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Jazz to the world

Music professor Jeri Brown explains why performance is part of her research process. PLUS: Watch a festive improv singalong
December 11, 2015
By Media Relations

Our voices are often raised in song during the holiday season. But traditional carols lock us in set lyrics and rhythms, limiting our creative expression of yuletide joy.

Not so for Concordia associate professor Jeri Brown. She’s dedicated her life’s work to vocal improvisation on the stage, in the classroom and through decades of research on the topic.

“It all starts with the fact that I am a performer, an artist and a humanities professor residing in the Department of Music,” says Brown. “As a vocal artist, improvisation is the principal element of my performances,” she says.

Over the years, Brown says, her academic life has provided her with many musical opportunities.

“You have to believe that experimenting is more important than controlling the music and being able to repeat it,” says Jeri Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Music Jeri Brown| Photo courtesy of M.O. Johnston

"Sometimes on the stage, sometimes in the studio, all around the world. And through my travels and research collaborations, I’ve become an ambassador for Concordia — as well as for vocal improvisation."

As an atonal vocalist with an operatic background, a clear voice and a four-octave range, Brown has been involved with chamber orchestras, contemporary classical composers’ works, unusual instrumental ensembles — and countless students during nearly 30 years at Concordia.

It all started with her grandmother.

“She was a great cook, but she didn’t always have the ingredients she needed. Sometimes she’d be making a cake but didn’t have eggs. She didn’t freeze and say, ‘I can’t do anything because I don’t have the perfect situation in front of me.’ She’d invent a new recipe instead.”

Brown explains that that same attitude can be translated into performance art through improvisation, and what she calls the “vocal ecosystem”.

“By fragmenting yourself into something, or stepping into an environment where you keep your eyes and ears open, you can engage with your fellow musicians and audience in a totally new way. But to get into that world you have to be interested in experimentation and aware of your vocal ecosystem,” she says.

Fulbright scholar Baron Tymas | Photo by Concordia Brown's collaborator: Fulbright scholar Baron Tymas | Photo by Concordia University

“You have to believe that experimenting is more important than controlling the music and being able to repeat it. You don’t want to repeat it — it’s like an altered mind-out-of-body state, like you’re floating and you can feel the different instruments, sounds and the various environments more clearly.

“Improvisation says, ‘I don’t know where I want to go,’ and gives you an attitude toward openness. It’s just opening up to that environment — to those vocal ecosystems.”

Currently, Brown’s vocal ecosystem includes close collaboration with Baron Tymas, a Fulbright scholar in the Department of Music. They are working together musically — as can be seen in the video above — and planning a series of presentations on the topic of Jazz vocal improvisation in song.

Brown is confident that her vocal ecosystem will continue to evolve, thanks to new collaborations with musicians and scholars around the world.

“I’m writing my memoirs now, and reflecting on how improvisation has affected me. It’s about having a skill set, owning it and at the same time being free. That’s been a constant throughout my career, and throughout my life.”

Jeri Brown and Baron Tymas will be performing at Upstairs Jazz Club (1254 Mackay) on Friday, December 18.

Learn more about research and creation in the Department of Music.


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