When Bruce Brown
lived in Los Angeles, he enjoyed a whirlwind of what he calls “live furniture background gigs,” countless casuals, and hipper engagements, like singing and playing piano in the lobby of the L.A. Biltmore Hotel. While doing this, he decided to take a leap of faith and pursue his longtime dream of songwriting full time. His big fear was that he wouldn’t measure up to the greats he grew up inspired by—the Irving Berlins, the Cole Porters, the Frank Loessers. While still humorously calling himself one of the “children of a Frank Loesser god,” Brown—a resident of Wellington, New Zealand for over 20 years—showcases his ongoing mastery of songcraft like never before on his fourth album Death Of Expertise
Infused with Brown’s trademark wit, wisdom, incisive social commentary and poignant reflections on his life and the ever-challenging world around him, the 14 song collection features his soft-hearted, low key Chet Baker
-esque vocals weaving colorful original narratives over the brisk, joyful swing and graceful moods of an ensemble of Australian and American musicians he has known and played with for years. The group includes John Harkins
(piano), Brendan Clarke
(bass), Andrew Dickeson
(drums), Steve O'Brien
(guitar), Steve Crum
(trumpet) and Glen Berger
(saxophones and alto flute).
The transcendent fine line Brown navigates between freewheeling, romance-filled joy and darker, more soul-penetrating themes on Death Of Expertise
came naturally (some might say miraculously) to him during the most challenging phase of his life, as he recovered from a life-threatening stroke he suffered in 2016—a year after releasing his last album Nobody’s Foolin’ Anyone (recorded in Wellington, NZ). Although his diminished motor skills led him to cast his once-formidable piano skills to the side, his mind was thankfully as sharp as ever and he found songwriting to be deeply cathartic. When Brown was finally able to walk again, he would go on peaceful strolls that opened the floodgates of fresh lyrical creativity.
“Those ideas are always fleeting, like quick movements of a paintbrush, so the goal is to capture them quickly,” he says. “Great lyrics have the capacity to get inside and tweak the heart. In putting together the set list, I asked myself one simple question: ‘Are they seaworthy?’ They’re a combination of what I was feeling in those moments—good, bad and indifferent—about things that I went through and that people go through every day.”
Also intrinsic to the songcraft on the album is the marriage between music and lyrics. The deceptively simple harmony is the perfect architecture for the songs, which allows the emotional impact of the lyric to be conveyed more effectively. The listener is surprised by the juxtaposition of the beautiful harmonies and sometimes funny, sometimes challenging, but always thought-provoking lyrics. Death Of Expertise
bears repeated listening to catch all of Brown’s artful nuances.
The lively title track takes a humorous look at how in this age of Googling and easily found information, we arrogantly declare ourselves experts on everything. It emerged from his obsessive determination to learn anything and everything about his condition and how to get better. On a slightly darker, more self-reflective note, Brown’s “A Mind is a Terrible Thing” goes from the tragic realization that his mind has betrayed him to its remarkable ability to heal—and how different it is from his much more visible physical recovery. He also reminds himself—and by extension, us—that “Giving Up Is Not an Option.” The lightly swinging tune’s key hard-won philosophy is: “That hill that’s looking way too steep/Means it’s time to dig down deep.” On the spiritual side, expressing gratitude was another important aspect of Brown’s getting back up to speed. As he sings on “Find Three Things to Be Grateful For”: “A little gratitude unlocks the fullness of life we’re looking for.”
Brown taps into his love of bossa nova music on “They’re Everywhere,” and on “Back in the Day,” takes a hilariously nostalgic spin through the stark differences between the meanings of words in cyberspace compared with their original intent when he was coming up. A ballad like no other known to jazzkind, “Doreen” is strange and sarcastic but irresistibly poetic about human nature. On the buoyant and ultra-optimistic “Love Always Wins,” Brown offers a timeless reminder during an era of deep division in his beloved homeland of America.
“To Find Things Out” takes a lighthearted look at the humility that life teaches us over time (riding high over a propulsive rhythm section). Next comes the charming, romantic “laundry list” song comparing the way “We Click” to everything else that clicks. Offering sheer humor and delight we can all relate to, Brown recounts in innumerable ways the cool, carefree splendor of being an underachiever on “Losers Are People Too.” The collection wraps with “We’re Up We’re Down,” a spirited reflection on the rollercoaster nature of day-to-day life, and the gently reflective “The Music Plays Again,” a tender look at how the love between two people conquers (and restores) all.
Those eager to learn the craft of songwriting but unable to Zoom to New Zealand anytime soon can enjoy the master class Bruce Brown offers on Death Of Expertise