao was nominated in 2002, 2003 and 2004 as Electric Jazz Group of the Year; and by the Canadian Independent Music Awards as Alternative Latin Artist of the Year in 2004
•    In 2006, NOW magazine, Toronto’s leading alternative/entertainment weekly, named Brown Toronto Jazz Artist of the Year; and in 2007 Toronto Jazz Trumpet Player of the Year Brownman’s Electryc Trio won the NJA’s Electric Jazz Group of the Year in 2007, and was nominated again last year