Inside the disciplined freedom of Arthur Brooks
It’s Wednesday night in Burlington, and an unlikely combination of musicians is playing at Radio Bean. Two cellists, a bassist, two trumpeters and an acoustic guitarist all face each other, engaged in a musical chase — running, swerving, interjecting, waiting, reacting, joining, separating.
Then the music is quiet and open. Calm. Everyone recedes until only Arthur Brooks is playing, his trumpet speaking softly and serenely. Anthony Santor watches Brooks, then begins to finger a delicate repeating pattern, leaning over his bass. Cellist Polly Vanderputten bows a skittering, dissonant pair of notes while her husband and fellow cellist, Nelson Caldwell, listens. Michael Chorney introduces a funky, muted riff on his old Gibson, keeping to the background. Barry Ries holds his trumpet to his lips, listening and waiting.
This is Ensemble V. They’ve held down a Wednesday-night residency at the Bean for a few years now. They attract an expanding and contracting following of fans, loved ones and the merely curious. While the band has a regular core of six players, they sometimes welcome a visitor and meet up even if a few band members can’t make the gig.
There is only one real constant for Ensemble V: no written or prepared music. Everything is created in the moment, born from the chemistry of the musicians and their experiences.
“I don’t write for Ensemble V. There’s no need,” says Brooks over a hot toddy at the low-lit restaurant ¡Duino! (Duende), adjacent to Radio Bean. “Everybody’s a leader. And everybody has big ears. We find ourselves in areas that I would like to take home and develop and write, but I wouldn’t want to limit what we’re going to do.”
Though Brooks is technically the leader and creator — or perhaps curator — of Ensemble V, he emphasizes that the band is a democracy: Anyone can start a piece or invite a respected colleague to sit in. And while Brooks reserves the right to tap a newcomer on the shoulder if what that musician is playing doesn’t make the cut, he’s never had to do it.
Brooks’ calm patience comes from more than 40 years as a professional musician and more than 30 as a teacher. He grew up in Princeton, N.J., and attended Antioch College, where he studied music with John Ronsheim. It was Ronsheim who introduced Brooks to the music of Cecil Taylor, the pianist and free-jazz pioneer who had been Ronsheim’s roommate at the New England Conservatory of Music.
“He had this album called Conquistador! and it had Bill Dixon on it,” Brooks remembers, referring to the trumpeter and teacher who would become his mentor. “And I’d never heard trumpet played that way. I said, ‘This is it.’”
Thus began Brooks’ personal odyssey.
“I was looking for something that didn’t have to be so consciously right here,” Brooks explains, pointing to his temple. “I didn’t want the canon to have to be in the back of my mind when I play. When I heard Cecil play and Bill play, it was gone. Yet everything was there. Only it had evolved into this new thing.”
That “new thing” was known in the late 1960s as the “new music,” an outgrowth of jazz that included elements of contemporary classical music along with group improvisation. Among its champions were musicians and composers such as Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon.
Brooks wanted to study with Dixon and learned that he was teaching at Bennington College. After graduating from Antioch in 1970, Brooks and some friends moved to Boston and started gigging as the Boston Art Ensemble. And he began to make the pilgrimage to Vermont once a month for a lesson with Dixon.
“When I started working and studying with Bill, I realized that, yes, there’s quite a bit of freedom [in the music],” recalls Brooks. “But to be free takes a lot of hard work.”
After a few years of lessons, Brooks was ready to get serious. He wanted to move to Bennington and study with Dixon as often as possible. Dixon was starting the Black Music Division at Bennington and offered Brooks a job as a teaching assistant. He accepted, fell in love with teaching and stayed at the college, learning from and working with Dixon for more than 25 years.
Ensemble V was born in Bennington. Each instructor working with Dixon was given an ensemble; each was numbered. They served as working groups for which each instructor could write and develop his professional work. In 1977, Brooks and Ensemble V recorded an LP of a two-part composition he called Nightcaller. That year Brooks was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ensemble V has been the embodiment of Brooks’ ever-evolving personal aesthetic ever since. But it was Michael Chorney who helped bring the newest incarnation to life.
In 1988, Penny Campbell, a dance professor at Middlebury College, introduced Brooks to Chorney. They had both been asked to contribute to a program incorporating improvisational music and dance. The two struck up a friendship and worked together occasionally over the years, always in improv settings.
Nearly 20 years later, Chorney suggested to Brooks that they start playing gigs at Radio Bean.
“Arthur had moved to the area in 2004 or so, and I really wanted to explore what we could do with trumpet, acoustic guitar and drums,” says Chorney. He also wanted the public to be aware of Brooks’ work. “Arthur’s a singular artist. I thought, Here’s this genius guy, let’s get him out there.”
Brooks agreed. Over the years original drummer PJ Davidian became less a presence while Vanderputten, Caldwell and Santor became regulars. The newest addition is Ries, who moved to Winooski only a year or so ago and has played with Horace Silver, Lionel Hampton and Joe Lovano.
In addition to their Radio Bean residency, Ensemble V has played at the FlynnSpace and as part of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. And though he’s starting to plan a few forays outside of town, Brooks knows it can be tough to tour — especially for this type of music.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, I just wanted the music to be heard,” Brooks says. “I would sleep in the car just to have a gig. But down here we just play. I don’t need to prove anything. And, for me, this is kind of nice.”