By Mike Zielinski
Dean Brown’s Summer of Love Evolution wedding an interpretive jazz component to signature songs from the abundantly memorable 1968-72 period of music promises to be an imaginative flight of brilliance.
This luminous concert on Friday, April 3, at 7 p.m. at the Miller Center for the Arts will be one of the highlights of the 30th anniversary edition of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council.
Brown, a superlative guitarist, composer, producer, arranger and educator, has put together a marvelous project spotlighting great music being played by great musicians.
The Summer of Love Evolution features a dynamic array of artists in multiple Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker; multiple Grammy-winning saxophonist Eric Marienthal; profoundly diverse vocalist Honey Larochelle; extraordinary drummer Keith Carlock; incredible pianist/keyboardist Jim Beard; Billy Joel and Michael Bolton bassist Schuyler Deale; accomplished vocalist/guitarist Deveron Patterson; master-of-all-trades Mino Cinelu (percussion, drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals) and the Berks Horns (Mike Anderson on saxophone, Rob Diener on trumpet and John Loos on trombone).
The Summer of Love of 1967 began in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, an event that birthed a brilliant musical era. The Summer of Love celebrates its 53rd anniversary this year. The exact date is sketchy, lost somewhere in the psychedelic haze of historical memory.
But the Summer of Love endures today because it represents a time like no other in American history. While there were societal upheavals before, there had never been the tremors that began in the West and shook the status quo from coast to coast, for better and for worse.
The Summer of Love’s most recognizable denizens were the hippies who harbored dreams of transcendence, young people awash in new ideas, fresh attitudes, boundless energy and free love. It began with utopian beginnings when peace and love were paramount, spawning great music. It was a social phenomenon that also popped up in many places in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
But there also were grimy, seedy, drug-addled loners and drifters who used the spirit of the Summer of Love as an excuse to avoid responsibility. There were all kinds who gathered at the Haight-Asbury epicenter. That’s what happens when tumult envelops a nation divided by the tumult of the Vietnam War.
“In my opinion, the Summer of Love was a protest against the idea that we had to go around killing each other,” Brown says. “And that it would be a much more enlightened world if everybody sort of lived and let live. The Vietnam War was a huge influence on culture. So many of the artists were taking a stand against killing people in the name of democracy. That what was going on, whether you agree with it or not. There was such a huge divide and that’s why things got dark.
“When we talk about the Summer of Love, for me as a musician, I would rather focus on the good things that came out of it, which is the music. What happened with the music is what we hoped would happen in society. Everything worked with everything else. That’s what I’m trying to illustrate in this concert at Berks. Songs like Miles Davis are going to fit well with a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. They’re like related.”
Indeed, the Summer of Love produced a wondrous volume of great music, juicier than a summer peach. There was magic floating in the air. Some hit songs pass through like fog and quickly burn off. Not the classic songs from that era.
Let’s be honest. Even some No. 1 records are about as exciting as warts. But many of the songs from the 1968-72 epoch are about as boring as probing a lion for a sore tooth. Those songs are art. They should be painted as well as listened to.
“The music of that era is such an integral part of people’s musical upbringing,” Brown says. “There’s never been a period in music where more different kinds of music affected more different other kinds of music.
“There was so much cross-pollination, rock musicians using more jazzy sounds and on the other side many jazz musicians were looking for something more to push them, to push the envelope with this rock thing that was a different type of scenario and a different type of orchestration and made things sound completely different.
“Being that it’s the Berks Jazz Festival, I’m trying to draw a direct correlation between the jazz music that everybody loves and the actual songs and groups of the late 60s, early 70s that were so popular, that had so much influence on those jazz artists. We want the audience to hear the two things happening at the same time.”
Those who came of age listening to that abundant treasure chest of music during the late 1960s and early 70s never want to flee their past like orphans of the storm. And now their past meets the present, courtesy of Dean Brown’s jazz spin on that music.
As you can imagine, it was a monumental task for Brown to sift through all that marvelous music and winnow it down or otherwise the concert would last forever and a day.
“A lot of the music I’ve chosen for this particular project lends itself to improvisatory exploration,” Brown explains. “Even though we’re playing songs from The Fifth Dimension or Crosby, Stills and Nash or the Beatles or Marvin Gaye.
“I was looking for songs that I thought were important to me and also would lend themselves to this cross-pollination of jazz and rock or jazz and soul music or jazz and Latin. I spent a lot of time curating the repertoire and narrowing it down. It was a huge thing.
“And I’m thinking about the various guys and girls that we are using on this project that we want to feature and that helps rarify the selection. We probably will play 10 or 12 songs. It might be a little more. Not to give anything away, but some of the songs are mashups. Even if you perceive them as one song, they are sort of mashup of things, a jazz song and a rock song.”
One of the hallmarks of the Berks Jazz Fest over the years is the uniquely special musical projects it premieres. The Summer of Love Evolution is a prime example.
“This project will have its premiere at Berks Jazz Fest,” Brown says. “We probably will rehearse for a couple days at Berks prior to the concert. But everybody will have the music for at least a month so they can marinate with it. It will be mocked up. But I don’t want to lock it in too much, to make it sound like a finished product. I don’t want to do some cookie-cutter kind of thing.
“I want the artists on stage to explore that music in their own way, however they want. There obviously is a template. We don’t want to make it too dense in terms of arrangements but also not so sparse that there is not enough content.
“My plan is to do this at Berks, see how it goes, and see if I can get some interest to actually record it somehow and perhaps take it elsewhere. It depends on the amount of interest. To me it’s a no-brainer.”
So it would seem.
By the way, the Summer of Love and the music it spawned also gave birth to Dean Brown’s remarkable career. Even though he was only 12 in 1967. More on that in a moment but first a quick glance at his resume.
Brown’s music defies boundaries to combine rock, Latin, jazz, funk and fusion into a joyful, soulful, dynamic and intense groove. He is well known in the global jazz/fusion scene for his powerful virtuosic rhythm guitar work and his passionate melodic soloing.
R&B goddess Roberta Flack says of Brown: “I found guitarist Dean Brown to play behind me. He’s a genius.”
Brown released his fifth celebrated album Rolajafufu in 2016 after four acclaimed previous solo CD’s worldwide. Brown’s guitar work can be heard on well over 200 recordings which include numerous Grammy nominations and four Grammy Award winners.
Since starting to play professionally with his own group at the age of 13, Brown has toured all over the world with his projects and performed and recorded alongside legendary artists such as Marcus Miller, The Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, David Sanborn, Bob James, George Duke, Roberta Flack, Bill Evans, Randy Brecker, Victor Bailey, Joe Zawinul, Simon Phillips, Lenny White, Chris Minh Doky, Kirk Whalum, and Steve Smith’s Vital Information, just to name a few.
Brown picks up the narrative of why the music from the Summer of Love era — along with a fortuitous introduction into jazz — was so transformative for him personally.
“I started gigging when I was 13 and the music from that era obviously had a profound effect on me in terms of me wanting to be a musician,” he explains. “Up to that point I didn’t have that much interest in it even though my mom was a professional singer singing jazz. It didn’t resonate with me.
“I came to jazz through the side door because of that music and I think that this is what this project is kind of about — my window into jazz came through artists who were not jazz musicians but played rock or soul or various different other genres.
“Jethro Tull. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. During this transition I was playing in a band and a couple guys in the band were GIs. We played the pop and rock and soul music of the day. Those guys told me I had to listen to John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery. It was transformational. I heard it but I still didn’t know what the hell it was. But I liked it.
“It took me the longest time to realize that when the guys were soloing, they actually were soloing over a form. It sounded to me then like they were playing freely until they played the melody again. In fact they were playing over the form and the chords of that song. It was a major step for me to even just like it, instead of dismissing it as something my mom did.
“It kind of came full circle. All of a sudden, the musicians I was listening to were being influenced by the music that I liked. That was where a lot of the jazz rock was born out of. Jazz musicians were embracing electric bass and electric keyboards.”
Brown’s perspective is that the power of music extends far beyond what goes into people’s eardrums. He experiences that every time he writes and performs.
Anyone that’s seen Brown live understands how that translates into a charged, emotional experience that leaves no doubt about his intimate relationship with the muse. It’s common to see Brown leaping about with wild abandon at his gigs to the delight of the audience.
“I feel like I’m tapping into a higher energy when I write and perform,” he says. “It’s about respecting the muse. I try not to think about it too deeply and just channel the flow. It’s about being open to inspiration and enabling an energy conversation to take place. I’m not interested in filters.”
The Summer of Love Evolution at Berks Jazz Fest will be an emotional experience. That’s a lead-pipe cinch.
“I put the word evolution in there,” Brown says. “You are going to recognize these songs as part of the tapestry of your listening experience throughout the late 60s and early 70s. But I’m not just covering stuff just to get a rise out of people. That’s not enough. Even though all the songs are going to get a rise out of people.
“I’m choosing songs that are very easily recognizable. I’m tempering my artistic license with the understanding that I want people to feel a connection. They just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be a nostalgic experience but also something that is immediate and urgent.”
He takes a pregnant pause.
“I don’t think there’s any way to screw this up,” he laughs.
No way in hell.