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Pianist Alex Brown returns to Wilde Lake where he had 'such a positive experience'

With all due respect to novelist Thomas Wolfe, it turns out you can go home again. Just ask Grammy nominated jazz pianist Alex Brown.

"I get back quite a bit," says the Columbia native by phone from his home in New York City. The musician has performed at some of the world's top jazz venues, but on Saturday, Jan. 28, he returns to the familiar stage of the Jim Rouse Theatre for the 8th annual Jazz @ The Lake concert.

The show benefits the highly regarded band program of his alma mater, Wilde Lake High School. Money raised will buy uniforms, help repair instruments and provide for transportation to concerts.

"It was such a positive experience," the 2005 Wilde Lake High alum says of his years spent playing in the school's award-winning band program. "There's so much evidence that having music and arts programs in schools make such a big difference in education," Brown says. "Even beyond the music, these kinds of programs teach you a lot of great skills, like how to work together with others."

The pianist will be joined on stage by fellow Wilde Lake High School alumni Eric Doob ,on drums, and bassist brother Zach Brown, currently a student at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. Noted jazz singer Sachal Vasandani will front the ensemble and the Wilde Lake Jazz Band, led by longtime band director Lewis Dutrow, also will perform.

"I was really fortunate to have him as a teacher and was super inspired by his enthusiasm and energy," says Brown of his former mentor. "He does a really great job with the program."

The professional admiration is mutual.

"What Alex and Zach brought to the program by their skills, dedication and musicality was more than you could ever ask for," Dutrow says of his former students. "I still remember the first time I met them and heard them play when they were at Harper's Choice Middle School. Even back then their talent was way beyond anybody of that age. My whole goal was just not to mess them up," he adds with a laugh by phone from his office at Wilde Lake High School.

The Brown brothers have performed at every Jazz @ The Lake concert since its inception and for good reason. The event was the brainchild of their mother, Columbia resident Jill Lapides.

Rather than typical fundraisers like car washes and candy sales, the band booster thought a concert would generate income for the high school band program and bring top-notch entertainment to Howard County. The first show was such a resounding success that it has become an annual event.

"It really gives the community an opportunity to see incredible world-class musicians right in their own backyard," Dutrow says. Past performers have included such jazz greats as Grammy award winners Dave Samuels, Wycliffe Gordon andPaquito D'Rivera.

Alex Brown, 24, has played piano in D'Rivera's band for several years and shared in the group's 2010 Grammy nomination for D'Rivera's CD, "Jazz-Clazz." In 2011, the young musician released his debut CD, "Paquito D'Rivera presents Alex Brown - Pianist."

A longtime fan of Latin rhythms, Brown was excited to have the opportunity to explore the musical genre as a Wilde Lake High School student.

"When I was a freshman I remember hearing the percussion ensemble playing this piece, like a Brazilian samba. That was really cool," he recalls. "They had all the correct instruments and everything, which was pretty awesome for a high school."

After graduation, Brown headed to Boston where he received a Bachelor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory. It was there that he met Paquito D'Rivera's bassist, Oscar Stagnato.

"He really expanded my concept of Latin music," Brown notes. Soon, D'Rivera came to see the young pianist play, and Brown's professional career began with an invitation to join the Latin jazz master's band. The group recently recorded music for a ballet commissioned by the Jose Limon Dance Company and will be performing with the Manhattan based troupe later this year.

When he's not on the road with the band leader, Brown plays with his own ensemble. "I've been writing a lot of new music," he says.

Occasionally the pianist also will play with musician friends, including jazz singer Sachal Vasandani. The musicians met at a jazz festival in Washington state a few years ago and soon became fast friends.

"Sachal asked me to play a few gigs with him when his own pianist couldn't make some shows," says Brown. "He's getting a lot of attention now, which is really great."

With his 2007 major label debut, Vasandani quickly established himself as one the most promising vocalists in modern jazz. The Chicago native has since released two more critically acclaimed albums and in 2010 was named Downbeat magazine's "Rising Star" winner.

Like his good friend Alex Brown, Vasandani's main extracurricular activity in high school was performing with his school band.

"It's invaluable," the singer says of the significance of music education programs. "I think the thing that sees people through with music is not so much proficiency but inspiration," he continues by phone from his home in New York City. "When I was in high school there were a lot of people better than me but my teachers noticed and nurtured my passion."

Vasandani also credits his parents with instilling in him a love for music.

"Being exposed to music at a young age was really a crucial thing," he stresses. "I think that having music around the house and having parents that took me to the symphony or to jazz concerts really let music sink in so it became just part of my vernacular."

As a teenager, Vasandani was drawn to a wide variety of genres. But by the time he began studying music at the University of Michigan, he honed in on jazz.

"It just felt kind of right and even magical," he says.

The singer, who has performed in Baltimore several times, says he's excited to return to Maryland and, in particular, to collaborate with the Wilde Lake Jazz Band.

"Anything I can do to inspire young people and those connected to music education is well worth my time."

The 8th annual Jazz @ The Lake concert is Saturday, Jan. 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jim Rouse Theatre, Wilde Lake High School, Columbia. Tickets are $20 and available online at InstantSeats.com or at the door. For more information, call 410-997-2070.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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