B i o g r a p h y
Arriving in the City in 1996 from his home town of Windsor in rural Maine, Craig Lawrence Brann was fully aware of what it was like to be a big fish in a small pond, but was immediately caught up in the powerful current of NYC's vast oceanic and unparalleled jazz scene. From celebrated prodigy to a salubrious pro touché in— you guessed it —a New York minute. With every spare Andrew Jackson, he would make his way into the city to see his known heroes or to be introduced to those who would soon come to crowd that same pantheon.
Imagine Craig's sublime joy and gratitude when the very musicians he cut his teeth following around this inimitable City, would come to share the stage with him and even record his music. Such is the case with his most recent SteepleChase release, "Mark My Words," featuring tenor titans Mark Turner and Gregory Tardy.
Some country boys are discouraged when confronted by this City's ineffable gifts. Not Craig. By persevering in his love for this music, not only has he received the respect and fraternity of his elders and mentors, he remains a genuine fan of this music. So much so, that he has worked to create venue partnerships througout the five boroughs with JazzunderGroundNYC.com to present concerts featuring up and coming artists (Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens, Ben Williams) as well as seasoned greats (John Patitucci, Fly Trio, Brian Blade).
Craig Brann, born in the small town of Whitefield, Maine, on April 3, 1978, grew up on a modest family farm where music was part of life. “My father and his brothers had a country and western band. Dad was a labourer in the timber industry and also farmed about 20 acres. He had hands like concrete and played guitar in the family band for relaxation.
“When I was aged l0, my grandma bought a guitar for me and my older brother Darrell to share. That situation created sibling rivalry, but resulted in two serious guitarists!”
At high school, Craig came under the important influence of professional trumpeter- turned teacher John Foss, who spotted his ability.
“The first thing he did was to put me onthe bass so that I would learn the importance of the walking bass line and swing. Under his mentorship I was introduced to the playing of Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, Jim Hall and Lenny Breau, Bach Mozart, Berlioz... This opened up a new world. John also encouraged me to compose, and he helped to shape my future. Through his encouragement and intervention I won music scholarships and gained a place in the Jazz Program (originally established by Thad Jones) at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
Having played gigs at coffee shops in his home state from the age of 13 (when he was under the spell of Chuck Berry), Brann was no stranger to performing and in New Jersey in the late 1990s he began to get gigs and to know like-minded musicians such as Kozak, Morrison and others. In 2002 he moved to Brooklyn and has worked steadily since, also recording as a sideman on a number of small labels.
Achieving his leadership debut with SteepleChase is the realisation of a cherished aspiration by Brann. “I still can’t quite believe it because this label has been the home of some of my heroes (Dexter Gordon/Lee Konitz/John Abercrombie/Ted Dunbar/Dick Oatts/Chet Baker/Paul Bley/Greg Tardy...). It has always promoted great jazz, and I could not ask for more than producer Nils Winther’s belief in what I’m doing. ” He was also thrilled to have the support of fine musicians for the project. “Greg Tardy is such a wonderful player and like the rest of the group was really on board with what I was trying to do. “I’ve known Nicholas Kozak, Morrison, and Jaimeo Brown for years. We are all friends and they gave me terrific support on the session.”
Some jazz musicians tried to give the occasional carol a swinging twist without much commitment to the idea. Guitarist Craig Brann studied the Advent and Yuletide repertoire and decided there was point and pleasure to be gained from serious interpretation, replete with proper improvisation, involving pieces which havebeen sung and enjoyed by many generations of worshippers. But there was an added edge to his concept for the chord sequences used by the soloists were frequently those employed in classic popular songs. In melding these forms, Craig brings together the two most important social strands of his life – jazz and Christian belief.
A member of a faith community (Messiah's Congregation) in Brooklyn, Brann points out that normally his fellow church goers and the music they hear and sing would not converge with the listening of the jazz fraternity. But over several years he has brought the two genres and community groups together by blending hymns and psalms with jazz at church recitals and concerts (via Jazz underGroundNYC).
The 34-year-old guitarist has long been fascinated by the way that Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and many others were able to create new melodies on existing song structures. “When you do that it enables you to break through and see inside a tune; get to the core of it. “It’s nice to fit the music of Advent to some of the most enduring works of the great American songbook. I was especially pleased to combine ‘What Child Is This?’ with ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ —I wrote the melody over a coffee at Starbucks. It took me about an hour.”
By separating the tunes from their lyrics, the enduring musical content becomes clearer. So Craig worked hard devising respectful yet creative arrangements and fixing treatments for some of the most loved pieces, many of which have formed part of the Christmas liturgy since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
For the record, SteepleChase has neverbeen in the business of producing “Christmas albums”, although producer Nils Winther did release limited circulation “greetings” singles by key artists in the label’s early days. But these were non-commercial items, never offered for sale. However, when Nils heard this session by Craig’s sextet, he was immediately won over by the innate charm of the music. The musicians approached the carols with affection and understanding, while showing the possibilities of adapting traditional strains to their own oeuvre. Such a course required considerable sensitivity and insight together with a collective sense of purpose. Their unforced efforts allow us to hear these so familiar compositions anew – and a long way from the conventional choir with organ accompaniment.
Intriguingly, Craig was able to meld “Away In A Manger” with “Someday My Prince Will Come”, and provide an effective “Cherokee” underlay to “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”. No crass artifice is involved in these musical mergers; they are apt conjunctions.
Leading the twin saxophones of Tardy and Kozak, the assured piano of Joel Weiskopf with a strong rhythmic surge supplied by Nicholas Morrison’s bass and Jaimeo Brown’s drums, Craig Brann had the ideal line–up for his SteepleChase entrance. And even engineer Joe Branciforte got into the act by enlarging the percussive backing on "Take It Easy, Fellas."
The guitarist‘s Advent Adventure brings the spirit of jazz to the spirit of Christmas to create an irresistible amalgam. Hark and heed!
Mark Gardner (Contributor to Jazz Journal since 1962) -- from the liner notes to Advent[ure].