To say that Bob Brozman is not your everyday, run of the mill guitar player is just a wee bit of an understatement. Aside from the fact he is a highly accomplished and skilled slide player on almost any strummed, struck, or plucked instrument, it’s also impressive the number of them he is able to pick up and play with equal skill and abandon.
But Bob hasn't just learned other people's instruments so that they sound cool when included in his music. He's been like a pilgrim of old visiting shrines around the world. But instead of the tombs of saints his Mecca has been the musicians of various cultures where he has sat with them and learned how to play their music and instruments.
Bob and I have been trying to set up an interview since almost the start of this year but his schedule and life haven't allowed him any time to sit down and answer the questions I sent him until now. Of course the timing couldn't have been better as he's just released Lumiere an album of orchestrated instrumental compositions created and performed by Bob.
Each piece utilized Bob's accumulated knowledge of music and prodigious talent with instruments as he wove seemingly disparate styles of music together seamlessly into a variety pieces that represented the sounds of the countries and people he had met and worked with.
My interview with Bob focuses mainly on the here and now, his inspiration, his ideas, and his hopes for his music. For those who want some biographical detail or are looking for a full discography I suggest checking out his web site. Without further ado… Bob Brozman
Who were your first musical influences/ do they still play a part in what you perform today?
My early influences in roots American music are varied, but still affect my aesthetic senses: For Blues, Charley Patton, above all. He was for me the deepest and most interesting player/singer, whose sound goes almost back to Africa. While I like Robert Johnson, I find his music to be a little more self-conscious, and less musically profound. I am sure that above all, the urgency and fully committed passion of Patton really infuses my music.
For Hawaiian, Sol Hoopii was the greatest steel guitarist, and you can hear echoes of his music in my steel playing, though no two steelers sound alike. For Hawaiian music in general, my hero of course is Tau Moe [see Hawaii at Bob's site for the full story on this first collaboration of mine (1989)] with Tau and family, who made their first records in 1929!
Tau was also the teacher of the teacher of the teacher of Debashish Bhattacharya. Very deep stuff for me, my relationship with Tau, especially as an influence of how to be a human being in the music business and in the working day of the musician.
Then for early Jazz, many African-American artists of the 1920s affected me: Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Tiny Parham, Eddie South, many more. And I must also cite Eddie Lang and of course Django as other strong jazz influences. From there, I was deeply influenced by calypso artists from Trinidad: Wilmouth Houdini, and Growling Tiger in particular. From there, Africa and the rest of the world continued to open up to me, with too many great artists to list!!
When did the resonator guitar first become such an important instrument in your life?
Having played guitar since 5 years old, I first played an old National guitar at 12 years old, and what an effect it has had on me! The huge dynamic and tonal range and musical possibilities of these instruments completely shaped my ears, and led me on a long journey around the world, while giving me a deep internal lifelong journey of exploration of musical, muscular, and emotional nuances. They have been perfect instruments for a guy like me, who thrives on the stimulation derived from exploring variations in sounds!
You've done, and still do I assume, a lot of traveling in order to play with different musicians all over the world. When did that start and why?
The work I did in 1988-90 with the Tau Moe Family was my first “ethnic” collaboration, followed by 3 projects with 2 brilliant Hawaiian slack key guitarists: Ledward Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui, the first time slack key guitar and steel were re-joined after decades of musical-social separation. (Steel guitar travelled the world, while slack key stayed on the farm in Hawaii for many decades.)
Serendipity led me to be invited to Okinawa to record with Takashi Hirayasu, and the resulting Cd Jin Jin, became a runaway world music hit. From there I started attracting other collaborators, like René Lacaille, a massive influence on me. I suppose my non-imperialistic way of working makes me a good person to collaborate with.
My reasons for doing all these collaborative projects? Well, first and foremost, musical curiosity — something I think is essential for artistic growth. Then there is the desire to bring certain artists to world attention, because I love their music! Then there is the intense high-speed learning I enjoy, and the challenge and struggle to play at 110% of my ability. And finally there are the lifelong friendships I have made, with some deeply inspiring musicians! And now, most of my fellow collaborators all have met, played and even toured together. I love it when my friends meet my friends to make exciting things happen.
Honestly, this all developed through curiosity, keeping an open mind, and serendipity, really — there was no plan at the beginning of this long story. My travels have made me fall in love with humanity.
Can you tell us about some of the most memorable people and places who you've played with?
You pretty much have the whole list when you look at my discography — all of the marvellous people I have had the honour to work with, from Hawaii, Okinawa, Reunion, India, Guinea, Papua New Guinea. Rene Lacaille was in many ways my most satisfying collaboration in terms of rising to a challenge, and in terms of sheer joy of playing and the friendship that music creates. My real diploma is to be joyfully accepted by great musicians who I admire.
You've developed a style that is decidedly unique in your ability to incorporate a multitude of musical styles and philosophies into your playing. Is there one style you think of as your underpinning – the basis upon which you build everything else onto?
Blues and Hawaiian equally shaped my early playing, but now African and Indian thinking really affect me, too. Reunion Island, and the music of René have recently been a strong influence on me in recent years, and it has given me even more rhythmic freedom. I live like a blind man sometimes, in an abstract world of sound. When I play there is no intellectual process — I simply hear, and then react with movement on my instruments, that’s all!
This leads quite naturally into your new album Lumière. What gave you the idea to make the work improvisational?
A complex question demanding a multi-part response. I will give you the ideas suffusing the making of the record in this unconventional way, to improvise effectively with a large ensemble, with the music unwritten and yet to be composed.
First, I have been tapping on things since infancy, singing since 2 or 3, playing piano at 4, and finally taking up guitar at 5. As with all toddlers, my young brain was still wiring itself up, and so today it is difficult for me to use language to describe the wonderful abstract world I inhabit — somewhere between sound, movement and feeling. I don’t really play guitar, I play music, and the total commitment I give with my whole body in live shows, well, I attribute this to the ineffable synesthetic feelings music gives me, thanks to my early start.
Second, tones, timbres, and rhythms affect my emotions very deeply in large and small ways. Layering parts allowed me to explore this idea, and it HAD to be improvised — as I was affected in new ways by each new timbre or rhythm added.
Third, I have accumulated many years experience of trying to play well with musicians who are better than me, or who are playing music that is unfamiliar to me. I’ve had to learn to think quickly and instinctively in order to flourish in this extremely challenging and stimulating type of environment, and I thrive on the stimulation. (I am writing this the day after playing a three hours improvised concert in Québec, with Malagasy guitarist Solorazaf — no rehearsal, no set list, first time in front of the public, what a blast!) Thus, the knowledge often comes to me in intense short bursts of understanding and moving/playing in reaction. Some of these pieces of music with multiple parts went down to tape very quickly. The total was 16 days of recording.
Did you hope to achieve something specific by recording in this manner that wouldn't have been possible any other way and what was your goal?
Absolutely! I was able to work like a painter, using colours in layers of varying thickness. Moreover, I was able to do all of this without a click track, since I know my own breathing. That’s why, for example, the Tango Medzinárodný has places where the whole orchestra slows down and then resumes the original tempo. This cannot be done if a metronome or click track is used. Moreover, all the emotional crescendos, decrescendos, rises and falls in volume and intensity are being done by one man who knows his feeling each moment. The result is it sounds like a couple dozen players reacting emotionally to each other’s sounds and feelings! While nothing is ever perfect, I feel I have succeeded in conveying my intentions in each piece.
In my review of Lumiere I referred to it as orchestrations for stringed instruments strummed and plucked with percussion accompaniment. When you talked about muscle memory was that in reference to the actual playing of the instruments, or was there something more to it than that? Can you explain that in a little more detail?
Definitely on the instruments, but also in the hearing, perceiving, and composing. As I mentioned above, it is the blending of emotions, movement, and sound–squeezing muscles at differing strengths and durations, controlling it by emotions only, and then, in forward-moving time, reacting with both emotions and muscles. So, I am sure I have a long and detailed neurological catalogue of gradations of emotions and muscle-actions in my brain, which constantly interfaces with the sonic input coming in! That’s technically how it all works, but I never think about any of this when I am playing.
What do you hope that a listener to Lumiere will get from the experience?
I hope they will be transported to places of their own imagination. I hope they will enjoy hearing new parts emerging upon repeated listening.
In the liner notes for Lumiere you mentioned you did the arrangements as each instrument was recorded. Have you created an actual score for each piece? Which leads of course to would you ever attempt to get together the players necessary to perform the music live?
There is no score whatsoever, and though it could be performed live, the rehearsal required would defeat the purpose of the spontaneous improvised intent of the compositions. However, the general aspects of some of the compositions will no doubt emerge in interesting ways in the future.
Now that you've done this, something that you've been working towards for twenty odd years, do you feel any loss of purpose? Or will you be able to use this as motivation to find new ways to continue to broaden the definition of Blues music?
Your first question: Are you kidding? I am more stimulated than ever, playing with more clarity and focus than ever, and ready to address the long list of other projects that have been steadily stacking up around the world for me.
Your second question: I am also working finishing mixes on Post-Industrial Blues, for October 2007 release, on Ruf Records, where I am taking a of new risks in writing lyrics, new ways of singing, new instruments, new ways of improvising, and many of the songs are slightly orchestral as well, and definitely composed in the same improvisational way as Lumière.
So I don’t worry too much about running short on ideas or inspiration. Music saved my life, and continues to make it beautiful.
This marks the end of Part One of my interview with Bob Brozman. You can read the conclusion tomorrow