"His songs are like potato chips, once you hear one, you'll wanna hear all of them."
From the mind of Bruce Brown comes a continuous string of songs that could be used as the soundtrack for a romantic comedy jazz musical. Bruce combines his finely honed songwriter abilities with his comedic sensibilities to craft pure entertainment. He’s a singer wearing brown shoes with a back tux performing jazz songs with funny lyrics; he creates art. But wait there is more! Just when he’s got you smiling and laughing Bruce will deliver a love song with insight into the human experience that will move you to tears. This is the real deal folks, Bruce Brown; singer, songwriter, musician, comedian.
Bruce Brown, originally from LA, arrived in New Zealand in 1998 to take up the position as Senior Vocal Jazz Tutor at the Conservatorium of Music, Massey University Wellington, where he established a programme in Vocal Jazz. He currently works as a Jazz Voice teacher at the New Zealand School of Music - Te Kōkī. Bruce also teaches History of Vocal Jazz and a Lyrics Writing Workshop at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, Victoria University of Wellington.
Bruce recorded the following Albums
Death of Expertise
Liner Notes by Will Friedwald
What I like best about the songs of Bruce Brown is that they all reflect a consistent point of view. In other words, they are all obviously the work of the same writer, the same creative mind. And yet, at the same time, they represent widely varying attitudes: some songs are positively cynical (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), while others are unabashedly optimistic. And somehow, both the upbeat and the relatively downbeat lyrics are all equally relatable.
The state of the art for a jazz singer-songwriter is a rather precarious one. Jazz has benefitted from the labors of dozens or even hundreds of distinguished instrumental composers, nearly all of whom were (and are) also players. However, the number of individuals writing full-blown songs, with both words and music, expressly for jazz singers and musicians, is practically zilch to date. The list begins and essentially ends with Jon Hendricks, Oscar Brown, Bob Dorough, Abbey Lincoln, and the only one still with us, Dave Frishberg. (Admittedly I am being perhaps excessively draconian with these rules: I am using the term “jazz singer-songwriter” to describe artists who follow the business model of singer-songwriters in the pop and country fields, who are composers as much as performers and generally perform almost exclusively their own work. By these metrics, even legendary artists like Peggy Lee and Mel Torme would not be considered true singer-songwriters, and neither would be those great songwriters who occasionally sang like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.)
Seeing that Mr. Brown is equally adept at capturing what we might call positive and negative emotions, I’m wondering to what extent he agonized over the decision as to how to start. Should he begin this album with something optimistic or something sardonic? Actually, he made a perfect choice with “The Death of Expertise,” which is upbeat in terms of its actual musical content, a swinger with a brassy and engaging trumpet solo and a brief scat interlude. The music is bright and breezy, but the message inherent in the lyrics is downright subversive, as indicated by the opening lines: “I pulled my own teeth out / I replaced my own hips.” The piece is a general comment on the so-called “gig economy,” which is apparently the same down under as it is here in the USA, where reading “two books” on the subject automatically qualifies one to operate as a surgeon, and playing with toy drone flying devices on the weekends “is exactly the same” as piloting a full-sized 747 aircraft.
Yet “Love Always Wins” is much more cheerful. “With every day that begins / Love always wins.” You might think that having expressed such dark thoughts in other songs might undercut the impact of such a positive message in this text. But no, the darker lyrics (like “They’re Everywhere”) actually enhance and empower the brighter ones, not only in this song, but also “Love Makes Us Who We Are.”
“Doreen” is a different animal altogether. I can’t think of another song like it, except possibly “Bruce” by the late John Wallowitch. Both songs combine a lovely lyrical melody with a rather sarcastic text - “Doreen” might be described as a rather arch take on what is usually a loving portrait of a little girl, ie, “Waltz for Debby.” (I confess to a partiality to lyrics with the phrase “vacant stare,” such as “I Go For That” by Frank Loesser and Matty Malneck, and “I’d Know You Anywhere” by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren.) I don’t want to spoil the joke herein, but let’s just say my favorite line is, “Doreen / it’s time to take your thorazine.”
Other songs have other inspirations. If you think the jazz tradition is all George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, think again. Back in the day (and yes that’s partially a reference to Brown’s song about back when “Trolls lived under a bridge” and “You hit the road on a bike \ You didn’t just sit around and hit ‘like’”) great jazz artists like Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, and even Louis Armstrong sang at least as many funny songs as serious ones. “Losers Are People Too” could be a page from the King Cole Trio songbook, taking its place among such self-deprecating “lowlife” classics as “The Best Man” and “I’ve Got a Way with Women.” Likewise, “To Find Things Out” puts me in mind of those very funny and very rhythmic novelty songs by the late Joe Mooney, like “A Man with One Million Dollars.”
Which isn’t to say that the comic turns pull focus away from the more romantic and even more idealistic texts. “Find Three Things to Be Grateful For” expresses a groovy philosophy similar to that of Jon Hendricks’s lyrics to Miles Davis’s “Four.” In fact, “Giving Up Is Not an Option” seems to be a very direct rejoinder to the message of “Losers Are People Too.” And “We’re Up We’re Down” expresses what might be called two distinctly-conflicting viewpoints at once, capturing what most of us would agree is the reality that life is not merely optimism or pessimism but both, often at simultaneously, mixed into a potent cocktail of contradictory signifiers and emotions. It’s the rare song that can accommodate two opposing viewpoints simultaneously.
Mr. Brown may be at his best when he’s being completely sincere, as in “The Music Plays Again,” a very solid love-as-music metaphor lyric, in the best tradition of “The Song is You” and “You Will Be My Music.” It’s a touching sentiment, movingly expressed. (“However far away you are / However long it’s been / I just think of you / And the music plays again.”) I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I guess that’s the whole point to begin with.
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Playboy magazine and other publications. He also is the author of nine books including the award-winning A Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz And Pop Singers, Sinatra: The Song Is You, Stardust Melodies, Tony Bennett: The Good Life, Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies, and Jazz Singing. He has received ten Grammy nominations and is a consultant and curator for Apple Music.