As part of the vast musical diversity Rhode Island possesses, the state maintains a strong jazz scene.
With a rhythmic and electrifying take on the style, the Brian James Quartet has a sound that will astound. The group takes bits and pieces of various influences to create extraordinary music that separates the group from its contemporaries.
The quartet has played all over Lil’ Rhody, with gigs ranging from the legendary Chan’s in Woonsocket to Jimmy’s Saloon during Jazz Fest weekend in Newport. South County will get the chance to experience this talented act with the quartet’s upcoming shows at Whalers Brewing Company in Wakefield on June 15 and at Sons of Liberty Beer & Spirits in Peace Dale on June 14, July 7 and Aug. 4.
I talked with saxophonist and bandleader Brian Brouillard about what sparked his love for jazz, being a music teacher, making the group’s debut album “Lower Nine” and performing new songs.
Rob Duguay: Jazz seems to be a lost art form in the American consciousness these days. What made you gravitate toward the style when you first started learning how to play music?
Brian Brouillard: My parents listened to a ton of Pink Floyd when I was little, and the sax solo on “Money” is one of the reasons I chose the saxophone. As for gravitating toward jazz, my high school band director was a jazz trumpeter who played here and there with great musicians back in the day. When I joined the jazz band, he introduced us to Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Benny Goodman.
For some reason, jazz just spoke to me. The energy of the music, the harmonic complexity, the way the rhythm section drove the arrangements – I couldn’t get enough. He also introduced me to Harry Connick Jr.’s “When Harry Met Sally” soundtrack. After that, I started picking up big-band albums from the bargain bins at the local record shops. Even in college, when studying classical saxophone, I gravitated toward the composers who had a more contemporary style that exhibited roots in jazz harmony and style. When Harry Connick released “She,” my jazz tastes started to shift toward the New Orleans school, especially the funk tradition.
Recently, I found myself drawing inspiration from bands like Lettuce, Stanton Moore Trio, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and similar groups.
RD: You also teach music at La Salle Academy in Providence. What do you like the most about teaching? Is it bringing out a student’s creative potential or is it something else?
BB: Teaching music, to me, is more than just getting the kids to learn scales and count rhythms. My philosophy on music can best be summed up in my favorite quote from Beethoven: “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable.” Being technically proficient on your instrument is obviously critical to being a great musician, but music is about emotion and storytelling. By far, what I enjoy most about teaching is that moment when my students stop playing the notes on the page and start telling the story.
RD: On Jan. 5, your band put out your debut album, “Lower Nine.” Where was it recorded and who produced it? What was the vision you and the band had while making the album?
BB: “Lower Nine” was completely independent. Our friend, Anthony Irwin, who teaches physics at La Salle, studied some music production at Belmont University in Nashville. We turned my music room into a recording studio last summer and did all of the recording over a few weeks. The five of us mixed and mastered the album in our drummer’s basement over the course of about a month. The album was inspired by the time I spent in New Orleans leading service trips with La Salle students doing construction in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
The vibe of the city and the spirit of the people there left a very deep mark on me. We truly feel that our strength as a band is our live performance. The goal of the album was to try to recreate, as best we could, what we do on stage, but without letting the songs end up being 10-minute improvisational explorations. Our songs were all tracked live to preserve the organic nature of the music. We didn’t want to go down the road of overproducing the album and multitracking layer on top of layer until we had a shiny polished but lifeless product. As I said earlier, my philosophy is that music should tell a story, and this album was about us telling the raw story of my experiences in New Orleans and the impression it left on me. We felt that a nod to the old live-take recordings helped us do that.
RD: What do you consider the main influences when it comes to your high-energy style of performing?
BB: The four members of the quartet come from a vast background of musical traditions. We’ve played in marching bands, wind ensembles, wedding bands, big bands, classic rock bands, folk rock bands, jazz combos, funk bands, etc. The eclectic collection of musicians we have played with over the years has helped to shape our personal musical voices. Most importantly, all of us share the same passion for live music. We use our music and performances as vehicles to share that passion with each other through musical conversation, improvisation and exploration. The end result is a stage presence that exudes that passion, emotion and energy.
RD: After the summer, what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
BB: The Brian James Quartet was originally formed by three musicians who were tired of playing music to please the crowd and trying to make a buck. Our goal was to write original music and arrange cover songs that we loved to play, with the hope that our love for what we were doing would translate to an audience. Moving forward, we plan to do just that. Our passion is live music. We are in the process of booking more shows around Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut into the fall and winter. We are also starting to plan our follow-up to “Lower Nine.” We’ve been busy composing this spring and are starting to roll out some new original songs at our live shows this summer.
To learn more about the Brian James Quartet and its upcoming South County performances, visit brianjames quartet.com or follow the group on Facebook @BrianJamesQuartet.
Rob Duguay is a Rhode Island-based music writer. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.