Looking back at his childhood and family, it’s easy to recognize that bass player, composer, arranger and music educator Miles Brown was destined to live a life of music. He comes from a musical family that runs generationally deep. His father is an accomplished jazz guitarist, and was the director of the Jazz Studies program at Ithaca College; his uncle played trumpet in Stan Kenton’s band in the 70s; and his grandfather was a high school band director and a vibes and marimba player for the Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat.
“There were always musicians coming through our house,” remembers Brown. “Mostly jazz musicians, staying the night, eating dinner, rehearsing.”
And although he always identified as a musician, he nearly took a different road. Chalking it up to teenage rebellion, Brown says he was attracted to history programs. Ultimately, however, he embraced the family business and accepted a scholarship at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. This was followed by graduate studies at Mannes School of Music in The New School and then later back to Eastman for a doctoral program.
In 2009, Brown became director of the Jazz Studies program at Oakland University, where he stayed for about eight years. It was during this time that he met drummer and fellow Oakland University music educator Sean Dobbins, as well as pianist Xavier Davis and saxophonist Diego Rivera, both from the Michigan State University music faculty.
Davis, Dobbins and Rivera are all part of the Michigan-based music family that Brown brings together on his new Detroit Music Factory release: “Evidence of Soul and Body.” Also featured in the album’s quintet: his father, guitarist Steve Brown.
The record could easily serve as a model for the lessons Brown provides his students. He lives what he teaches, and “Evidence of Soul and Body” is, well, evidence.
“There’s nothing new under the sun, except how you approach the music,” says Brown. “I encourage my students to study the musicians that came before us, to explore the masters of the music we love. But inevitably, as musicians, we’re always looking for what’s next. By studying the foundations of jazz, they can see where they fit in, and which part of the legacy they want to continue forward.”
The format itself of “Evidence of Soul and Body” is traditional. The sound world is the acoustic jazz quintet, and there are about an equal number of standards as there are originals. But the arrangements and performances reflect the distinct influences of Brown and the other musicians.
The album’s title cut is an interesting hybrid composition by Brown’s father. He reinvents two standards by taking the rhythmic aspect of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” and overlays it on the harmony of Johnny Green and Ben Webster’s “Body and Soul.” The result is a beautiful family-themed tie in with the suite made up four original compositions penned by Brown, which he dedicates to each one of his father’s grandchildren (including his daughter and son).
There’s a distinct benefit to the listener who gets to experience the dynamic between a father and son who’ve spent a lifetime learning each other’s nuances. On Thad Jones’ “Three and One,” – a refreshing take on standard we’re used to hearing as a big band piece – the interaction between Steve Brown’s phrasing and Miles’ Brown’s melodic bass response is an expression of the fact that they’ve been playing the tune together since the younger Brown was in high school.
“Every jazz musician works hard to find their own voice and sound. It’s a long process. I think my father has achieved this,” says Brown. “The sound that he gets is so ingrained in my psyche that I find it instantly recognizable, but other musicians say this about his playing too.”
The mood of the record is joyful throughout, which Brown attributes to his appreciation for the players.
“Family should make you feel joyful. I think we tried to tap into that a bit,” says Brown. “I had such a great time playing with these particular musicians. I think that feeling comes across in the music.”
In “Isla’s Melody,” one of the tunes in the suite, Brown creates a tender jazz waltz based on a melody that his daughter often sang when she was a toddler. In contrast, “Sonny’s Hustle,” written for his son, has a far more spirited pace. The tune’s excitement peaks during a particularly driving saxophone solo by Rivera; he hits a powerful note, the rhythm section hits it with him, and just like the excitement you feel when you witness your child saying a new word, you know you’ve just experienced a special moment.
“The album ‘Evidence of Soul and Body’ is a tribute to music and family,” says Brown. “We created something that grew from the family that surrounds us, supports us and inspires us.”