When Jaimeo Brown says his exploration of early American spirituals met his growing passion for Indian Tablas, jazz, and hip-hop he most certainly is not talking about any of it in a general sense. Beginning with a college thesis paper and evolving into a full album featuring his close friends JD Allen and Chris Sholar, Brown has delved into the musical, social, cultural, and intellectual factors that create the music he loves. Better yet, now he is ready to share that with the world. We sat down with Jaimeo Brown to discuss ‘Transcendence,’ his influence, and what he looks forward to accomplishing with his music.
How did you first get started in music?
Both of my parents are jazz musicians, so I kind of grew up traveling with them as they did residencies for the endowments of the arts all the way through the ‘80s and early-‘90s. So I grew up traveling with them and carrying equipment. Growing up around it, I didn’t actually want to necessarily play music because it was what my parents did. But eventually around my junior year in high school, I transferred schools and they had an audition for the drum chair. A few of my friends were interested in it. Eventually I would say I really got into it through the social elements. I started playing drums and all of this stuff started to come out of me pretty quickly because I had so much in my ears from my parents. I had to practice a lot to catch up with the technique so I could do what my ears were hearing.
What type of music were you listening to back then?
I pretty much grew up listening to hip-hop. That was what I listened to before I even began to play drums. Albums like Guru’s Jazzmatazz that was fusing jazz and hip-hop of course. That really began to open my ears to hear some new directions. My parents also exposed me to all different kinds of music. My preference was definitely hip-hop growing up though. When I started playing jazz I got into people like Art Blakey, Dennis Chambers, Tony Williams, and people like that.
Transcendence has a lot of different influences within the music. What was the spark for creating this record?
I would say the musical side of Transcendence came from things I was already experimenting with. I was very interested in digging into the earliest spirituals that I could find—like the earliest American blues. I did my thesis at Rutgers on how the black church affected jazz. So I was digging and researching to find some of these early spirituals and I came across some sung by the Gee’s Bend community in Alabama. Their music became a huge influence on this project.
At that same time I’m also researching history and I’m researching the social atmosphere in which the music was created, which had a huge impact on the music itself. Also at that time I was studying Tablas. There are certain elements of East Indian music and classical music as a whole that I was already thinking about and experimenting with. There is something within the elements of the cry from the spirituals in Alabama and the cry from singers that I heard from Indian singers that became a common denominator. It is humans crying out in the midst of struggle. That was a huge denominator for all of the music on the project. It wasn’t the type of situation where I’m thinking, “Okay, how am I going to merge these elements together musically?” It more came from a natural byproduct of things that I was already experimenting with. I think that’s what gave the record a sense of cohesion.
As you researched the social climate that influenced the early spirituals, did you draw any parallels to the social climate today?
In my experience, the purpose of those spirituals were to really build up a community, to encourage through difficult times, and worship as well. For me, I needed to have something that was a little bit deeper within my own expression of music. In this society and in this music the focus is usually that you play music so that you can become a performer. Thus the function of music to perform. Yet, socially, that’s not really what this music came out of. It wasn’t coming out of a performance-based mentality. So the philosophy of that really shaped where I wanted to go spiritually and musically. So strategically in making this record I made decisions such as who played on the record, including my own family who played on it—my mother, father, sister, and daughter all have cameos.
You also have Chris Sholar and JD Allen on the record. Why did you pick them for this specific project?
Chris is one of the first people I met when I came to the East Coast. He became a close friend back then about 15 years ago. What I really think that he brings to the table that is very special is his both his understanding of jazz and the blues, and his experience as a Grammy-nominated producer. I really wanted to see him in a function more as a live producer instead of just playing guitar on stage. I wanted him to use some of these other gifts that he has. I think that we innovated a cool role for him within the group around his strengths. I write music around the characters within the music, something that Duke Ellington did as well.
JD and I were actually neighbors, so we were working on a lot of ideas together already. His love for the blues also linked him into the project and made it strangely unique. He’s amazingly creative and open-minded, especially in experimenting with form. He brings a lot to the table. Both of these guys are my friends as well, so I think that chemistry comes through in the music. The unity of the group is what can speak the loudest in terms of what people hear.
What are you most excited about in releasing this record?
I’m most excited that I can tell a story that needs to be told about the history of this country that hasn’t really been told very clearly. As I researched the black church and how it affected jazz music, it was very hard because it was so under-documented. Trying to dig up that information was really difficult because it was really a lost story. I’m still deeply devolved in investigating that story. I think it’s a beautiful story in that out of so much darkness came something that was so bright. To be in a position where I can help tell that story, to express the importance of community, to express the value of the black church within the music, and also not compromise my own artistic goals as a musician in New York City in 2013—that’s what excites me.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)