Saturday, November 14, 2009

Joe Brent: A Classical Mandolin Player with an Itch for Rock and Roll

Joe: I play in an ensemble that’s playing in a festival in Lima and then we booked a couple of things in Cusco which is down south. And we set aside a couple days in the middle to go to Manchu Pichu. So, we’ve got a lot of things going on so I’ve gotta sit by my computer a lot.

Curtis: Why do you have to sit by your computer a lot?

Joe: Well, a lot of the music is arrangements so I’ve gotta write it out.

Curtis: You arrange the music for your ensemble?

Joe: Not all of it.

Curtis: How’d you get with this group? This ensemble?

Joe: Well, the group is called the Tres Americas project. It was actually started by a violin player named Jen Curtis. We play together in another ensemble called ICE, International Contemporary Ensemble. So she started her own thing. She has her own kind of residency in Mexico or something like that. She has a lot of connections in South America. So she started this group which does music by South American composers, from all of the Americas but specializes in Latin American composers. Yeah, so, when she started the group she asked me to come on. So it was pretty cool.

Curtis: Cool. So what’s up with the mandolin? What is that?

Joe: (Laughter) Well, my first instrument when I first started was violin. I was like four years old. But by the time I was thirteen I was all ready moving on to like guitar and mandolin especially. And then pretty much by the time I got to college I was all mandolin. Not just because it’s niche but it feels a lot more like my own voice. There are a lot of things about how you hold it, the way you play it, the attack of it, and the sound. You can do all the things that violin and guitar do but all in one big instrument … well little instrument.

Curtis: All right. So where are you from originally?

Joe: I’m from Queens.

Curtis: What part?

Joe: Well, I was born in Hollis, and lived in Queens and in Middletown for a while, Flushing.

Curtis: Hollis you were born in?

Joe: Yeah, I was born in Hollis.

Curtis: Really?

Joe: Yeah, then we moved to Middletown, past Westchester. Then we moved to Florida for a long time. But my whole extended family is still here. All the old Russian cats.

Curtis: Russian cats? So you’re Russian?

Joe: Yeah.

Curtis: So that’s where the appreciation for the mandolin comes from.

Joe: Well, yeah. Everybody in a Russian family plays an instrument. I mean, not a whole lot of people consider being a professional musician. I mean, it happens, but not everybody.

Curtis: So you went to college right?

Joe: I went to college originally DePauw. It’s with a W and not an L.

Curtis: I know DePauw.

Joe: Which is in nowhere. But I was a composition major and there was a composition teacher there named David Ott. I really like him, but I didn’t like the school so much because it was like, the major funding for the school came from like, the Dan Quayle, Eli Lilly families so it’s pretty right wing. That’s fine, not for me. So after two years there I moved to Georgia, to play in a band in Athens for a year.

Curtis: How was Athens?

Joe: Athens is great. Athens is a lot like New York or Austin, or Columbus, or Bloomington or any of the college towns.

Curtis: Chapel Hill?

Joe: Chapel Hill. Where their almost all like. It’s like, their laid out even the same. Like, there’s a central area, with live music every night and like 40 bars. So if you have a band in Athens, it’s especially known for it’s music scene because like REM is from there, the B-52s, all these sort of southern rock bands are there. So I did pretty well in Athens but then after a year I went back to school at Berkeley in Boston.

Curtis: So where are you going with this, the mandolin?

Joe: Well, the classical mandolin is really my thing. It’s big in Europe. Well, maybe not big but its sort of more well, known, more established in Europe, especially in Italy, Germany, it’s pretty big in Japan actually, but in this country not too much. So after Berkeley I started studying with this Italian guy, this guy Carlo Aonzo. He teaches in Savona in Italy. So I was learning like the European way of playing classical mandolin but at the same time having gone to Berkeley doing a lot of jazz stuff, a lot of rock stuff. All …

Curtis: So you were doing a hodgepodge thing? A kind of potpourri of music?

Joe: Well, I was taking the classical stuff really seriously. That’s more my background.

Curtis: So what’s with the rock band?

Joe: Well … you do the classical thing and it pays the bills. And I love it. And that’s what I do the most. But at the same time I don’t think there is anything wrong with being a little schizophrenic. I would hate to have to give up any one of these other things that I love to do just as much. So the jazz thing is happening. And then you’ve met my girlfriend but there’s another girl that you remember, Ani Rae Healey. Like a couple of years ago I started to put out feelers, I was doing the straight legit, classical thing. Does anybody know somebody who was looking for someone to play in their band. Cause all I want to do sometimes is not put on a tux, but put on my own clothes and go play and rock out and have fun. And I just want to do that sometimes.

Curtis: So which do you like more?

Joe: I like them all the same.

Curtis: You like them all … Is that true?

Joe: That’s absolutely true. There’s different rewards in each but none of them are better rewards. So Andrea picked me up. But I’ll tell ya, to extend that point about liking classical music the challenge is that you’re playing the hardest music. And you’re working with musicians with the highest standards. So to play that well and to know that you play that well is a reward that you can’t buy anywhere else

Curtis: So let me ask you a question. Is that a technical achievement and you’re happy you’ve achieved that technically? Or is that an actual make-your-soul-dance achievement where you love what you’re doing so much that …

Joe: There’s a ratio. Well, maybe not a ratio but there’s an attitude formula. So you’re happy because of the technical achievement. The ratio of music that you play in the classical world that makes your soul dance is a little less than in jazz or in rock or anywhere else where it’s not black notes on a page or ink on a page that you’re trying to read off of. However, to play rock or play jazz, it’s always to make your soul dance. It’s always fun, almost always. But I want to be a better musician tomorrow than I am today. And if I play a rock gig it wouldn’t necessarily happen.

To listen to this interview in it’s entirety click below.

Part 1 of 5:

Part 2 of 5:

Part 3 of 5:

Part 4 of 5:

Part 5 of 5

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  1. Joe: Nice to hear about other aspects of your life and music. Hope to make it to one of your concerts again, soon.

  2. Hey John and Jim,

    Glad to hear you guys liked the stuff on Joe. He's great. I heard Joe at Rockwell's Music Hall. If you like Joe maybe you'll like this Michael Daves too. He's on this blog as well. Tried to cut and paste the address but it didn't work.

    BTW, who do you guys like? Is are there any artists I should be paying attention to?

    -- Curtis