Mr. Brown is in Town
Interview with Jason Robert Brown
By Rob Lester
If the ground is shaking more than usual beneath East 58th Street this week, it's not the subway. It's the downstairs room at Au Bar (formerly Le Jazz Au Bar) where Jason Robert Brown and The Caucasian Rhythm Kings will rock the block. Two days before his June 27 opening, I spoke with the talented man who's better known for writing great music and lyrics and letting others interpret them. He is exciting, excited, and excitable. In conversation, he bursts with energy like the singing and playing on his sensational new CD, Wearing Someone Else's Clothes. "It's kamikaze music! Absolutely suicidal playing," he calls the band's style. "Our California concert was a blast!" Yes, "blast" is the operative word.
Jason talks like he's being shot out of a cannon and there is no doubt that he's "into" performing as a singer and keyboardist, ready to communicate his highly emotional songs to his audience. He performs like no one's business; that's obvious from the CD's track "I'm In Bizness," which was recorded live. You can hear the audience's cheers and energy in this roller coaster ride complete with burning solos from guitarist Gary Sieger, bassist Randy Landau, and Jason himself going to town on the piano and even scat-singing.
We got a spot as hot as a sauna
The live show, he tells me, is "a great opportunity, some kind of place where the music is allowed to live on its own. In 'I'm In Bizness,' we push as hard as we humanly can." But make no mistake. This is focused energy, about as haphazard as a laser beam. Like his songwriting acumen that allows him to choose the most precisely evocative adjective and the most emotionally powerful musical notes upon which to have them sit, he knows what effect he wants and takes the direct path. Sometimes this means less is more and other times it means using everything in his arsenal and coming out with all musical guns blazing.
On a couple of CD tracks, he has a big orchestra with strings and a big group of singers, including some major musical theater names, but he can squeeze a lot of juice out of the resources of his three-man band for a live show. "The band pushes 'til the blood comes out of their eyeballs." Not the prettiest image, but we get the point: they work hard and love it. I certainly have been loving the result, as my advance copy of the compact disc has been keeping me energized day after day. It is officially released by Sh-K-Boom Records today (June 28), the second day of the band's New York run. Calling his band The Caucasian Rhythm Kings started as an ad-libbed quip to an audience. "It just became a joke I started saying when I introduced them. The audience laughed, and it has stuck."
On a high from well-received, well-attended concerts in California, Jason told me, "I didn't know I had a fan base there. There's a lot of junk theater out there. Well, there's some junk theater in New York, too, but L.A. has a different kind of junk theater." But the composer-lyricist was happily surprised to find that were plenty of people on the left coast who appreciate and know his New York-born theater work and were eager to hear it and his new pop music. "I have to please a number of constituencies. I try and bring people along." Although he's sure the set list will change from night to night, based on reactions and his own mood, there will be material from the album as well as selections from his scores (even "cut" songs) for Parade, The Last Five Years, Songs For A New World and probably something from the handful of tunes he contributed to the Broadway version of the short-lived Urban Cowboy.
Back "home" in New York after relocating to California, Jason is slightly sheepish about settling on the other coast. "Since I saw the movie Annie Hall when I was six years old, I always swore I'd never leave New York and go there." But he has, and he's been happy there in the new post-New York phase of his life and career. Other new-chapter reasons for happiness include his marriage to another musician, Georgia Stitt (I guess there may a joke in there about her having the same married name as the old song "Sweet Georgia Brown," but I'm betting someone else thought of that already. There'll also be a new Ms. Brown when their daughter comes along a little later this year). However, he's enjoying being back in town and catching up on Broadway shows. "I was so impressed with two: A Light In the Piazza and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ... Obviously for different reasons, but they both have great musicality."
I wondered how he felt about Norbert Leo Butz winning the Tony Award a few weeks ago. Without a pause, he replied, "Has anyone ever deserved it more? I just thought: 'yay!'" He's happy to see the Scoundrels re-teaming of Norbert and Sherie Rene Scott who were the full cast of The Last Five Years Off-Broadway. The first time he came across Norbert he remembers saying, "That guy is what I want" and used him in an early reading of Parade as the young soldier, but found him unavailable when the production which brought Jason his own Tony Award was mounted. And where does he keep that 1999 Tony for Best Score? "It's in a box because we've been moving," he says. But when Parade brought him the Tony, it did have the expected place on the mantle and "became a thing that everyone who came over would spin," he recalled.
Referring to the finding-one's-place-in-the-world themes from Songs For A New World (which had its ten-year anniversary concert reunion in town recently), he reflected, "I could have only written those songs at that time. In the same way, the songs on the new album reflect who I am now and could only have been written by me in the last few years." I refer to "Nothing In Common," as a CD cut I most relate to myself:
We had nothing in common,
It's about brothers' relationships and differences. It's a quiet, specific, reflective number. "I'm surprised by people's reactions to that," he mused, "I thought that was one I was writing just for me. I wrote it for my brother's wedding. I was asked to write a toast and thought I'd write it as a song. But so many people have said that's one they really connect to."
Another intriguing lyric, this one from "Getting Out," starts off with the tale of Marco, a musician who has everything going for him except quality in his music.
Marco dates a model.
I wondered if it's based on real people, with the names changed to protect the guilty. Is there a real Marco? "Yes, there is." Pause. "But you'll never get it out of me." I know when to change the subject.
"[The songs] all come from specific political places. You have your own personal experience brought to the table," he explains when I ask what inspires what ends up on the page when he's not writing for a character as he did for theater scores. But writing for characters and writing for himself as singer were both always on that table. "I always wanted the opportunity to put myself out there." He loves doing it now. "This is where I am."
There will be different guest singers on various nights at Au Bar, such as Lauren Kennedy, who recorded a splendid full album of Brown songs, and the versatile star Jessica Molaskey, one of the stars of both Parade and Songs For A New World (and first to record the most-sung Brown song "Stars And The Moon"). Although the set list will change a bit, you're promised to get a healthy sampling of the new Wearing Someone Else's Clothes CD and there's not a weak link in the album's line-up. I'll be going into more detail in my weekly CD review column, Sound Advice, but here's my sound advice on it, in two words: Buy it.
If you've never heard Jason Robert Brown sing, let me just say forget about the typical experience of hearing a songwriter squeak by with a passable or charmingly modest voice. This is a real Voice with no apologies, no compromises, no playing it safe. If you're a musical theater follower, you probably know his aforementioned scores and will be glad to hear selections performed live by the man who wrote the words and music. If you saw The Last Five Years in New York or Parade on tour, you've seen him lead the musicians with gusto and intensity. You'll find the same thoughtfulness and art of storytelling and open-heartedness in the album's songs. Some of it is pop, perhaps reminding you of some of his own favorites Billy Joel and Joni Mitchell, or Paul Simon's best work. This is music for grown-ups, intelligent, bittersweet lyrics and dramatic pop melody-making. I've emphasized the powerhouse stuff, but the tender moments are equally impressive and achingly beautiful.
I wrote the above shortly after talking with Jason on the phone and enjoying the CD again, but having just returned from the opening night performance at Au Bar, I can add a bit more.
Jason and his bassist and guitarist provided a set that was generous in length, energy and spirit. To put it another way, they ripped the place apart. Expanding some of the solos from the recorded versions, it was looser and hotter in some selections. Jason confessed to being a little nervous, but seemed generally relaxed, focused, and having a great time. Contrary to the hyperbolic quotes above, no blood was spilled, but it was an electric evening (and I don't just mean Gary and Randy's amplified instruments). The three players showed their chops without ever verging into the the realm of self-indulgence. Divorced of the company of the additional musicians and singers on the recording, I could appreciate Gary and Randy even more - these are two funky and fabulous players.
It was fascinating to see Jason's physicalization of performance, leaning in, shrugging, closing his eyes in moments of intensity, virtually jumping for joy. His facial expressions brought out the humor in songs such as the CD's title tune. Since this was also the opening number, it instantly ingratiated him to the audience, an appreciative full house.
Lauren Kennedy as opening night guest singer added extra panache and theatricality. She shone in four songs she recorded on her CD Songs Of Jason Robert Brown, including a duet with the writer ("I'd Give It All For You").
Selections from Songs For A New World seemed to get the strongest welcoming applause. After living with the new CD for the last two weeks, it was interesting to watch an audience hearing the material for the first time as they discovered the rhymes and reacted to the emotions in the new songs. Many snapped up copies on the way out from a table by the door as Jason thanked them and signed the CDs. "I'll gladly personalize it to you or your pet," he quipped.
The only good thing about this talented writer not being totally absorbed with writing a new show is that he has time to do work like this. But don't worry, he is working on some new things in musical theater, including a piece called 13. Meanwhile, he may claim to be Wearing Someone Else's Clothes, but the material is a very good fit.
Jason Robert Brown performs through Sunday, July 3 at Au Bar (formerly Le Jazz Au Bar), 41 East 58th Street, NYC. Website: www.aubarnewyork.com.
Past Rialto Columns
Search What's New on the Rialto