ALEATORY #19: Jason Robert Brown

Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown is bored.

After all, the man has released quite a few albums, has created one of the single greatest pocket musicals of all time (The Last Five Years), and even picked up the theatre-world's highest honor when he penned the score for Parade, still a theatrical staple all these years later. Nowadays, it seems that the last thing that JRB wants to do is what's expected of him -- he's now taking risks both big and small to keep things interesting.. He contributed songs to the big-budget, Tony-nominated production of Urban Cowboy and most recently can be seen writing tunes for 13, the kid-oriented/acted/performed musical that premiered at the prestigious Mark Taper Forum and has since made its away to Broadway. Yet now, Jason takes on his greatest challenge: responding to the latest Globecat Aleatory!

(Jason enters Stage Left and recites the following ...)


2. Favorite board game?

I am a mediocre but avid Scrabblist, and my wife and I used to have epic hostile Scrabble matches, but I travel so much these days that board games are impractical on any consistent basis. I do a lot of Scrabbling and Scrambling on Facebook, but while it is infinitely more addicting, it's ultimately less gratifying.

4. Favorite person to have worked with?

In 2001, I got to work with Jon Hendricks, the legendary vocalese writer and singer; Jon sang the vocal parts on the incidental music I wrote for David Lindsay-Abaire's play "Kimberly Akimbo," which included the song "Grow Old With Me." I grew up listening to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (as well as the version of that group that included Yolande Bavan) and, in fact, most of my knowledge of bebop repertoire comes from having known the vocalized versions first. (I may be the only musician who hears Miles Davis's "Freddie Freeloader" and thinks of the lyrics, thanks to Hendricks's monumental recording of it with Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau and George Benson.) Unlike working with movie stars or rock stars, working with jazz legends turns out to be fairly easy: you pick up the phone and call them. Someone I knew had Jon's manager's number, somehow that led me to Jon's home phone, I called him, offered him a thousand bucks to come sing for three hours, and voilĂ , I had a recording of one of my heroes singing one of my songs. And Jon was a lot of fun to hang out with that day as well, smart and fast and game for anything (at one point, he was making bird and monkey noises).

5. Favorite piece of equipment?

I'm unapologetically analog in most of my habits, though I readily the concede the convenience and fluidity of the digital world. Nonetheless, in order to do my work, I need a piano, a bunch of 2B pencils, a pencil sharpener, staff paper, and a drafting ruler, all of which (except the piano) I travel with at all times. Of those, the piano is the most important, and my favorite piece of equipment therefore is the Yamaha C5 that sits in our backyard studio.

9. Favorite song to start (or end) a mixtape with?

Mixtape? I haven't made one since I was 22. I remember making one for my Dad right after I left college that started with Fred Astaire's recording of Irving Berlin's "I'd Rather Lead A Band." And ended with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong doing Gershwin's "A Foggy Day," which is a song my Dad always sang with me when I was a kid.

11. Favorite music video?

I wouldn't even know where to see a music video these days, outside of YouTube, I guess. I was growing up when MTV first came on the air, so I tend to have a very proprietary sense of music videos – I was an early adopter! In that vein, whatever I offer will be sort of hopelessly unhip, as though I stopped paying attention twenty years ago, which in fact is the case. But coolness be damned: "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel, still the winner by a mile.

15. Favorite exhibit or subject at the museum?

I've seen two separate exhibits on the work of Henry Darger, which I find endlessly fascinating. It's not just the no-formal-training thing (which, to be honest, annoys me no end when people claim that as a virtue), it's more the unfiltered imagination, and the willingness to improvise new tools when his own technique isn't sufficient. And the whole self-contained mythology of the work is inspiring in its own way.

18. Favorite pick-up line?

That I've used myself or that someone's used on me? I don't think I ever had a repertoire of pick-up lines for my own personal use, I'm horrifically shy when it comes to women. Nor have I really been picked up, though I did have one girl ask me to sign her boobs after a concert once. That was killer. (I didn't do it. Maybe her boobs weren't big enough for my whole name?)

27. Favorite chord/chord progression?

Neil Finn does this thing all the time where he's been sitting in a minor key and then just pops in to the relative major, and it's always the most delightful moment. You can hear it in Crowded House's "When You Come," right at the top of the chorus: "And that is why" (there's the minor) "I stumble to my knee-ees!" (there's the major). So satisfying. I steal it whenever I remember to; certainly in "Over," I do it right in the verse.

29. Who do you wish more people were listening to?

Kate McGarry, incredible jazz singer, though "jazz" is too confining a label to put on the work she does; she and her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz, are brilliant interpreters and very deep souls. And Kate's songwriting is very strong and very fresh.

31. Other than musician, what career would you most enjoy?

Ultimately, I think music is just the outlet I generally choose for my creativity, but I live to create, and if it weren't music, it would be something else. As mercurial as I am, whatever I would most enjoy today would make me crazy by the middle of next year.

34. What's the best joke you heard recently?

I've been telling this one for a while now, but it's a winner, courtesy of David Evans (who is the world's foremost joke-teller):

Mr. Lipkin hasn't been to the doctor in a long time, finally he decides it's time for a checkup. He goes in to the doctor's office, the doctors says to him, "All right, Mr. Lipkin, it's been quite a while, we're gonna need some things. We're gonna need a blood sample, a urine sample, a semen sample, and a stool sample." Mr. Lipkin looks at the doctor and says, "Should I just give you my shorts?"

36. Lyrics first or music first?

I get asked this question so often I should probably come up with an interesting answer. Really, what comes first is generally the title. That may not be the title I finally end up with, but I need someplace to start, and usually a good phrase is the best medicine. If I can encapsulate what I want the song to say in a couple of words, then I always know where I'm heading. From there, I'll start determining a musical energy, a particular style; that's decided as much by the character and the situation and the moment in the plot as by my own whimsy. And once I have that "groove" (which may or may not be very groovy), I'll start singing a melody to it, appending the title whenever it feels appropriate. I've been describing that process that way for so long that it's really no longer accurate, at least not always, but it still sounds like a good answer.

46. Where do you keep things hidden? What do you keep hidden there?

Well, now, if I told you...

48. Biggest moment of triumph?

Honestly this: when the woman who was to be my wife and the mother of my child first kissed me, in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2000.

61. What's the best advice you could give to a young, upstart composer?

Write SONGS. Too many theater composers feel the need to write huge sequences without any sense of the underlying structure. Songs, songs, songs. If you can master AABA, you can stretch it any way you want.

63. Band/artist you're secretly envious of?

Secretly? I'm the most openly envious person I know. What good is envy if you're gonna keep it all inside? And furthermore, why just direct it at one band or artist? I'm envious of everyone, all the time. Keeps the creative juices flowing.

64. Weirdest promotion you've been a part of?

Honestly, nothing comes to mind.

75. Very first song that you ever wrote?

I think when I was eight years old, I wrote a song called "Come Back To Me," which told the story of a lovelorn young man desperate for the return of his girl, Jenny. (I did not know a girl named Jenny at the time, at least not well enough for me to immortalize her in song.) The chords, moving every two beats, were C, Bdim, Am, G, F, G, C. I thought I was the first person to come up with those changes.

79. Best concert you've ever been to?

In the same week in (I think) 1997, I saw Michel Petrucciani play Birdland with Anthony Jackson and Steve Gadd AND I saw Aretha Franklin do a gospel concert at Avery Fisher Hall. To see musicianship at that high a level up close, twice in one week, really raised the bar for me. Aretha only did a half-hour long set, but it was still clear that she wasn't coasting or faking – she was feeling it, she was reaching for it, and whatever she needed to express, she had the tools to do it; and Petrucciani played with such inventiveness, such tastefulness, and such unbelievable groove that I redefined my sense of what jazz piano was supposed to be just from that one concert. So: not a bad week.

87. Ultimately, you will want to be remembered as …

At the moment, I'll say I want to be remembered as a musician. When people write about the theater, so much of the focus is on the words, the acting, the singing; I write for the theater by going from the music out. If you don't understand the music I'm writing, then you won't understand the levels of theater I'm creating, and I feel that, all too often, the music just gets lost in the discussion. So I'd like to be remembered as a guy who put a lot of serious thought into how to make the music part of the theater, and how to make all the parts breathe together with the music leading the way.


Visit Jason Robert Brown's website.