Few aspiring jazz artists finish college with a top tier gig waiting for them in the wings. But that’s just what happened to the prodigious 22-year-old pianist Alex Brown, who graduated Boston’s New England Conservatory to occupy the piano chair in legendary saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera’s band
“I met Paquito’s bassist Oscar Stagnaro in Boston,” Brown tells me from his home in New York City. “He was actually directing the Latin Jazz Ensemble at New England Conservatory. Oscar introduced me to Mark Walker, Paquito’s drummer, and I started playing with the two of them. About two weeks later they asked me if I could do a trio gig with them in Washington, DC, as part of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. I’m from Maryland, and I was going to be down there anyway, but honestly, I probably would have driven down there even if I wasn’t, just to play with those guys. They ended up inviting Paquito to the show, and that’s where I met him. There were a few gigs that his last pianist couldn’t make, so I subbed for him a couple of times. And I guess Paquito was happy enough with my playing to offer me the gig.
Brown started playing classical piano at age six, but wouldn’t develop a penchant for jazz until years later. “In middle school, I joined the jazz band,” Brown continues. “I ended up having to do an improvised solo, and I didn’t really know what to do at all. I had no idea what was happening, but I really wanted to learn how to do it. So I decided to start taking lessons on my own, outside of school. Then in high school, I started studying with the pianist Stanley Cowell. I was really fortunate to hook up with him. He’s incredible.”
Brown would also develop an interest in Latin jazz, fortuitously fueled by admiration for his current employer. “I was always interested in it,” Brown continues. “In fact, I was always a huge Paquito fan. But I started realizing that I needed to check out the people who came before the people I was listening to. I needed to go back to the roots.” At NEC, Brown would study with the acclaimed pianist and educator Danilo Perez. “Danilo’s incredible,” Brown says. “He is one of my favorites — maybe even my favorite pianist of all time.
Brown will have a full schedule throughout 2010, touring with Paquito across the U.S. and the world. When asked for advice to the next generation of aspiring jazzers, Brown waxes practical: “There are so many great players, but a lot of people don’t know how to promote themselves,” he says. “I have friends who never played any gigs during the four years they were in Boston. That’s supposed to be the whole point of school, to get you to the point where you are out playing.”