december 2011

Joe Brent: ‘We’re at a point where the mandolin is taking its rightful place among the family of instruments, like the guitar did in the 20th century. I'm not satisfied with being the only guy teaching mandolin at an American classical conservatory. I'd love to see a mandolin teacher at every conservatory in the country. But to get to that point, we have to raise the profile of the mandolin with younger students as well, from grade school on up, like the systems they have in Europe, Japan, and Israel.’ (Photo by Emily Raw)

Artists On The Verge 2012
Joe Brent, Part 2: Have Mandolin, Will Travel

‘When you're a professional musician, it’s important to remember that if you don't absolutely love what you do, you're in the wrong business, and you might as well have a job’

By David McGee

You could have an easier job than tracking down mandolin virtuoso Joe Brent. One evening might find him on stage before thousands as a member of Regina Spektor's touring band; another might find him out in Brooklyn leading his own quartet or supporting another artist; or you might find him in the studio recording anything from a classical caprice to an old folk song from the basement of time; and still another day you will located him in a classroom at the Mannes College The New School for Music on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he is the first and only mandolin player in the United States to hold a conservatory position as an instructor specifically of classical mandolin. Even this is but a cursory list of the various and sundry incarnations of Brent's musical persona. A writer as well as a player, Brent is in the same company with the likes of Imani Winds, Mark O'Connor and Sharon Isbin--other prominent nominally classical artists who cross music borders frequently and have all been profiled in these pages--who are either writing or commissioning (or both) new works that are enlarging the repertoires for their instruments and in effect forming the canons of a new American classical music era; he also shares with each of these artists a commitment to music education: in addition to teaching at Mannes, Brent has written two books of mandolin pedagogy, Scales and Arpeggios for the Mandolin and Orchestral and Chamber Excerpts for Mandolin, published by Lulu. It's a fast crowd he runs with, but he's more than keeping pace: One of the truly exceptional musicians of his generation, Joe Brent recognizes no boundaries the mandolin cannot breach, and thus seems destined to forge a body of work future generations will have to reckon with.

Born in Queens, NY, and raised in Tampa, FL, Brent considers New York his home: "I've got a lot of extended family up here and I'm really more of a New Yorker," he says. "I went to school in a lot of different places, so I've lived all over, but I've lived in New York the longest."

In the Brent family, music was a constant. His maternal grandmother was an opera buff, "and growing up in a Russian Jewish family, there was a lot of that kind of music around all the time." At age four Joe saw Itzhak Perlman playing Tchaikovsky on TV and immediately beseeched his mother with "you gotta get me a violin!" She did, and he was off. (While he was learning violin his sister was taking viola lessons, but she didn't pursue it, "even though," Joe insists, "she's way smarter than me and could have been great at it.") To his mother's delight, young Joe's passion for the violin came with a value-added component: "I had a lot of creative energy going a lot of different directions back then--guess I still do--and I think she figured music might be a good way to focus all that energy instead of using it to get myself in trouble."

‘I've just always felt like plucked strings were my real voice. I always liked having the instrument right there in my belly, like I could make the music come from me, rather than the violin, which sort of felt like some disembodied voice that I was only just manipulating in a tactile way.’ (Photo: Emily Raw)

Not long after taking up the violin, Joe's aunt gave him a guitar, "and I really felt a lot closer to that than the violin, even though I was getting pretty good at [the violin]. Moving right over to mandolin just felt natural pretty soon after that, and not just because it shares a tuning with the violin. I still play violin in a few different bands, but for some reason, I've just always felt like plucked strings were my real voice. I always liked having the instrument right there in my belly, like I could make the music come from me, rather than the violin, which sort of felt like some disembodied voice that I was only just manipulating in a tactile way. It's hard to describe. There are plenty of fiddle players who feel the opposite, having tried mandolin or guitar. Every musician has their own voice, and you gotta try to find your voice and place in the musical world. Mandolin just happened to be mine."

During his secondary school years Joe got involved in as much music as he could find-youth orchestras, rock bands, blues band, jazz bands, even "a really terrible Bob Marley cover band that did a gig once for fun."

During these years not only did his parents encourage his musical pursuits ("it's because of them that I get to follow my dream today"), but at age 13 he met an important early mentor in Dr. Andrew Galos, whom he credits as being "probably more responsible for the musician I am today than anyone.

"I was really raw and undisciplined when I came to him, and his thing was to push me really hard, with the theory being that I'd either quit and stop wasting his time, or start practicing twice as hard just so he would stop yelling and cussing at me. Luckily, I went with the latter! I came to love him for how hard he was pushing me, never letting me half-ass anything--when I make a mistake in practice today, I can still hear his gruff old voice: 'Goddammit, three times slowly, one time fast!' He taught me the difference between an amateur and a professional is that an amateur practices something until they get it, and a professional practices until they never get it wrong."

Before matriculating to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Brent spent some time in Athens, GA, playing in bands, but also "playing as much classical chamber music as I could, which I've never thought of as any different than playing in a band, because you're really feeding off the other musicians and reacting to them, rather than just following a conductor."

brentIn last month's issue, Brent discussed various aspects of his classical music career; in this month's installment, we begin the story with him reflecting on his experience at Berklee and then focus more on the various and sundry projects he's pursuing outside the classical realm, including a new four-song EP, Solo, featuring Brent's elegant and classy solo mandolin interpretations of songs originally recorded by Animal Collective, The Flaming Lips and his late friend and Regina Spektor band compatriot, Dan Cho.




‘When I'm on my own, the challenge is to communicate something that came from me in a way that will create an emotional reaction in the audience. Even if they get something out of my playing that's different than what I intended, there's no right or wrong answers. And when I'm a sideman, the challenge is maybe even greater.’ (Photo by Jen McManus)

In addition to a good education, what did you gain from your Berklee experience?

I studied under Matt Glaser at Berklee (including a semester when he was on sabbatical when I got to study with John Blake and Darol Anger), and really got serious about the mandolin with Carlo Aonzo in Italy, but there have been so many musicians I've picked up a lot from along the way. Going to Berklee, you wind up learning just as much, if not more, from your fellow students as you do from your teachers. Everyone's there doing their own thing, and there's so much international flavor, you can't help but learn a lot about music from around the world. It's something you can't replicate in the real world, where you're playing Spanish music one day of the week, African another, American, Brazilian, just about everything if you're willing to seek it out. It's an environment I try to replicate at Mannes, where I teach, and I have the advantage of being in New York, so I can expose my students to all these things because it's all happening here.

There are lots of musicians I've worked with in professional situations that I've really been influenced by as well. Barry Mitterhoff, definitely. My friend K Ishibashi is just a creative explosion, he's a real inspiration to me. From working with Regina Spektor, I learned the importance of following your vision, and that being demanding is a good thing as long as you know what you want, because the result will be something you can be proud of. My friends that I play with on a regular basis here in New York, whose names are too many to list in their entirety, but I'd have to include Matt Hinkley, Shaky Dave Pollack, Jim McNamara, Bryan Dunn, Kelli Rae Powell, Lara Ewen, Andi Rae Healy, Danica Dora, the M Shanghai guys. It's important to remember, when you're a professional musician, that if you don't absolutely love what you do, you're in the wrong business, and you might as well have a job. Those guys are the reason I still love what I'm doing.

Joe Brent’s mandolin mixtape of various classical, band and solo recordings

Since beginning your professional career, you've worked with some of the most prominent and important artists in the classical field, and at the same time you've worked with a variety of artists outside the classical realm--jazz, rock, pop soul, and most prominently among all these the Regina Spektor band, which you still tour with. Do you prefer one world over the other? Are the challenges to you as a musician and greater or less in one than in the other?

I couldn't possibly say I prefer one over the other. I find all the music I have a hand in to be equally rewarding. Performing solo, I play a lot of hard music, especially my own stuff, which is rewarding because it's coming from me, and I feel like I'm putting something beautiful or worthwhile into the world. But I feel the same when I'm a sideman, whether it's with Regina in front of 150,000 people or with one of the bands I play with here in New York, especially at my stomping grounds, Jalopy, even if it's in front of a lot fewer people, and my voice is supporting someone else's. It's a different set of challenges--when I'm on my own, the challenge is to communicate something that came from me in a way that will create an emotional reaction in the audience. Even if they get something out of my playing that's different than what I intended, there's no right or wrong answers. And when I'm a sideman, the challenge is maybe even greater. At a certain level, everyone's got chops. That doesn't impress me much anymore. The musicians who impress me the most now are the ones who know how to make other people sound good. That's the real art of being a sideman. Dig Dave Rawlings--that guy inspires me every bit as much any front person. I like being Mick Jagger every now and then, but I like being Keith Richards just as much.

In addition to being a musician you're also a teacher, currently at Mannes but you've given masterclasses apart from that, and you've written two books of mandolin pedagogy. Do you feel you're kind of an ambassador for the mandolin, someone who's in a position to return it to a level of prominence it enjoyed, say, centuries ago, simply by virtue of you so easily moving between the different musical worlds you inhabit? Is there, in other words, a sense of mission about what you do as a professional musician beyond advancing your own career?

Well, heh, I don't know about being an ambassador for my instrument. In that regard, my playing will have to speak for itself. But there is a sense of responsibility I get from representing Mannes. It's very important to increase the visibility of the mandolin in the academic world. I feel like we're at a point where the mandolin is taking its rightful place among the family of instruments, like the guitar did in the 20th century. I'm not satisfied with being the only guy teaching mandolin at an American classical conservatory. I'd love to see a mandolin teacher at every conservatory in the country. But to get to that point, we have to raise the profile of the mandolin with younger students as well, from grade school on up, like the systems they have in Europe, Japan, and Israel. There's so much talent out there, and I know that the mandolin is poised to claim a larger share of it than in the past, students who might once have turned to the guitar or the violin just because those were the instruments that were available, and they could get access to a teacher. If I'm a small part of the movement that's helping to usher that in, then I'm very proud to be a part of that!

At the same time, I think especially where the mandolin is concerned, I think we're seeing a blurring of the lines between what used to be called "Folk Art" and "Fine Art." Music which you used to have to go to a club or a bar or a porch to hear, it's on stage at Carnegie Hall now. And it's acquitting itself rather well, don't you think? There are more and more of the heavy classical guys who don't look down on the jazzers or bluegrassers anymore, but instead are welcoming us into their world with respect, and open ears and arms. And the 'folk' guys are getting a lot more into the classical stuff, and realizing the possibilities for expression inherent in it. Bach especially--it seems like Bach is becoming sort of the blank canvas onto which people from all musical backgrounds can project their own experiences and points of view, and when you take it seriously and really study his music, I think there's room for all viewpoints. That straddling of the "folk" and "fine" art worlds, that's sort of where I live, and I think that's where the future of music is going. And mandolin seems to have a big place in that world. That's a world I definitely want to be a part of.

At the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, October 4, 2009, Joe Brent performs a solo mandolin version of the Flaming Lips’ ‘Slow Motion.’ The song is included on his EP, Solo.

Last month's interview covered mostly your classical work, and your new album of nocturnes and caprices written by David Loeb (Joseph Brent, Mandolin Plays Nocturnes and Caprices by David Loeb). Another side of your artistry is represented by your new four-song EP, Solo. It features solo mandolin interpretations of songs by Animal Collective ("Summertime Clothes"), Flaming Lips ("Slow Motion" and "Race For the Prize"); and Dan Cho ("The Surface"). You practically remake these: the Animal Collective song and the Flaming Lips' "Race for the Prize" are high energy, uptempo songs whereas the original versions of "Slow Motion" and especially Dan Cho's "The Surface" are more reflective. Seems like in all cases you were trying to capture something in the melodies that might evoke different feelings than would occur when listening to the originals, especially on the numbers that are faster and harder in their original incarnations.

Yeah, that's sort of what I was talking about earlier. That's the kind of music that speaks to me the most, and I'm re-imagining it and putting it back out into the world through the filter of my own experiences and worldview. I love the Flaming Lips, so I took a couple of their tunes and re-arranged it for solo mandolin, in my own style. Same with the Animal Collective song, and I've also done that with music by Erin McKeown, Secret Machines, Kenny Garrett, TV on the Radio, Elliott Smith, Sigur Rós, Townes van Zandt, even Huey Lewis. Basically whatever gets fed in, gets fed back out through the prism of my own understanding of music. And I think people are sort of getting it. And my own music that I write also comes from that same perspective. Just "classical" or "jazz" or "bluegrass" doesn't begin to sum up what moves me creatively. It's the combination of those things that really turns me on. So it sounds kinda Spinal Tapish, but if you hear something I wrote, it's coming as much from Jeff Mangum and Charles Mingus as it is from Beethoven.

Joe Brent plays Daniel Cho’s ‘The Surface,’ solo at the American Folk Museum in New York, July 17, 2010. Cho the cellist in Regina Spektor’s band, drowned on July 6, 2010, in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, the day before Spektor’s scheduled performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In addition to working with Spektor, his resume as an arranger and cellist included work for Katy Perry, John Mayer, Mandy Moore, Rachael Yamagata and Coldplay. Cho also had a rock band of his own called Cooper, whose songs have been featured on MTV's The Hills and NBC's The Biggest Loser. Brent covers ‘The Surface’ on his Solo mandolin EP. Cho’s survivors included a wife and two-year-old daughter.

A tribute to the late Daniel Cho in a montage of clips of Regina Spektor in concert, set to her song ‘The Call.’ Posted at YouTube by waprob

Your solo mandolin version of Dan Cho’s ‘The Surface’ is a touching tribute to your friend and bandmate.

Dan was one of my best friends, and closest musical compatriots. There will never be another Dan. Never an unkind word for anyone, and an ability to light up whatever room he was in... man, that sounds like some kind of cliché when you say it like that... But it's really true. It's hard to talk about it, even now. There really aren't words for how much it sucks to live in a world without him in it. And the thing is, he wouldn't be okay with me being sad or making a fuss about him. But I can't help it. I try to keep in touch with his wife and daughter, and I have a lot of friends who worked with him too, and it's always a laugh talking about some of the good times we had with him, until we remember that he's gone, and then it isn't. Dan really only cared about his wife, his daughter, his family, friends, and loved ones, and making music and having fun. The best way to remember him is really to keep on having fun making music, and spreading the kind of love he would have wanted to put into the world. So that's where that version of “The Surface” came from. It's not very much like the original, which is a big anthemic rock number. But I wrote it to play at his funeral, so it came out of me at a pretty melancholy time. So there's some of that in it. I love it when I hear other people are playing it too, even if they don't know who he is.

In addition to this EP, you've released the David Loeb album, and in 2008 an album, Point of Departure, a program of duets with harpist Bridget Kibbey. Given that you have so much going on all the time, can you talk about what your next recording might be, or will be?

It's tough to say right now what the next thing under my own name will be right now, though I'd love to get my own Quartet into the studio at some point this year. It's called (imaginatively) the Joe Brent Quartet, and it's got Hideaki Aomori on clarinet, Nadav Lev on guitar, and Shawn Conley on bass. We do all my own music and arrangements, and it's really great fun playing with those guys and playing that music. But the problem with being a bandleader is that it's not enough to get a band together with just any clarinet player or just any guitarist--I want those specific guys, because they play the stuff I write in just the right way, and they fit so beautifully together. And when you're working with players like that, it's wonderful, but they're also that good when they play with other people too! So they all tend to be pretty busy, and I am too, so when I'm ready to do a gig together, chances are they're busy playing with other people, and so instead of getting someone in to sub for them, rehearsing them up and having them learn all this hard music, I end up just doing a solo program.

But I'm going to be recording a lot as a sideman, producer, and arranger in the near future. I have a live CD recording with Kelli Rae Powell coming up at Jalopy on March 2nd, which I'm really looking forward to. I'm going to be producing a record for Danica Dora pretty soon too. And I'm working right now on charts for Erin McKeown's new album, which I'm just over the moon about. She's been one of my favorite songwriters for a long time, and working with her has been one of the great musical thrills of my life. I'll be playing on that album too. I'm in the band for Miller & Tysen's Fugitive Song CD. Bryan Dunn's CD Sweetheart of the Music Hall also just came out; I'm on that one, and it's brilliant. The CD release is on my birthday, April 6, at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, so everybody come on out for that!

On violin with Regina Spektor, ‘Fidelity,’ live in Santiago, Chile, at Movista Arena, October 13, 2010

In your classes at Mannes, what are you seeing in and hearing from your students that you find most encouraging?

I think the coolest thing has been that I throw everything at them--classical technique, improv, bluegrass, jazz--and nobody seems to be blinking an eye. Obviously I gear the studies for each individual player, so some might be more classically inclined, and they'll get Bach, Calace, and orchestral and chamber rep a bit more than chord forms and chopping and learning tunes. Others might come in wanting to play like Chris Thile or Sam Bush, and they'll get the opposite with a side of Bach and scales and arpeggios. But it's such a different learning experience than what might have come out of a conservatory in the past. And my students have confirmed what I've always suspected: that one style informs the other. You're a better classical player because you understand how to build a phrase, improvising over "Old Joe Clark." And you have the chops to make what you hear in your head come out because you've been playing Bach. I feel like I'm training the next generation of polyglot mandolinists! That's an amazing feeling.
I find it odd that you've worked in so many genres but you haven't been deeply involved in bluegrass, where the mandolin is so important and where the technical standards are in many ways as demanding as those of classical music. Why haven't you ventured into bluegrass more? It seems you would be a natural fit for a progressive group like the Punch Brothers, with Chris Thile and a group of musicians who are as forward thinking on their instruments as he is on the mandolin. (I'm encouraging you to form such a group!)

Oh, I do quite a bit of bluegrass! The Quartet isn't really bluegrass, but it's got a little bit of that influence in it, and it's certainly adventurous music. I just did some work with Jewel playing really country-ish stuff, though I wouldn't call her music strictly bluegrass. Bryan just released an EP of '80s song covers with me and the bluegrass version of his regular band, which we did on a lark and might be the single most fun recording I've ever done. Here's a great video of us rehearsing some of that stuff with Shaky and Jim, and here's another of us playing one of his originals, which are just as good.

Jewel, 'Only Shadows,' with Joe Brent on mandolin

What's on your calendar for this year?

Other than the recording projects I mentioned, I'm working on an edition of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas edited especially for mandolin. It's taking me almost two years to finish, and I should have it done in the next few months and ready to publish. The reason it's taking so long is I didn't want to just put out an edition with fingerings--I wanted to put out the edition I always wish I had when I was a kid studying Bach. It'll have an exact reproduction of the original manuscript along with the edited version, so players can reference the original. A lot of editions have that, of course. But what I think will set this edition apart is it's going to be like one of those annotated versions of Shakespeare or the Bible, with heaping gobs of information, so players can see why I made certain editorial decisions, which they would then be free to agree or disagree with. A perfect example would be the Corrente from the 2nd Partita. Some players play the dotted rhythms precisely, while others play them more as triplets. To understand why, you have to know about the difference between the French courante and the Italian corrente, and you have to know the dance steps, but also be aware that Bach never intended this music to be danced to. You should be aware of the evolution in how this piece has been performed over time, as in the recordings by Szeryng, Grumiaux, Milstein, Perlman, Galbraith, Podger, and others. Only then can you really make an informed decision as to how to articulate that one rhythm in that one piece. There will also be a lot of appendixes with notes on individual movements, the problems of translating violin music to the mandolin, historical information on Bach and how his music has been performed over time, etc. I do all the homework for you in this edition, so you can concentrate on the music. It's definitely going to be the most OCD edition of Bach ever put out! And I'm pretty sure it'll be the definitive one for mandolin for a good long while.

I have a lot of shows coming up, like the ones I talked about before, but I'm especially excited to go out to San Francisco pretty soon to play with Michael Tilson Thomas and the symphony out there. MTT (as everyone calls him) put together an amazing program for his other group, the New World Symphony in Miami, that was sort of a retrospective of Beethoven's entire life, including symphonic music, chamber music, solo keyboard music, pretty much everything. And he brought me down because he said his favorite piece was the Sonatine for Mandolin and Pianoforte, and he wanted to feature it on the program! I told him he had excellent taste in music. Now we're doing the same program again in San Francisco, and it's going to be incredible. Working with him has really given me an idea what it takes to be an artist on that level. He's a charismatic guy, and his knowledge of the music is unimpeachable. Sitting backstage with him while some of the chamber music was being performed, listening to him rattle off all this esoteric knowledge about the music being played, and Beethoven's life, and then he would go off on tangents like he was surfing pages on Wikipedia... I could have just listened to him talk about music all day. Going to Mexico in August with Jen Curtis's Trés Americas ensemble, we went to Peru a few years back and had an amazing time, so this one should be just as great! I think I'm also going out to Rio to play on Paulo Sá's mandolin festival in the Fall, and I'm definitely looking forward to getting back out there! Too much stuff to list here, really. I'm just happy to keep plugging away, making music and putting beautiful things into the world. Who wouldn't be?

To purchase any or all of Joe Brent’s recordings and/or books, visit his website

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