Allan Browne

Before his quintet ushers the Stonnington Jazz audience into
A Season In Hell, Allan Browne tells ROGER MITCHELL of his personal journey to the brink

ALLAN Browne has had his season in hell. In 2002 the drummer was staring death in the face and escaped by undergoing a lung transplant operation that meant time away from his beloved drum kit.

But the self-taught and self-effacing musician, who was consumed by a love for traditional jazz before being enticed away by the freedom he saw in Jack DeJohnette’s interaction with pianist Keith Jarrett in the late 1960s, found serious illness had some benefits.

Enforced idleness enabled Browne to reawaken his interest in poetry and literature that years of “living fast” had put on hold.

“Being very sick was an enormous help, because I was just at home,” Browne says. “I read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in a year at home and it was a really beautiful, sustaining thing because I thought I was dying, so it was a great way to go out.”

On recovering, Browne found he wanted to play more and more music.

“There was a spiritual difference too. Facing death and being given another chance is really an incredible way of becoming deeper spiritually — a way of helping you understand yourself.”

Browne’s love of Kenneth Slessor’s poetry was the inspiration for the Australian Jazz Band 2006 album Five Bells, and with his quintet in 2007 he released The Drunken Boat, inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.

Now the quintet, comprising composers Eugene Ball (trumpet) and Geoff Hughes (guitar) along with Browne, Nick Haywood on bass and Philip Noy on alto and bass saxophones, has released A Season in Hell, inspired by Rimbaud’s prose poem.

“It’s a very dark record. It’s not violent, but it’s dark,” Browne says. “It’s Rimbaud’s response to his time with poet Paul Verlaine, who ran away from his wife to become Rimbaud’s lover. It’s the pages of the diary of a damned soul.”

Such dark subject matter has produced deeply moving music. “The harmonies are pretty modern,” Browne says. “Phil Noy is one of the stars — he just plays so beautifully. And we recorded it in a big room, as Miles Davis did with Kind of Blue. We were trying to get an acoustic vibe.”

Browne brings a love of melody and equality to the ensemble.

“I’m coming from a melodic place because my whole background was learning melodies. I can tell the introduction to any Billie Holiday song, I can tell you what song it is. Or any Louis Armstrong Hot Five or King Oliver, practically, or Jelly Roll Morton. That’s always in me and it makes me play differently.”

“The only reason I liked the George Lewis band back in 1960 was that in the whole six-piece ensemble everyone was playing together. That’s what I like about jazz. Now when I play with Marc (Hannaford) or Sam (Anning) or the quintet we are all playing together, we are not backing each other.”

Browne, who celebrates 50 years in jazz at Stonnington Jazz this afternoon (Sunday), will perform A Season in Hell with the quintet as well as a set of New Orleans trio music from the twenties with his wife, Margie Lou Dyer, on piano and vocals, and Jo Stevenson on clarinet.

He could easily become emotional.

“Honestly, you go to another plane psychologically. It’s a spiritual thing really, it’s that important,” Browne says of his most moving gigs.

“There are times when I just cry on stage. I think, ‘This is just amazing. This is what I did all that practice for this week and why I put up with not earning any money and not having any superannuation. This is worth it. This is something that other people don’t know’.”

Allan Browne Celebrates 50 Years in Jazz at 2pm today, Chapel Off Chapel

Ausjazz blog will cover many of the gigs at this festival, which runs until May 30. For details of concerts, visit the festival website.

A condensed version of this article was published in the Play section of the Sunday Herald Sun on May 23, 2010

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