Straight, No Chaser
Blazing With Brannen Temple
The question is influences; the answer is a drum lesson.
"Max Roach," says Brannen Temple, sitting at my kitchen table big as life. "My father was trying to hip me to him, and he brought me a Clifford Brown/Max Roach record. That was it."
The New Yorker's Austin-born son was 11 at the time. Now he's 30 and aspires to the brilliant brush strokes of Max Roach as both a drummer and bandleader. Like the jazz legend, Temple is smart, confident, and motivated. A tireless work ethic. Handsome, with calm, piercing eyes, he embodies the phrase "Black Is Beautiful." A drummer of uncommon ability, Temple's game is complete but he's always ready to absorb. Chances are, however, that Roach never had an afro like Temple's glorious crown.
"Definitely Max, and Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey," he continues. Only in jazz do drummers routinely become frontmen. "I'm a big fan of some more obscure drummers, too -- people that I don't have a lot of stuff by. I have this one thing of Denzil Best playing behind Charlie Parker. He's the one who actually wrote that Monk tune that just played, 'Bemshaw Swing.'"
The soon-to-be released Thelonious Monk live set, Monk in Tokyo, swinging on the hi-fi in the next room, was apparently a good choice. Temple has been grooving to it ever since he arrived, one ear on the conversation, the other on Monk's genius.
"Kenny Clarke, I love, and Philly Joe Jones," he adds. "Philly Joe basically established bebop vocabulary. Of course Kenny Clarke did ..."
He trails off. The lesson is at hand.
"Kenny Clarke was the first drummer to not play in the conventional, four-on-the-four bass drum thing. He played time on the right -- two and four on the high [hat] is still happening -- and comped with the snare on the left. And the bass drum was more accents and bombs."
Temple pauses to let it sink in. His audience nods as if it has.
"Nobody was doing that," he says, eyes flashing. "I mean nobody. Can you imagine being the first person in the history of music to do something?"
The drummer's one-man seminar may not know the first thing about percussive technique, but he did watch Ken Burns' marathon NPR segment, Jazz. Jazz is full of firsts. Temple starts beating time on the soft, round edge of the wooden table, scatting to the rhythm of his two index fingers.
"So instead of playing, 'dun, dun, dun, um, dudump, dudumpdump,' he's playing, 'un-ta-dun, un, un, dat, tudat, tudat, dat, dat, tudat dodagadubap -- dudatuludat, dudat -- boom!'
"He's playing phrases that are actually fitting under soloists, and are fitting with a piano player, and that frees up the bass to not have to just play time.
"Since the bass is establishing four quarter notes to a bar, 'One, two, three, four, two, two, three, four,' with walking rhythms, 'dun, dun, dun, dun,' why do you need bass drum on the fourth -- 'bam, bam, bam'?
"So now, the bass player doesn't even have to do that. The bass player can play in two, walk in four. He can play, 'One, two, dun, du-dun, du-dun, dududu-tum.' He can play different phrases. Or in four, he can play 'dun, dun, dun, dudomdu, sh-du, sha-dun, dudu dun -- dadum, dum, dum.'
"You know what I'm saying? Once he frees himself up, all these things happen."
In fact, all these things happen in Temple's band Blaze. A classic jazz quintet -- trumpet, tenor sax, keyboards, bass and drums -- Blaze joins a long list of "projects" the local drummer either founded or defined over the last decade: the Uglies, Atomic Soul, Hot Buttered Rhythm, Collard Greens, and the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Brannen Temple & His Potnuhs. Funk and R&B bands for the most part, they all found their audience, even though those same Sixth Street revelers were too busy doing the bump 'n' grind to listen. Blaze, straight jazz, no chaser, is worth cocking an ear toward.
"This isn't necessarily the first jazz thing I've done that's been under my own name," says Temple. "I like channeling my time and energies into something specific. As opposed to something scattered. Or trying to be everybody's sideman, which I do anyway. Why not do something that's for me and the people I want to share music with."
Not that Stephen Bruton, 54 Seconds, and Laura Scarborough, all of whom Temple plays with currently, don't fall under the latter designation, but why not, indeed? Especially when there's a group of serious, like-minded young musicians Temple shares great chemistry with: Austin's Man With the Horn, trumpet player Ephraim Owens, always ready for a solo or two at the hippest shows (hello Liquid Soul); Cleveland transplant and four-year local sax vet Michael Malone; composer/arranger/keyboardist Steven Synder; and Temple's potnuh in rhythm, bassist Marc Miller. Blaze. Not Brannen Temple's Blaze, just Blaze.
"It started as the Brannen Temple Quintet," explains the group's original namesake, "but I never really wanted that to be the name. It was just that I was the one booking the gigs. 'Well, whaddya want to call it?' somebody, a club or an agent, asked me. 'Uh, Brannen Temple Quintet for now.' It took a while before I came up with Blaze. It was actually the name of a song that I wrote."
The title track to last year's Top 10-worthy debut, "Blaze" is the cut on which Blaze, well, blazes. The whole disc is ablaze, really, from the opening number -- an aggressive take of Eric Dolphy's "On Green Dolphin St." -- down to the 61st and final minute. John Coltrane's "Mr. PC," with its lightning-fast time changes, as well as Snyder's "Pense" and Owens' "A Beautiful Dawn for Angela," both featuring the latter's marvelous horn work, are all standouts. "Blaze," in particular, inspired in part by Wynton Marsalis' 1985 LP Black Codes (From the Underground) ("That record was a huge turning point for a lot of people, myself included," says Temple), finds the quintet taking its name seriously with straight-ahead modern bebop.
"Yeah," drawls Temple. "I've been involved in situations where you had to make a disclaimer. You're like, 'Yeah, man, this is my stuff. Now, you know, we were kinda rushed, so I didn't really get the mix right.'
"With this," he says tapping Blaze, "I don't have any disclaimer. It started as a demo to get gigs, but then once we got in the studio, it was like, 'Let's record. This is going well. Let's just mix it, put it out.'"
Whereas most of the local jazz releases of the past decade have been "pretty good for Austin," Blaze nails it like a Blue Note album from the Fifties. While Ken Burns' Jazz incited the avant-garde into a frenzy by all but ignoring them, Blaze serves as a reminder that even straight bop is cutting-edge compared to most music today. Live, whether at the Elephant Room, Cedar Street, or even Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Blaze is even better. Last summer, at a Central Market gig, one sixtysomething, lifelong-looking jazz fan purchased what was undoubtedly his first local jazz CD after being bopped into beatific submission.
"It definitely exceeded a few of my expectations," admits Temple, "but we had been playing for a while. A few months. I was confident with what was gonna happen in the studio. And especially this next record -- I'm totally happy with that."
Given that five years ago, over the course of a Chronicle profile in which the drummer was, to put it mildly, disgruntled with the music business and all its attendant "bullshit"("So What," July 9, 1995), it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Temple has made peace with making music on a local level.
"I found that piece recently," he chuckles. "Man, I was cracking myself up. It was funny. But that's where I was at the time. I was bent out of shape about a lot of things."
And now? Wouldn't it be more lucrative to live in New York?
"Sure," he agrees. "I have a sense of procrastination with that place, because after that [story], I've been able to put my energies into things that have been very rewarding musically. Looking at what I've done here, I've made all the right decisions -- with who I've worked, what I've done, how I've spent my time. I don't have any regrets. I don't think that I should've been in New York sooner. Although ... I know I can't continue to put it off."
So it's just a matter of time?
"You know the old saying, 'The older you get the more there is to learn'? That definitely applies to music and more specifically to jazz. Playing jazz is one of the most challenging types of music that I've ever been faced with playing. Playing it authentically, and understanding a basic set of vocabulary and rules -- then being able to expand on that. I mean, it takes a long time. I still don't feel like I understand it completely - or have adapted to the vocabulary. Not to mention knowing tunes, because there are so many standards, beautifully written pieces by all the masters.
"There's just so much material. The challenge is to learn those tunes, and even more so, to learn the dialogue. How to converse within those pieces, and give everyone around you what they need."
Blaze's SXSW showcase is Thursday, March 15, at the Elephant Room, 12:45am.