When I saw Derek Brown back in the good old days when music venues were open – three weeks ago – I was blown away. Not only is he a world-class saxophone player, but he is also a great innovator and performer. He does things with the sax that are seemingly impossible, he does them live without gimmicks or fancy electronics. The result is fun, sometimes moving, often hooky, music. His new album, Fifty Fifty captures that excitement and more.
The name Fifty Fifty has nothing to with the contents of the album. At fifteen songs it is 100% blow-your-socks off music. And it has something for everyone; rap, “America the Beautiful”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, classic saxophone jazz tunes, some Duke Ellington and even Paul Simon gets slipped in. “Fifty-Fifty” is 100% music exhilaration, named for the tour that took Brown and his wife to all 50 states in a borrowed RV (not sure how they got the RV to Hawaii, but he played there).
In constructing this album, Brown has carefully chosen songs that display the innovations and techniques he has developed with the saxophone over the years, like singing while playing, creating percussion with the horn, including a kick drum and a clave, and moving seamlessly from the lowest to the highest registers of the instrument instantaneously.
For instance, in the title song “Fifty Fifty” there is a not a lot of what most people would recognize as saxophone sound. It is fast tempo and it layers different beats during the song. It starts with bongos and then add bass, vocals and something like a clavé or clap. The result is a real earworm with great hooks. Even without lyrics, you find yourself humming along after the song has ended.
But there are songs with lyrics. In Funny How, he plays and seems to sing simultaneously about how a girl came on to him and her rejected her, he had second thoughts but she rejected him, and 12 years later they are still married. He explains that he is able to sing and play by very quickly shifting from singing to blowing into the reed, so fast that the listener can barely tell. When he breathes is another question.
He deftly blends his sax with rap in “Empathique” while Keith Harris raps a story Hamilton-style, punctuated by sax beeps and bumps. But he goes in a different direction with “The Single Petal of a Rose”, melodic, romantic, classic. He moves to a more light-hearted and diverse set of tones and beats (when was the last time you talked about beats on a sax) in “Half and Half”, and then full tap-your- feet rock out in “Pochemunchka”. The album – which I have not described in its entirety to leave some fun to discover, wraps with “America The Beautiful Collaboration with the USA Saxophonists”, as stirring as you will hear in any ballpark.
Whether it is “America the Beautiful” or the whimsical “The Jackalope” or the gut-gripping 1971 “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Derek Brown has used his sax to make them his own, different and yet enjoyable. Fifty Fifty may seem to be a bit out of your comfort zone, but once you hear it, it will be on top of the playlist you are most comfortable with. Fifty Fifty is definitely one reason why Derek Brown has over 40 million views on social media. I love being 40 million and one. (ph0tos: Emilia Galvez)
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