Brian Kent: Grounded and Well Rounded

Originally published in Earshot Jazz September 2012

Not much upsets saxophonist Brian Kent. “His persona is very kind and peaceful,” says guitarist Milo Petersen. “Once when we were playing on the street at Brian's regular weekend job, a guy approached us and started to yell at Brian for playing out there. When I related the story to bassist Geoff Cooke he said, ‘That's like yelling at Ghandi.’”

Kent’s friendly humility generates a warm, inviting tone and his gentle calm feeds a fountain of ideas that spout musicality rather than saxophone technique. “Good natured,” is how drummer Reade Whitwell describes Kent. “Brian has a real playful side to what he does. It’s not the stereotypical muscular macho tenor player. He can do that too but it’s just one aspect of his playing. He does all the things you need to do to be a musician.”

Kent’s musical skills developed from an early age. His father was a family physician and swing drummer who held jam sessions at home. A frequent guest was alto saxophonist Dick Trask. Kent doesn’t recall Trask’s playing but remembers his sense of humor. His wit got Kent interested in music.

Kent’s musical abilities were first put to the test in 4th grade. The Colorado Springs Public School System assessed musical aptitude and he demonstrated the ability to distinguish differences in pitch and rhythm. He could listen. The band teacher told him, “You have great lips for trumpet.” Instead, Kent picked the alto saxophone and began playing in the summer band camp. He switched to tenor saxophone in 8th grade and studied with a member of the nearby Air Force band.

Kent enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He played in one of the school’s big bands and learned to improvise solos by ear. Meanwhile he listened to rock, fusion, funk, rhythm and blues – any band with a horn section.

After two years, Kent left school and got a job bussing tables at The Mangy Moose restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He started playing flute and sat in with “hippie bluegrass bands” performing in the restaurant’s saloon. Six months passed. He needed focus. He enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.

While building a firm foundation in harmony at Berklee, Kent studied with saxophonists John LaPorta, Billy Pierce, and George Garzone. Kent graduated magna cum laude in 1981 with a degree in Music Performance.

Kent relocated to Burlington, Vermont to live with his brother and mingle with many Boston and New York ex-patriot artists. At the time, Burlington boasted more bars per capita than any other American city so musical work and teaching kept Kent fully employed. He also played for dance classes and improvised with choreographers.

In 1988 a relationship prompted Kent to relocate to Seattle where he began to break into the local scene. He sat in with bassist Chuck Metcalf and saxophonist Dan Greenblatt, pianist John Hansen and singer Kelly Johnson, and trumpeter Jim Knodle. Comfortable in a variety of styles, blues, R&B, and funk bands provided more employment opportunities.

To Kent, musical styles did not have fixed boundaries. Kent says it puzzled him when musicians suggested that in order to do well he should pick a genre and stick with it. Music was music. Work was work. Why narrow the possibilities? A musician should bring all skills and experience to each situation.

Kent’s opportunity to harness all of his skills came when actor Vince Balestri held auditions for a saxophonist role in the play Kerouac: The Essence of Jack. During the tryout, Balestri danced and asked Kent to improvise. Then Balestri recited Haiku and urged Kent to respond musically. Kent was hired as Music Director for what became a three year run at the Velvet Elvis Arts Lounge. Performances routinely included musical impersonations of Charlie Parker, abstract expressionist sound painting, spontaneous word/music associations, dramatic soundtracks, and physical/dance accompaniment. Kent recruited bassist Mike Bisio and drummer Reade Whitwell to join him on weekend performances. Some of Kent’s performances were captured in a film, Beat Angel: The Spirit of Kerouac.

Kent turned 56 in August and continues to perform in a variety of musical contexts. In the R&B world he works with Little Bill and the Blue Notes. “We make up horn parts on the bandstand,” Kent says. “When everyone is grooving on their part, it’s really clear that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” In the jazz world he performs with singer Trish Hadley and pianist Hans Bremmer at Bake’s Place. Hernia surgery sidelined Kent for a few weeks this summer but he is healing well and returning to the bandstand.

Kent continues to teach as well. He offers lessons at home in Queen Anne and through Pacific Music in Redmond. “He does a really good job at building me up when I need it,” student Mike Pautz says, “and calling me on any BS like needing to practice.” Another student, Randy Keen says, “Some of the stuff he plays is absolutely amazing. He not only can tell you how to do it, he can do it.”

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