by W. Kim Heron
nodded to trance music with pianist Harold Budd; even smooth jazz stations might have played some of things given a bit of imagination. He was a man of varied interests and expressions to put it mildly. And wide travels, including a stint as an expatriate in Europe.
But he recorded little in the 1980s — with attention shifting to visual arts — and apparently nothing after 1990, his health relegating him to nursing homes from the mid-’90s through the end.
“Super sad, sadder than sad,” Warn Defever of His Name is Alive wrote in an e-mail when we let him know that we’d learned that Brown had passed, on Oct. 10. That’s according to the website of the ESP label, which recorded some of his early albums.
HNIA deserves credit for being among the keepers-of-the-Marion Brown-flame. In 2004, HNIA performed a concert of Brown’s compositions at the University of Michigan. Supplemented with studio sessions, that led to the release of Sweet Earth Flower in 2007 on High Two records. (You can hear samples by following the link.)
Wrote Defever of his dealings with Brown: “He told me that John Sinclair was the first person to contact him when his ESP-Disk debuted and immediately brought him to Detroit for a concert. He told me he still felt a connection to the city.”
Brown also felt a connection to the HNIA project, ultimately giving it his blessing.
“Although I usually play guitar, I mostly play piano on the Sweet Earth Flower album," Defever said. "And Marion would quiz me on pianists, making sure I was familiar with his favorites: Stanley Cowell, Art Tatum, and Amina Claudine Myers. He taught me a ton — and always hilarious stories about Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Ed Blackwell, everybody really. ...”
And as we were about to post this, Warn sent us some further recollections of the backstory:
We would talk on the phone for an hours, and I sent him our other records before I felt he was ready to hear what we had done to his songs. I really wanted his blessing on the project before I would consider releasing anything. I would ask him about certain compositions and structural philosophies and would tell him my interpretations of his intentions based on his recordings. Eventually I felt comfortable enough to send him what we had been working on.
Some of our versions are pretty far removed from his original recordings, and I was terrified what his response might be; we had begun recording before I knew him at all and didn't know what to expect. Finally the time came, and I sent him a tape and I didn't hear back for awhile. When I gathered up the nerve to call him and ask him what he thought, he paused very dramatically and came back with the quote we ended up using on the front cover of the album: "It’s beautiful, thank you, you really understand me."
Several months later, when we had found label to release the finished album. I asked him for a quote, he gave a really long technical speech comparing our compositional approaches that I felt was probably best left for a text book someday.
* Some sites give his birth year as 1935, rather than the 1931 that puts him at 79.