Awards and Nominations:
Biography (Updated June 2017)
Life’s intended path is often affected by timing and sudden opportunity. The fortunes of YolanDa Brown, for example, although always driven by her talent, intelligence and facility to get things done, have at crucial moments offered up some unexpected options.
As a child, she’d tried piano, violin, drums, oboe and more before settling on saxophone as the instrument closest to her own musical voice. Later, as an academic, she notched up two masters degrees in Operations Management, began a PhD and learned Spanish to fluency, only then veering decisively back to music when her part-time gigs as interval entertainment on London’s comedy circuit blossomed into a first sell-out solo concert at the Mermaid Theatre in Blackfriars.
Now, a successful debut recording – 2012’s widely appreciated April Showers May Flowers – two consecutive Jazz MOBOs, one Urban Music Award and a heap of ecstatically received live shows further on, YolanDa has just created an entirely new musical genre all of her own in readiness for her second album, Love Politics War, due for release on Black Grape Records come June 16 2017.
She’s christened it, with characteristic humour, ‘Posh Reggae’.
“This album is a mix of reggae, jazz and soul,” she explains. “We have jazz chops and chords, and the soul element is always there - it gives me a softer side, yet doesn’t make me smooth-jazz – but, as we found from the tours on the first album, the biggest element that got people up and dancing was the reggae rhythms.
Combining the three together for me feels like the right place to sit: it’s my home. The first album was a bit broader because it had classical and swing in there too and that made it a bit wild to box it up neatly. Now this is my sound. ‘Posh Reggae’ is all me… naturally.”
Understand, Love Politics War is not just a soul track followed by a jazz track, followed by a reggae tune. Nearly always it’s about combining the three styles into one sumptuous whole, reflecting YolanDa’s take on music: that it’s mainly about feel, often over theory and textbook.
“It goes back to my early days, this thing about ‘feel’,” she says. “Back even when I was learning drums, I remember my teacher telling me, ‘Forget about reading for a minute – just play it how you feel it’. She said, ‘Go and research Dame Evelyn Glennie: she’s a percussionist who is deaf’. That was amazing – at first it made no sense to me - but she speaks about feeling the music instead of hearing it. And it had an effect on my sax playing, because I always wanted to feel what I’m playing. I didn’t want lessons and theory: I went rogue and taught myself.”
While YolanDa’s debut album and subsequent Reggae Love Songs tour concerned themselves with love in its many aspects, on Love Politics War, the saxophonist and songwriter is combining her fresh musical direction with a new social awareness, reflected in both her selection of guest performers and lyrics. World events over the past five years since April Showers May Flowers, as well as the birth of her now three-year-old daughter, have caused YolanDa to cast a more mature eye on her surroundings.
“The album is exactly that: a reflection on the world today and where love fits in it. Last year I did my Reggae Love Songs tour and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening around us. I used to look at war in the historical sense – World Wars 1 and 2. Now it’s all around us. The threat is there all the time – the war on terror, the countries where war is an everyday reality, the desperation of asylum seekers…
“In the past I have tried to stay away from political stances, but this time I wanted to talk about the confusion that seems to be around right now. People voted for Brexit, but what kind of Brexit are we going to get? And here we are in 2017 voting again. It seems to me that what Marvin Gaye asked back in 1971 - What’s Going On? - it still stands. That was the inspiration behind this album.”
Star contributions to Love Politics War include the aforesaid Dame Evelyn Glennie who joins Snarky Puppy’s outstanding keysman Bill Laurance on the funky instrumental Feel No Pain. US soulman Raheem DeVaughn – himself no stranger to a political lyric or too – sings on two tracks: the gentle plea for mutual understanding This Kind Of Love and the Marleyesque Prosper, a song he himself wrote the words to.
Neutral Ground, meanwhile, features jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold [noted, amongst other things, for his performances on the 2015 Miles Davis bio-pic Miles Ahead] and New Orleans-based/British-born keyboard player Jon Cleary. Its title references the area of the Crescent City that historically used to separate the up-river Anglophone Americans from the down-river Creole/French speaking inhabitants [in the area that became the famous French Quarter].
Reflects YolanDa: “I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and a taxi driver told me about Neutral Ground, where people could come and there’d be no confrontation, no violence, no hatred - and that it still existed today. I liked that idea and, musically, I felt it also applied to my guest musicians, because people regard Keyon, for example, more as ‘hard’ jazz, whereas I’m seen as softer. That’s really the point on that song: we come together on the track and rub alongside each other - with Jon too as this keyboard man from New Orleans - musicians from different walks of life, all making music together.”
Further guest input comes from Casey Benjamin, noted for his role in Robert Glasper’s much lauded touring band – the alto saxman trading runs with Yolanda on Dream Dream Repeat in what grows into a stunning aural battle. North London R&B/gospel/soul vocalist Phebe Edwards [Jessie J, Gabrielle, Rita Ora] plants a killer vocal onto the resounding appeal for peace No More War – lyrics on the latter co-penned by YolanDa with Annastasia Baker. And right there at the end, The Floacist [Natalie Stewart from, much revereed duo Floetry] writes and delivers in her inimitable spoken-word style on the undulating Love At War.
Underpinning it all alongside the artist is album co-producer, co-writer and co-arranger Rick Leon James, a bassist and multi-instrumentalist whom YolanDa has known for many years.
“He’s an amazing, amazing player,” comments YolanDa, appreciatively. “I learned so much in the writing process with him. Other than the guests and myself, he played all the instruments on the album. Honestly, I’m ready to go in again with him, it’s that simple. He listened to me. He got the mix of musical styles. It was never too jazz or too reggae, or too much soul. He just knew. Everything in my mind, he listened and made it happen."
Born in Barking in the early 1980s, the child of a head teacher mum and a father who worked in advertising, YolanDa Brown has been flying high and fast pretty much all her life. She was Head Girl at her comprehensive in East London; she romped through her GCSEs and A-levels before going on to those degree courses in Operations Management at the University of Kent [where she achieved a First Class]; she taught herself to play saxophone and when it began to pay off only then did she make music the central focus of her future career.
Aside from the awards - apparently her accumulated public votes at The MOBOs outweighed all the other nominees put together - and tours [all over the UK and to Germany, Italy, Spain, America and the Caribbean], YolanDa has played on stages with Mica Paris, Alexander O’Neal, Soweto Kinch and The Temptations, hosted her own shows on Sky, BBC Radio 2 and for British Airways’ in-flight entertainment [she even performed on-board for BA when they launched their direct route from Heathrow to New Orleans]. She’s been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of East London, has taken tea with the Queen and Prince Phillip, is currently writing a series of children’s books, loves to drive fast cars around race tracks in her spare time – if you can seriously imagine her having any - and can even rattle off a Rubik’s Cube in around five minutes [on a good day]. Oh, and earlier this year she was named as the celebrity ambassador for the Greater London Assembly and ABRSM ‘Learn Music London’ campaign.
“I never had the time to think, for example, about being a black female saxophonist and what it might mean for the market,” she responds to a question about a life spent breaking down musical barriers and confounding outside expectation.
“I didn’t research other people. When I did come up against the industry later, my reaction was, ‘Why does it have to be so confining? Why should it matter which conservatoire I went to or which great jazz musicians brought me up? Or how many hours a day I spent practicing in my bedroom? For me, it was never about that.
“I liked Candy Dulfer when I was young. Then I got into Kirk Whalum and Kenny Garrett. Because I loved the tenor sax – it was my first instrument at age 13 – I got into Ben Webster and Ornette Coleman too. But it was always just great music to me – I never thought, ‘Ooh, that’s a great chop: let me rewind and learn that’.
“I remember, I used to go to meetings and people at record labels would ask, ‘So who’s your core audience?’ I said, ‘Everyone’. Because I would play a gig and look out and I would see, say, a 10-year-old who’d just started to play the sax… maybe his parents… and then perhaps a jazz connoisseur who decided he could bring his wife along to one of my gigs because she might like some of the tunes… and then some people out on a first date. My core audience really could be anybody. They didn’t understand it then but finally people are beginning to see that when I said my audience could actually be anybody and everybody, I was actually making sense.”
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