GV features unique saxophone performance

Ayron Rutan, Staff Writer

GVL / Aubree Wagner (Aubree L Wagner)

Grand Valley State University’s Music, Theater and Dance Department recently hosted saxophonist and composer Derek Brown at the Louis Armstrong Theatre in the Haas Center for Performing Arts. 

Brown is known for playing the saxophone in a rather unconventional way. At his performances, it’s not uncommon to see him hit, kick, or even throw his saxophone. 

“My biggest inspiration is actually not a saxophonist, but a vocalist by the name of Bobby McFerrin,” Brown said. “He’s known for doing solo shows where he bounces around between singing bass lines, melodies, doing percussion on his body and interacting with the audience. He is such a creative and inspiring musician and seeing him do that with his voice made me want to try and do that with saxophone.”

The concert was coordinated by GVSU Professor and MTD Department Director, Bill Ryan. Ryan said he was extremely impressed with Brown’s originality, and his unorthodox approach to the instrument. 

What Derek does with his saxophone is truly original. In addition to traditional playing, the extended techniques he utilizes elevates non-pitched rhythm to an equal level,” Ryan said. “It’s almost like he is playing a drum-set, but it’s actually the saxophone.”

Ryan also credited Brown’s ability to sing during his performances, as well as praised his ability to engage with the while playing his instrument. 

“When he adds his voice to it all, you just wonder how he does it all without collapsing,” Ryan said. “In addition to the high level of his performance skills, he also engages the audience with his stories and humor. His performance was a terrific model for our music majors and a very entertaining evening for everyone.”

Before deciding to perform at the university, Brown actually contacted Ryan to discuss composing, as Brown wanted to broaden his horizons. 

“Derek reached out to me initially, and was interested in talking about music composition and different career paths,” Ryan said. “After that initial meeting, and after I looked through his press materials and performance videos, I was very impressed and invited him to perform at GVSU.”

Brown’s GVSU performance on Oct. 27 featured innovative sounds from his solo BEATBoX SAX project. 

“I’ve been improvising a little more in my concerts,” Brown said. “I came out with my sax still in its case on my back and I just started beating against it like a drum. I was basically playing drums on it while I was opening it and putting it together.”

Brown’s typical set includes a combination of covers and originals, all played in his signature style. Brown said that his goal for the performance was to wow the audience with his wild techniques. 

“It is a goal of mine to surprise the audience and show them things that they’ve never seen before on the sax,” Brown said. “So that means doing things like pounding it on the stage, clamping down on the keys to get tones while singing or playing a duet with my dad.”

Brown said his style does cause some hefty damage to his instrument, but due to the musical path he has taken, he’s content with it. He said that because he’s making new and fun sounds as a result of the damage, it’s all worth it in the end. 

Brown has released multiple albums including BEATBoX SAX (2016), FiftyFifty (2018), and Symbiosis (2021), which was created with Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin. 

For those interested in his material, his work can be found on his website or YouTube channel.