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Composing Brown as He Goes Along : Jazz: The guitarist, who plays in Irvine today, gets a taste of recognition as he establishes his identity on his own terms.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Norman Brown can feel things changing.

“I’ve been places lately where the people actually recognize me,” the hot young guitarist said by phone from a Philadelphia hotel during a stop on a long national tour. “Or they know my music and have put the face with it, like ‘Yeah, man, I know your stuff.’ ”

His first MoJazz album, “Just Between Us,” placed highly on both sales and radio play charts, and his second, “After the Storm,” opened earlier this month at No. 2 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart. It seems the Wes Montgomery/George Benson-influenced musician has found the right formula.

But what Brown, who plays the WAVE Stage at the Taste of Orange County Festival today, is most proud of is that he’s establishing his identity on his own terms. While his first recording included such interest-attracting guests as Stevie Wonder, Boys II Men and Ronnie Laws, the second album, he says, is a clearer picture of what he’s about.

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“On this album, I got a chance to produce and do most of the arranging. I wanted to focus in on Norman Brown on this one and present different sides of what I was doing. In terms of the writing, you’ll hear some Latin influence on some tunes, a little bit of that African thing and jungle rhythms, some groovier stuff, some R&B-style; jazz, an original ballad.” Translation: This is a very accessible album with strong rhythmic hooks, plenty of electric keyboard backing and enough vocal work (by Brown and an entourage of backup singers) to encourage radio play.

The disc features nine Brown originals and covers from Janet Jackson, the Isley Brothers and Luther Vandross. Over it all, Brown adds tasty guitar licks out of the Montgomery tradition in a way that fuses pop and jazz sensibilities.

The disc’s variety reflects his youthful exposure to all types of music. The Kansas City native is the second youngest of nine children and was turned on to all types of sounds through his siblings and parents.

“Everything was played in our house,” the 26-year-old guitarist said. “My father was into straight-ahead jazz like Wes Montgomery, Count Basie, Ellington and (guitarist) Grant Green. My mother was really into gospel--Mahalia Jackson--and she also liked the blues, you know, B.B. King and those cats. Then my sisters and brothers were into the popular stuff. They played a lot of Hendrix, the Isley Brothers, Kool and the Gang, Earth Wind and Fire. I never really locked into one thing.”

At age 8, Brown picked up his brother’s guitar and started playing along to the myriad sounds heard around the house.

“I liked it all so I tried to play it all. Especially Hendrix, the ‘Band of Gypsies’ album, the way he played the guitar. He made it scream and holler and cry; he got so much emotion from it that I was really drawn to it.”

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But then his father turned him on to Montgomery.

“That was the period that I fell more toward jazz, and that’s all I wanted to do. It happened when my father played ‘Bumpin’ on Sunset.’ He had that octave thing going, and that was very attractive. Then he played the album ‘Boss Guitar’ for me, where Wes plays a lot of single-line solos with his thumb and a lot of chord solos. I was blown away at how he could solo with chords like that. And I began to search out other guitarists, Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, and tried to learn what they were doing.”

Junior high school also served to broaden his scope. Because the school didn’t have a guitar program, Brown took the opportunity to learn saxophone and upright bass. But the band director recognized his student’s guitar skills and enlisted him for his quartet.

“He was doing more contemporary stuff, like Grover Washington Jr. and the Crusaders, and I got into that. Also, he didn’t have a piano player in the band, so I got to play a whole lot, all the chords and fill. That really helped me get my accompaniment thing together.”

Brown, still largely self-taught, also joined other area R&B; bands to keep up his chops. Then he saw an advertisement in Guitar Player magazine for the Guitar Institute (now the Musicians Institute) in Los Angeles.

“I flew out to check it out and audition and decided it was definitely the place I needed to be.”

He moved to Los Angeles in 1983, studying with legendary session man Tommy Tedesco as well as guitarists Ron Eschete and Joe DiOrio. Upon graduation, the school asked Brown to stay on as an instructor, and he continues to do master classes and seminars there when his schedule allows.

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His big break came in the late ‘80s when a girlfriend introduced him to drummer-producer Norman Connors.

“We went over to his place for Thanksgiving, and I took my guitar and a bunch of tapes. After dinner, he put on the tapes and when he didn’t take the headphones off, I knew he liked it.”

Connors introduced Brown’s music to Steve McKeever, senior vice president of A&R; at Motown, which was looking to form a new jazz label. As a result, Brown’s “Just Between Us” became MoJazz’s initial release.

While “Just Between Us” did well, “After the Storm” has taken off with incredible speed. But the disc has not been well accepted by jazz critics. A review in Sunday’s L.A. Times suggested that Brown had “Xeroxed” George Benson’s sound (Benson was initially accused of ripping off Montgomery).

“Sure he’s a major influence,” says Brown of Benson. “My sister turned me on to the ‘Breezin” album when it first came out and, you know, I didn’t like it. I was such a Wes fan that I felt (Benson) was trying to unseat Wes. But then I listened to it some more and liked it and started to learn all his stuff. He was doing what Wes was doing but in a contemporary setting.”

Brown also admits that Benson influenced him to scat along with his playing, as he does on the new disc.

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“Yeah,” he says, “but actually a lot of jazz cats did that, just off the microphone.”

Singing, as he does on the ballad “It Costs to Love,” is an old skill of Brown’s.

“I sang in choirs while I was growing up but lost interest when I focused on the guitar. But just before I moved to L.A., I got interested in expressing myself with lyrics, listening to Stevie Wonder and Christopher Cross and those cats. So it just sparked another creative thing in me. The voice is the closest instrument to your heart. It’s the best way to express what’s really inside you.”

Brown says he’s interested in doing a future album in the organ trio setup (“I love the B-3,” he says) and in duets with other guitarists, including his fellow instructors from the Musicians Institute as well as such names as Benson and Earl Klugh. “But the next album, like this one, will be more of a Norman Brown album. I really want to establish myself as an artist and a composer first.”

* Norman Brown plays The WAVE Stage at Taste of Orange County, Irvine Spectrum, Alton Parkway and Irvine Center Drive; today, 6:30 p.m. $6, children 3-12 $3, under 3 free. (714) 753-3577.

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