Derek Brown Redefines The Notion Of A One-Man-Band On His New CD 'Beatbox Sax' NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with musician Derek Brown about his new album Beatbox Sax. Brown squeezes sounds out of his instrument that sound more like stand up bass, than saxophone.

Derek Brown Redefines The Notion Of A One-Man-Band On His New CD 'Beatbox Sax'

Derek Brown Redefines The Notion Of A One-Man-Band On His New CD 'Beatbox Sax'

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with musician Derek Brown about his new album Beatbox Sax. Brown squeezes sounds out of his instrument that sound more like stand up bass, than saxophone.


When you listen to Derek Brown play the sax, you figure this guy has got to be using all kinds of loops and overdubs and electronic pyrotechnics. And then when you figure out it's just him playing live, it is a little bit hard to fathom.


KELLY: Derek Brown redefining the notion there of a one-man band on his new CD, "Beatbox Sax." He's at our member station, WBEZ in Chicago. Good morning. Welcome to the program.

DEREK BROWN: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: We're excited to have you here. So beatbox sax is your term for what you do, and I wonder how you came up with it. Did it just dawn on you one day you could do this with sax?

BROWN: First of all, I actually didn't come up with the phrase beatbox sax. After I had kind of developed this style, people were like, hey, do that beatbox thing you do on the sax. And I'd be like, well, it's actually - you know, I'm using extended techniques and different things. And they'd be like, whatever. Just do the beatbox stuff.

KELLY: (Laughter) just do it.

BROWN: And so now, you know, I called my album "Beatbox Sax," of course.

KELLY: And tell us about some of those techniques. They've got some good names - slap tonguing.

BROWN: Yeah. So - and this was a very slow evolution for me. I had a traditional upbringing in, you know, traditional classical saxophone and classical jazz. But I remember at certain points kind of hearing some unusual sounds from saxophones. Things like you said, slap tonguing, which, you know, I remember hearing from the classical side of things. And I can play a tiny bit of - maybe an example of that.

KELLY: Please.

BROWN: (Playing saxophone).

KELLY: Oh, wow.

BROWN: So yeah, that kind of, like, slap bass kind of sound. Then I remember hearing another sound, something that sounded like this, maybe a player playing something like this (playing saxophone). And then I remember thinking, whoa, that was like a percussion - that sounded like a snare drum. And then slowly kind of piecing together, you know, oh, what if I kind of experiment putting those two together? And then I would get something kind of like this (playing saxophone). And so that was kind of the foundation of then thinking, oh, ok. I got my kind of - I'm kind of doing my own little rhythm section (playing saxophone).

KELLY: What - so what are you actually doing with your hands to make that noise? How are you moving your fingers?

BROWN: Well, my fingers are actually doing just the normal - the key work on the saxophone. That's mostly coming from actually my tongue. The slap tonguing thing that we were talking about is actually my tongue getting a suction on the reed, kind of yanking it back and letting it slap against the mouthpiece. And then there's some other techniques that I kind of - have been kind of working on my own, things like - you actually asked about my fingers.

And actually, I did start - have started experimenting with rings on my thumbs. And I know you can't see this out - the listeners out there can't see this. But if you play the saxophone, your right-hand thumb isn't doing anything except holding up the saxophone. And so I realized, huh, I could - maybe I could use that right-hand thumb to kind of whack the back of the saxophone. So just this kind of clicking sound (playing saxophone). And then I realized, OK, that could kind of provide another little bit of percussion.

And let me play an example just with the ring going on there. So (playing saxophone).

KELLY: One of the tunes that jumped out at me was a - is a rendition of a very well-known classical piece, Bach's "Orchestral Suite No. 3." And there's an arrangement, "Air On The G String," which you do. Let us hear a little bit of that.


BROWN: So that one, you might think oh, he's overdubbing, like, an egg shaker with that. But that was a song where I thought, you know? What if I put an egg shaker in the saxophone and then just shook the saxophone while I played it?

KELLY: Now, just in case all of this isn't sounding challenging enough, you sing on some of these.


BROWN: (Singing) And I was like baby, baby, baby, oh. Like baby, baby, baby, no. Like baby, baby, baby, no.

KELLY: That's a Justin Bieber song for people who don't know it. And...

BROWN: Yes, you caught me.

KELLY: ...I'm trying to think if there's another album out there that cuts from Bach to Bieber (laughter).

BROWN: There you go, that could've been the subtitle.

KELLY: Is there any song you've come across that's stumped you, that you just can't figure out how to do with sax?

BROWN: There definitely have been. I mean, obviously the saxophone, which - as much as you can do, all the amazing things you - one can do on it, it still can only play one note at a time. And so I feel like with my songs I'm kind of creating the aural illusion of more sounds at once by going back and forth very rapidly. And so I have to kind of tweak these songs to where, you know, I maybe just slightly delay the melody by just a half second or slightly anticipate it.

For instance, I do the song "Every Breath You Take." And I was wondering about, you know, how could I put the melody in there with the bass line? And I realized, oh, if I just scoot the melody back just a half second, then I can do the bass note and then immediately play the melody then immediately play the bass note and melody and back and forth in this - and hopefully, to the listener, it doesn't sound like chaos but it actually - you know, it sounds like two different lines moving.

KELLY: It sounds like The Police.

BROWN: Yeah, hopefully (laughter).

KELLY: Well, I was going to ask if you could play us out with something. And I am a sucker for The Police, so maybe we'll let you play us out on that. Derek Brown. His new album is "Beatbox Sax." Been great to talk to you.

BROWN: So great to talk to you, Mary Louise. Thank you so much for having me (playing saxophone).

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