Interviews & Features

Dean Brown: Bringing on the Fusion

Guitarist opens up about Billy Cobham, Vital Information and RoLaJaFuFu 

By Jon Liebman and David Sands
May 31, 2016

Dean Brown knows how to make a guitar sing like a wild river, channeling different musical traditions — rock, Latin, jazz, funk — into a forceful living current that can really take you places.

His energetic impressionistic approach to rhythm guitar and distinctively inventive solos have won him multitudes of fans in global jazz and fusion circles; they’ve also allowed him to play with an astounding roster of artists that includes Billy Cobham, Marcus Miller, The Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Bob James, Roberta Flack, Bill Evans, Victor Bailey and Joe Zawinul — not to mention the original lineup of Steve Smith’s Vital Information. Over the course of his career, the Berklee-educated musician has appeared on over 200 albums, including four Grammy-winning recordings.

What’s more, his compositions and arrangements have found homes on albums by Les McCann, Dennis Chambers, Ricky Peterson, Steve Smith’s Vital Information, and Billy Cobham. Brown also teaches at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, and has released five albums of his own material. His latest recording, RoLaJaFuFu, came out in April of this year.

FGPO’s Jon Liebman recently caught up with this one-of-a-kind musician to get the skinny on his new album, surprising musical origins and more.

FGPO: Start from the beginning. Did I read you were born in France?

Dean Brown: I was born in Chateauroux, France. My dad was in the military. I was about three years old when we left. And then we went back, and I lived there again when I was about ten or eleven. And then I’ve been going there ever since.

FGPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing? Did you move around a lot? Did you come from a musical family?

Brown: Yeah! My mom was actually a singer. She went to Juilliard. I’m not sure that she graduated from there, but she did attend there. And she worked on a lot of big bands back in the day, like Tommy Dorsey’s band and Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians and Jimmy Dorsey. She even had her own radio show when she was around 16, down in North Carolina.

FGPO: How did you become a guitar player?

Brown: It’s a weird thing. I wasn’t really interested in music when I was a kid. I was more into hanging out with my friends and playing various different sports really badly, but at a certain point there were a couple different things that happened.

One was: one of the arrangers that was working with my mom was a guitar player and so he came over to my house. … It wasn’t so much that I wanted to play guitar; it was he was cool. And, I thought, now music seemed more cool to me.

FGPO: Where were you living at the time?

Brown: I was living in France again. Like I said, I was about 10 years old. At this point, I had started to appreciate music, but certainly not jazz. I really liked, obviously, The Beatles when I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show. … There are other artists that come to mind that I liked to listen to — and a pretty broad palette too. Strangely enough, it was Ray Charles, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison and Herman’s Hermits [laughs]. Those are the groups that really stick in my mind.

FGPO: Where did you live between ages 3 and 10? 

Brown: San Diego was the first place I lived in the United States, and then we moved. My dad did a term in Korea, and we lived in Long Beach, New York, which is a place that I’ve lived a lot, because that’s where my whole family’s from, and then we went to Iowa … and then a couple different places in Virginia and Maryland.

FGPO: Was that tough for you? 

Brown: It was in one way, yes. And in another way it was kind of cool, because when you don’t know anything different … that’s sort of the status quo and you learn to make friends quickly and sort of assimilate to wherever you’re going.

FGPO: Who were your guitar influences?

Brown: Around 12-13, I’d started to play guitar kind of seriously.  I finally heard Jimi Hendrix.  …  I’d go and see him play with the Monkees, and so that was my first experience with going, “Wow! That’s what I want to do, play guitar!” … Not long after that, obviously, there was a Hendrix vs. Clapton thing, which led me to B.B., Freddie, and Albert King.

FGPO: Tell me about Korea.

Brown: I was a freshman in high school, and I was playing with guys that were older than me. … We would travel and play gigs and stuff, and all of a sudden, [my dad] says we’re going to Korea. And I don’t even know where that is. …  But then we got there, we unloaded our stuff and the house was normal, so I was like: “I want to go to the teen club and just see if there’s anybody my age that I can hang out with.” … There was a band playing there. And I sat in with them and ended up joining the band that day. … They were predominantly American service kids and pretty good players.  And then that band became this really popular band in Korea. … So now I’m like this complete pop star in Korea. I have this bodyguard and a driver and a fan club and all this stuff going on, and it’s surreal, right? And I get back to the United States.

FGPO: After how long in Korea?

Brown: This was two-and-a-half years. This is the summer before my senior year in high school. We wound up in Alexandria, VA. (Mt. Vernon), for my last year of high school … But anyways, I get back from Korea, and I was visiting a friend in Monterey, California, who took me to a jam session in Carmel that was held in a music store on Sundays … and I’m thinking: “Now I come back. I took over Korea; now I’m going to take over the United States.” And so I start listening to each. There’s a bunch of guitar players and every single one of them blew me away. … It was really sobering.

FGPO: Was this around the time you started Berklee?

Brown: Berklee happened in 1975, because I graduated high school in ’73 [and] went to George Washington University. But that was a classical program, and I didn’t even play classical guitar. The only way I could be in the music program was to be a musicology major at the time, even though I was studying guitar. So I took a semester off and joined an R&B funk band in western Massachusetts.

FGPO: So you hung out in Boston for a while after graduating from Berklee?

Brown: Yeah. This weird thing happened when I was about to leave Korea. I was playing with a couple of GIs and they said: “Dean you need to know how to listen to jazz a little bit.” There were three records that they put on for me that had a pretty major effect. One was Coltrane … then there was Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ at the Half Note, and then the other record was John McLaughlin Inner Mounting Flame with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And those three records I always tell people they ruined my life, ’cause I thought I was going to be kind of a rock star [laughs], but then you know how I got into that from there.

That’s what I focused on in Boston. It was not so much being a “pure jazz guitarist,” but playing creative instrumental music was my focus. … Boston at that [time], everything had to be unique. Picture that you wrote your music with a slide rule [laughs]. So it was complex and “interesting.”

FGPO: What were you looking to do? Did you want to be a composer? An arranger?

Brown: The first thing that happened is I got a job with Tiger Okoshi and his band Tiger’s Baku. I don’t know if you ever heard of that group.

FGPO: Didn’t you take over for Mike Stern?

Brown: I did — who had taken over for Bill Frisell — and that was the deal with his band. He was kind of like — I hate to put it in these terms, because he was unique — but he was kind of the Miles Davis of Boston. You know, that’s the band everybody wanted to play in and it’s kind of a rite of passage to be involved in that group. So that was cool.

FGPO: Tell me about the move to New York?

Brown: The move to New York was kind of out of necessity, because I felt like that I’d forgotten how to play the blues when I was out in Boston. So I said, “I’m going to go back to New York and get back in touch with sort of what made me love playing guitar in the first place.” Even though I don’t consider myself a blues player, I just know that was just sort of a flashpoint that gave me inspiration to want to learn. So I joined a couple of blues bands.

FGPO: This is late ‘70s?

Brown: This would be 1979.

FGPO: When I think of New York during that period, I think of the Brecker Brothers, Will Lee, David Sanborn…

Brown: Oh yeah, absolutely. The thing is, I was just starting out with some session work in New York and this and that. And then this bass player named Tim Landers — we played together in Tiger’s band — he moved to New York … So Tim convinced me to move to Manhattan in the same apartment. It was me and him and a drummer, Robbie Gonzalez — who was a drummer in Al Di Meola’s band at the time — and then there was also a great sax player who also lived in that apartment — that apartment was kind of like this communal space. This great sax player who died a few years back Dave Wilczewski was also living there. And subsequent to that, Tim and I and Dave formed the nucleus of the original Vital Information. The first record was those guys. It was called Vital Information. It was a very cool record, and that band was very cool, unique, because we were playing this rock/fusion kind of approach, but with no keyboards.  It was [Steve Smith], two guitar players, me and Mike Stern.

FGPO: How did you land the Billy Cobham gig?

Brown: Tim Landers was playing with Billy Cobham … and Billy was looking for a guitarist. … Basically I was supposed to audition and he said he wasn’t interested in listening to any more guitar players that day, so I sat down, watched the Yankees game and had a few beers. I was getting pretty comfortable at the apartment, and then Tim called and says Billy wants to hear you. I was in no condition to do a serious audition, but I went down there and we played a tune called “Solarization,” and then I just started laughing saying, “This is going to be the shortest audition in the history of music.” As it turned out, that particular tune, even though it was difficult, was this slow sort of ethereal melody over this intense groove, so I made my way through it.  And then Billy said, I have no idea why he said this, “You know what? Let’s play a blues song.”

And I am in the perfect condition to do that. So we played that, and then he went out of the room, and I’m thinking, “Well that was really fun. I got to play with Billy Cobham, which was kind of dream come true for me.”

And he came back in the room and said: “I hate indecision. Do you have any obligations?” And I said, “You!” And that was it, and I’m still playing with him to this day. We’re obviously good friends. I think I’ve quit the band a couple times, and he’s fired me a couple of times [laughs], but he keeps coming back for more! He’s just one of the amazing musicians of the 20th century.

FGPO: Did you have anything lined up in San Diego when you moved there in 2005?

Brown: By that time I had a lot of gigs under my belt: the Billy Cobham thing, I had been playing with Marcus Miller since 1991 … and David Sanborn for eight or nine years and the Brecker Brothers for about four years. I actually did the reunion tour in 2013 and the reunion record that they did.

FGPO: Those are all East Coast names.

Brown: The thing is a lot of those kind of gigs are not contingent [on location] and actually Marcus Miller is a West Coast gig, if you really want to get technical. That’s where he lives.

FGPO: What’s been keeping you busy these days? 

Brown: I’ve still been doing a thing with Billy Cobham — on and off — and then I’ve been doing my own thing. I just released my fifth record, which is called RoLaJaFuFu, which is an acronym for Rock-Latin-Jazz-Funk-Fusion.

FGPO: Who’s on the record?

Brown: My core band is on the record, which is [drummer] Marvin “Smitty” Smith, a keyboard player named Gerry Etkins and bass players Hadrian Feraud, Linley Marthe and Ernest Tibbs.  It’s also got Dennis Chambers, Brandon Fields, Daniel Sadownick, Bill Summers, Rocky Bryant, Bill Churchville, Morris Pleasure, Dan Reinstein, Bobby Sparks, Bernard Maseli, Mateusz Pliniewicz, Craig Handy, Richie Flores, Joey DeLeon, George Whitty, Schuyler Deale who played on almost all my records and then [bass player] Rene Camacho.

FGPO: Tell me about your equipment, Dean. I know you’re a big fan of Toshio Horiba and the Xotic brand.

Brown: I’ve been using the BB Plus for a while. That’s one of the pedals on my board, and on the last record I was also using the AC Plus.

FGPO: Do you use any of his guitars? 

Brown: No, but I’m getting ready to. His guitars are freaking amazing! I just haven’t had time to get out there to work with his guy, Kenny, to choose one. But I really have been looking forward to doing that, because his new guitars are just phenomenal. They’re doing that roasted neck technique, where the neck’s so stable and it just doesn’t move. And it stays in tune so much better.

FGPO: Tell me about more about the Xotic pedals? 

Brown: The thing I think just about everybody likes about Xotic stuff is that it doesn’t really sound like a pedal. It really sounds more transparent, like it’s just the amp being overdriven in different types of ways. One thing I really like about the BB is that it has its own separate tone control section. So you can really fine-tune the thing and because it’s a two-in-one kind of pedal, you can choose which pedal is in the chain first. Of course, it’s true bypass, which is a must. It’s a cool thing, because their pedals, for some reason, respond well to variations in your volume control on the guitar.

And then I’ve been using the Robotalk as well…  Robotalk is a very well designed envelope filter that you can dial in pretty well for a lot of different applications.

FGPO: What about the future. What else would you like to do that you haven’t done already?

Brown: Really, the biggest thing for me right now, I would love to be able to play exclusively with my own thing, where I’m in control of it. So I don’t have to depend on other people’s schedules. I’m 60 years old now, and it feels less stressful when I’m in control of stuff. So that’s a thing that I’m really most focused on. And one of the things I started to do when I came out to the West Coast is teaching more extensively.

FGPO: At Musicians Institute?

Brown: Yeah. I’ve been there almost ten years now. It’s a long drive, but I only do it one day a week, and I spend eight hours-a-day teaching a couple courses of my own curriculum. And the really cool thing they have — very unique to that school — is open counseling. And their guitar department is pretty serious.

FGPO: What would you be if you weren’t a guitar player?

Brown: I probably would have loved to have been a professional paddle ball player, but I wasn’t good enough. I have a passion for racquet sports

FGPO: At least you’re a good guitar player!

Brown: In my opinion, I’m not a great guitar player, but I am a really great storyteller. And the guitar affords me that ability to express myself in ways that I’m not capable verbally.