Bob is sharp by Benoît Felten
Last night I learned that on April 24th of this year Bob Brozman had passed away, age 59. I was shocked, stunned and above all, sad. Before pressing on, I should state outright that I’m rarely moved by the passing away of famous or talented people. I don’t know them intimately, and I feel there are enough reasons to be sad in our daily lives not to burden oneself with artificial sadness from the passing away of people we don’t personally know.
Except I knew Bob. A little, at least. Before going to bed last night I started writing a draft post on what his music meant to me, and this is the final result. It’s going to be long and rambling, I’m trying to cram too many memories in here probably, but hey, bear with me if you care.
I first discovered Bob’s music by chance. I had recently moved back to France to live with my wife to be, I had recently started getting serious about my harmonica playing, I was listening to a lot of blues and jazz. There was a show on a French cable TV channel back then that every week broadcast a concert filmed in one of the Parisian clubs, and that’s when I first discovered Bob. I fell in love with the music and the man there and then. I’d taped that show, and I shared it around with friends so much that it finally wore out.
A few months later, Bob came to Tourcoing for the Jazz Festival. He was playing a small room, there must have been 40 people in the audience tops. It was my first live exposure to solo Bob and I was blown away and exhilerated at the same time. This mix of mad virtuosity and unadulturated fun was not something you experienced live very often. I started buying his records.
A couple of years later, my wife and I had moved down to Paris, and we were expecting our first kid. I had recently purchased two albums Bob had released, one with Okinawan shamisen and guitar player Takashi Hirayasu and one with Malian kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara. When I found out that the three of them were playing a gig in Paris, I had to go, and although she was over six months pregnant, my wife insisted she wanted to come.
It was a magical concert. It showcased in a truly extraordinary way not only Bob’s incredibly adaptative and versatile playing, but also the depth of the human connections between him and the musicians he chose to record with. There were three sets: the first one with Dejli Moussa, the second with Takashi, and the third with all three string magicians on stage together. Bob opened that last set by stating that the three of them had never played together beyond a half hour of semi-rehearsal earlier that day in a hotel room. They were going to wing it. Interestingly, Takashi and Djeli Moussa had no language in common: the former spoke some English, and the latter some French. Bob spoke enough broken French that he could act as the bridge between the two.
That set was mostly rough, to tell the truth. It was enjoyable because the musicians were great, and all good in their own right, and the atmosphere was playful, and Bob cracked some great jokes. But the music felt clunky, put together, unrehearsed. Which it was. Still, one of the miracles of music is that sometimes harmony springs where you expect it the least. It was the one but last number I think, I can’t even remember what it sounded like, I suspect it was mostly improvised. But something clicked. The three string instruments slowly synched and then it wouldn’t let go. The three musicians were playing, and looking at each other in utter wonder as if they were no longer at the helm: the music was playing itself. The audience felt it too. It was a truly extraordinary moment, and I’m not sure I’ve experienced something quite like this in all the concerts I’ve done since.
When the music finally stopped, a hush filled the room for a good twenty seconds before the three of them, Bob, Takashi and Djelli Moussa smiled beaming smiles that illuminated the place. The audience stood up, clapping and whooping. The musicians started laughing, that special, brittle laughter that you have when you’re so moved by joy you’re on the verge of tears. I will cherish that moment all my life.
After that, I didn’t see Bob live for years. I had kids, and moved further out from Paris which made going to concerts more complicated. I still bought his records, and for the most part liked them a lot. I bought the wonderful Get Together he recorded with Woody Man, which is what I’m listening to as I write these words. Then I bought it again to give to my dad (who plays guitar).
Some time around 2007, I started recording musical podcasts, and one of them was centered on New Orleans music and Katrina. I normally only featured bootleg recordings on this podcast, but I wanted to include Bob’s Look at New Orleans from his album Post-Industrial Blues, and I had no bootleg version of that. I sent an email at the address on his website requesting authorization to use the song for that podcast. To my surprise, Bob answered directly within minutes. He said I could use it of course. I responded, thanked him and asked him if he knew the next time he would be playing in or near Paris.
'Tonight in Beauvais', he answered. Beauvais is 75 miles from where I live, but I didn't care. I called to book a seat, only to be told it was full and there were no more tickets for sale. I sent an email to Bob apologizing for not being able to attend as there were no more tickets. He responded by saying he'd let me in, I only had to give my name at the entrance. I jumped in my car.
We spoke briefly, that night after the gig. He was as amazing as I remembered him, but there was something different too. Both in the music itself, more worldly, more open, more exotic in a way, and in the emotion. Bob had always been both a virtuoso and an extremely fun artist to watch, but he’d added a depth to his playing and singing that I’d not heard before. Another memorable experience.
The last time I saw Bob live was in London with my friend James at the Half-Moon in Putney (that’s where the above photo was taken). Probably the most amazing of the three solo concerts I saw him perform altogether. As it turned out, it was something of a reunion for him that night: there were people in the audience he’d met 25 years earlier when he was first touring England and they had just reunited after all that time. Plus the Half-Moon was threatened with closure and the place clearly mattered to him. Bob was emotional, and that emotion carried into the music. It was a very moving gig.
Last November Bob played near Paris, but it came at a moment of great turmoil in my professional life and though I had originally planned to go, I finally gave it a miss. I was to see him again on May 12th in Paris for a Ukulele festival. I now wish I’d kicked myself in the pants and gone back in November.
Bob’s music struck a perfect balance between fun, depth and virtuosity. Many artists have one or the other of these, but few artists have all three. Bob was a musical treasure, and while I will have his records to listen to for the years to come, I will always miss seeing him live. That had to be experienced in person and cannot be replaced.
I’m not a religious man and have little understanding of the concept of afterlife. I think furthermore that what happens in the here and now matters more than what hypothetically happens next. I will keep the memory of Bob’s music alive as best I can by sharing it and spreading it around. That at least I’m sure he would have liked. Music can be a powerful way to open up minds and share joy.
Thank you forever, Bob Brozman for opening up mine and bringing smiles of joy and emotion to my face so often.