Maurice Brown blends hip-hop, jazz with sizzling results
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It was a fledgling trumpet prodigy’s dream scenario. Maurice Brown, an eighth grader in Chicago’s south suburbs, was performing at a seminar led by jazz prodigy-turned-legend Wynton Marsalis, when the trumpet deity, impressed with Brown, took him aside and proffered simple yet career-making advice.
Maurice ‘Mobetta’ Brown
With: Talib Kweli
When: 7 p.m. July 28
Where: Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $25-$30 (all ages)
“ʻPractice and practice,’ he said,” Brown, 36, recalled over lunch last week at a popular River North steakhouse. “ʻKeep practicing, and one day you’ll be great – even better than me.’”
And not only is Brown currently “[o]ne of the brightest stars on the contemporary jazz scene” (as identified by AllMusic.com), who’s collaborated with a multi-genre A-list including Aretha Franklin, John Legend, De La Soul, the Roots, Santigold, Wyclef Jean and Santana. The scintillating trumpeter, composer, recording artist, producer and Grammy Award-winning arranger has, in his “Mobetta” persona, been spearheading a visionary meld of jazz and hip-hop – from his debut album, “Hip to Bop” (2004), to his delectable, melodically rich newest release, “The Mood.” “That’s kinda my lane now,” he acknowledged.
Brown brings his 7-piece band – along with special invitee Talib Kweli, the eminent New York rapper and activist guest-rhymes on “The Mood” – to Martyrs July 28. The concert will be dedicated to his late father, Charles, who passed away suddenly not quite two weeks earlier.
“Dad was really pumped about this show,” Brown said wistfully of his biggest booster. “He’d pre-sold like 20 tickets already, and was passing out hundreds of flyers.”
Brown reminisced with affection about his father’s outsize physical presence (his nickname: Bear) and personality, mirthfully recounting the elder Brown’s badgering Chicago jazz great Ramsey Lewis – with whom Brown had first performed as a high-schooler, here at Symphony Center – to hire his son way more frequently. “And when I was with Tedeschi Trucks Band,” Brown said of the sprawling jam-rock outfit that landed him a 2012 Grammy, “he would tell Derek Trucks, ‘Give Maurice more solos!’
“I could always pick his voice out of a crowd of ten-thousand.” Brown said, smiling.
Brown also characterized his father as “very motivational; he’d show me I always have options. “A lotta bad things happen when people feel they have no options,” the artist quietly stressed. “Dad would say, ‘Even when you think you don’t have options, you got options. Breathe, think about it for a second, and it’ll come to you.’ So I’d save my energy for the stage.”
Brown’s first college stage was at Northern Illinois University, and he continued his jazz studies at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., partaking of clarinetist Alvin Batiste’s expertise. He then put down roots in New Orleans, nourished by the Big Easy music scene’s ever-replenishing fertility, from traditional brass-band and second-line jazz to hip-hop.
Having grown up on Miles Davis and John Coltrane, among other innovative giants of jazz, Brown is drawn to rap’s trailblazers as well: Snoop Dogg, The Notorious B.I.G, Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. “I like people with bars,” stated Brown, emphasizing his preference for dazzling wordsmiths.
“I want to connect to what you’re saying, I want you to paint a picture in my mind.” Rap runs as deeply as jazz in his life: “I’ve been rhyming ever since I was eight or nine, in ciphers [informal freestyle-rap gatherings] on the block in Harvey [Ill.] and Markham [Ill.]. My mom and sister,” he added, grinning, “can spit the verse of my very first rap: ‘It was the scariest thing I ever seen/It was Santa Claus on Halloween!’”
During his four years of “great weather, great food, great music” in NOLA, Brown lived in the famed jazz district Treme, making his mark around the city and beyond. “I had a steady Tuesday gig at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street, selling out two sets a night, [also playing] the Maple Leaf, the Blue Nile, international festivals. I was so comfortable. Local celebrity, making good money; like, this is it!
“Then – boom.”
Hurricane Katrina forced Brown to relocate, first back home to Chicago (where he was a regular at such clubs as the South Side’s Velvet Lounge and New Apartment Lounge), and then to New York, where he settled in Brooklyn and still resides, splitting his time between his Bedford-Stuyvesant residence and a brand-new abode in L.A.
The artist made loving note of his one-of-a-kind custom horn, “the first-ever hip-hop jazz trumpet,” on which he collaborated with Switzerland-based master craftsman Thomas Inderbinen. Brown had very specific instructions: “It has to have swag — it has to be like the Rolls-Royce of trumpets. Real slick and aerodynamic, and I want it to sound warm.”
And the result? Declared Brown with pride, “The sexiest trumpet ever made.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.