Daren Burns teaches bass, piano, music theory and composition at Verde Valley School out of Sedona, Arizona. Though Burns might even consider himself a music educator first — he’s been doing this for fifteen years, now — he’s also remains a true student of the art, studying the music cultures of Western Classical, American (Jazz, Rock, and Blues), West African, North Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, and even Persian. It’s not just the variety of music forms that’s made him a very informed musician, but also from whom he has learned from, and one of his main mentors has been none other than the forward-thinking trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Wadada's latest project is a sweeping, musical narrative of the American Civil Rights Movement. Read our assessment of his 4-CD epic, Ten Freedom Summers.]
His primary instrument is the electric bass, and he leads or co-lead several bands, such as Onibaba, Here No Evol, and 3 Squares. Earlier this year though Burns put forth his debut album under his own name, Fear Is Not The Natural State of Civilized People. Taken from a quote from Burmese political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, Burns themed his record on those who risked their lives for the cause of freedom. The record itself is an expression of freedom or sorts, freedom from formulaic music structure performed by individual players right alongside an articulation of the composition, a “structured improvisation” approach perfected by avant-garde heroes like Smith.
To help make this record, Burns called in some of his former fellow students from the California Institute of the Arts: guitarist Scott Collins, pianist Sarah Phillips, and drummer Craig Bunch. He also brought in his old mentor Smith, and it should be noted, Smith didn’t swing by to make merely a guest appearance, he’s a participant on all four tracks, a real member of the band assembled for this project.
As the music does share a lot of similarities with Smith’s own music, particularly his Organic project, it should surprise no one that he’s a natural fit on Burns’ record, and he makes good use of his sharp tone and angular attack, and yet, does not dominate the proceedings. Rather, this is a group-oriented undertaking that showcases Burns’ composing pen as much as it does the musicianship used to carry them out. Along with being the leader and sole composer, Burns plays supple bass lines that anchors the songs, often undertaking the task of defining the melody, or at least suggesting it.
These tracks were named after four historic freedom fighters, Goyathlay (Geronimo), Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Fela Kuti, and the mood of each track relates to the approach to their causes taken by their namesakes: “Gandhi” and “Kyi” are peaceful, contemplative, and patient, while “Goyathlay” and “Fela Kuti” are aggressive and confrontational. Within each of these songs, the temperament of them shifts, sometimes abruptly and over times gradually, maintaining a level of interest and purpose from beginning to end. Never do the performances sound too cluttered, either, there’s ample space so that whenever someone steps up to solo, he or she is not having to compete with the rest of the band.
Daren Burns sketches out a clear vision for his first record, and with the help of three fine musicians and one legendary one, his vision was fully realized. Fear Is Not The Natural State of Civilized People was released last winter by Burns’ own Urban Nerds Records. Visit Daren Burns’ website for more info.