Oklahoma trio is a unique fit of rhythmic jazz
Have you heard about BRD? An acronym of its members first names, the Oklahoma jazz trio is:
Brian Belanus, a guitarist who “grew up in Stillwater for the most part” idolizing Eddie Van Halen.
“I was honestly just, like, playing Van Halen, and that was pretty much it,” Belanus said.
A guitar teacher first introduced Belanus to the music of Bill Frisell, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
“So that was, like, the three after Van Halen,” Belanus said. “It was those three guys. And by the time I was done with high school, I was pretty into it. I was pretty interested. I’d sit down trying to figure out what Joe Pass was doing. And I’m still trying to figure out what Joe Pass was doing. … That’s probably the best part is that it just never really ends. You never get to be too good at it or anything. It’s always living and breathing. I think that’s the thing that’s probably more attractive. It seems like Van Halen had that same quality of improvisation. … It feels very free.”
Rei Wang, a bassist who grew up in Taiwan, studying classical music from the age of 5. She said she didn’t really hear jazz until her junior year of college, but she was immediately intrigued by the simpler sheet music, which only noted the melody and chord changes to leave room for improvisation and individual self expression.
“It was really fascinating for me. … In classical music, we read everything, and then you make it perfect. But in jazz, you only have this piece of paper we call the lead sheet, and then you make it—also perfect but in a different way. That’s what got me. … I wanted to try something outside of my comfort zone.”
After meeting at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), B and R began practicing standards and originals together, just to “have an outlet to play music,” Belanus said.
“And then Dave showed up,” Belanus added.
David Bowen, unlike Belanus or Wang, grew up in Yukon playing drums in polka bands and idolizing Alex Van Halen.
“I named my first dog Alex,” Bowen said. “I heard ‘Hot for Teacher’ and I went, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I want to do that on drums. That’s like a lead drummer.’”
While attending Yukon public school, Bowen attended jazz camps at UCO, back when it was called Central State University, where he said he met “literal jazz legends” even if he didn’t realize it at the time.
“I had no idea who they were, and I was very fortunate to kind of rub elbows with them and play in the big bands and the combos with some of them,” Bowen said. “They would impart their knowledge on us, and some of us would take home a lot more than we came there for.”
Bowen added his initial to the BRD lineup after he and Wang began dating.
“I bugged her about going to jam with her guitar player friend,” Bowen said. “I was like, ‘Can I intrude on that?’ I missed playing with people. I hadn’t been playing with anyone in town. I’d just moved back to Oklahoma. So, I kind of intruded on their little weekly hang, so to speak. … I guess they decided we might as well form a trio if they’re gonna have to put up with me, right?”
To which Belanus replied: “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
BR had previously been considering adding a drummer to the lineup, and after some initial adjustments, Bowen began to find his place behind the kit.
“It felt pretty natural from the get-go, really,” Bowen said. “I felt kind of out of place because I hadn’t done this kind of stuff in a long time, but they were welcoming to me, at least. On my end it was all right. I don’t know how they felt. I never asked them.”
To which Wang replied: “Yeah, you were all right.”
Wang and Bowen were married about four years ago. Even without the musical chemistry, Bowen said he thinks their relationship—and his friendship with Belanus—would still have happened.
“I chased her,” Bowen said. “She was running away. She was trying to go back home to Taiwan, and I said, ‘You know, we can hang out here, and we could play. That was the bait. I think honestly, we get along on a lot of different levels. It’s more than just music. We all three have very similar humor. I think that is a strong bond between the three of us. And we’re very compassionate, kind people at heart, as goofy as we might be. … I think we would have hung out at some point anyway, without playing.”
Describing that shared sense of humor, Bowen sounds almost apologetic.
“Rei puts up with so many dad jokes,” Bowen said. “It’s not fair. A lot of jazz dad jokes—terrible, terrible gifs and memes that I send because I’m the older one of the group. … I don’t ‘pop culture’ very well.”
English isn’t Wang’s first language, but dad jokes, it seems, are universal.
“Somehow I understand,” Wang said. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
To which Bowen replied: “She might actually be laughing just at us. We don’t know.”
Despite their varied musical backgrounds, the members of BRD also share a similar approach.
“We all three really have totally different tastes in music, but, however, we do have a lot of things in common,” Bowen said. “So it’s cool because when one of us brings something new, the others may not have ever heard it. It’s like a brand new discovery, so it gives it life in another way, that, had it been known by everyone as standard, maybe it wouldn’t have been as much fun. … With standards we try to do our own take on it, not exactly ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ or those types of standards. We actually kind of steer clear of the cheesier dinner gig kind of stuff. … I hate to say the word but … we like a little bit of highbrow.”
Belanus: “Yeah, it’s like trying to bring that to everyone.”
Bowen: “It’s the highbrow delivered in a mass consumer product.”
Belanus: “How can we sell you the cool stuff like you’re being sold “Fly Me to the Moon”
Bowen: “We’re trying to be a jazz gateway drug.”
Instead of “Fly Me to the Moon” or “The Girl From Ipanema,” BRD would rather play “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” or “Reflections” by legendary jazz pianist Monk. You may remember Belanus’ love of Monk. You might also remember BRD does not have a piano player.
“The thing that’s great about Thelonius Monk is just how rhythmic everything is,” Belanus said. “I think it can go anywhere as long as you have people who are dedicated to that quirky sense of rhythm and the very precise sense of rhythm and timing that all his compositions have.”
Bowen said the interplay between Wang and Belanus makes up for the missing 88 keys.
“They sometimes will split melodies amongst each other, just without even realizing it, because the space is there for each of them to accompany and to play the melody at the same time,” Bowen said. “It’s almost like two stringed instruments becoming a piano of a sort. It’s all of the harmonic information if you were to put it on a piano. It would almost be like playing with a really killer solo pianist with, like, three left hands and two right hands.”
That type of unconventional attack is typical for BRD, Belanus said.
“That’s how we all are,” Belanus said. “We’re not necessarily contrarians as much as we’re kind of out-of-the-box thinkers on our instruments.”
Bowen said that this mindset comes from BRD’s wide-ranging collective musical experience, which in turn comes from how very difficult it is to make a living playing jazz in the 21st century.
“You want to be a Swiss army knife in order to get work to survive, because jazz takes a backup career to be in full swing most of the time. If you’re going to play music, that’s what you learn to do is learn to float,” Bowen said. “We all can accompany anything from Pointer Sisters touring bands, to the Philharmonic stuff to orchestra stuff to big bands to rock and roll gigs, to country gigs to studio stuff … contemporary church music, rock church, as I like to call it. We do, I mean literally, almost anything.”
BRD has however, abandoned the attempt to reinterpret the Miley Cyrus hit “Wrecking Ball” for jazz trio. At least for now. But the group plans to release a “mostly originals project” soon. BRD’s approach to creating original music is equally eclectic.
“It’s kind of like we’re a think tank together,” Bowen said. “We’ll try the zaniest ideas we can sometimes just to throw ourselves off, to see if we have the discipline and musicianship to make it through and then say, ‘Nah, scrap that idea. We’re just gonna do it normally next time.’ There’s a safe space with each other where we could try anything.”
Like a specimen in a mad scientist’s laboratory, music developed in the BRD method may evolve into a completely different animal in the process.
“To me, that’s what’s awesome,” Bowen said. “The music we’re making is going to live. No matter what, it’s going to fight to survive.”
“The most important part is just being able to listen to each other no matter what’s going on and just follow somebody,” Belanus said. “Whether we have something on a piece of paper or not, we all are human. We have to follow our ears. Sometimes they go somewhere we didn’t expect them to go … but if we’re all in the same zone and mindset, which is why we play together, we can all react. It makes music a living, breathing thing.”
Finding time to record and venues to play has been complicated in the past couple of years by the same problems plaguing pretty much every person on the planet (ask around), and scheduling practice has been more difficult since Belanus got married and moved to Tulsa. But Belanus’ wife, jazz vocalist Micah McCaslin Belanus, also offers the chance to occasionally expand the trio into a quartet they call SongBRD.
“We’re all married to music and musical people,” Belanus said.
Jeremy Martin writes about music and other stuff in OKC. He's also the less funny half of comedy duo The Martin Duprass and the proud father of two delightful baby turtles (pictured).