Like thousands of other impressionable young hippies, John Brewer came down with a severe case of Phish fever during the summer of his 17th year, caravanning for 24 dates with the jam band during the height of its popularity.
"It showed me that fans can be more devoted than you could possibly imagine," says Brewer, now 28. "I realized that if I could do that for Phish, maybe people could do that for me."
So while the rest of Phish nation filled up their veggie-oil tanks and moved on down the road to Widespreadville and Kellerland, Brewer went to school in New Orleans and got a master's degree in jazz piano performance. He lent his ivory-tickling talents to live hip-hop bands and jazz ensembles — anything to sharpen his chops and help reach his goal of becoming a professional musician.
"I quit listening to that stuff [jam bands] and started developing me," he says.
Along the way, however, Brewer discovered that his most passionate pursuit — improvisation — was also the most unlikely to pay the bills. Shortly after moving back to Kansas City, he found a kindred spirit in drummer and percussionist Brandon Draper.
"In every city, there are multiple jazz musicians who play together, and there's a certain amount of vocabulary they know so they can play together without rehearsal," Draper says. "John and I realized early on that we did not want to do that."
The John Brewer Trio and the Brandon Draper New Quintet are already established commodities on the KC jazz circuit, but the duo's new project, Organic Proof, is beginning to spin heads outside the jazz scene.
"I don't see jazz as being that marketable," Brewer says. "We're hoping that Organic Proof can get to a larger audience."
Envisioned as a sonic playground for two creatively restless musicians, the improvisatory collaboration allows Brewer (keyboards) and Draper (drums, percussion, bass and other instruments) to traverse the realms of jazz, electronica, hip-hop and world music without adhering to any one format.
"We're both extremely influenced by the culture and mentality of dance music," Brewer says. "What really makes us similar to DJs is the beat matching — we'll do entire sets that never stop."
Though neither musician is immune to the occasional "tux, bucks, sucks" gig to pay the bills, their true passion is tweaking their accumulated arsenal of toys. For Draper, that includes a worldly array of percussion devices that he mastered while studying at the University of New Mexico.
"I learned very early on in studying other cultures' music that it has to be all or nothing so you're not jive," Draper says. "I don't want to be that guy wearing the Smiths T-shirt who knows nothing about the Smiths."
As in African music, Organic Proof's compositions favor interweaving rhythms and spiraling textures. Draper's drums are routed to a mixing board so they can be looped, allowing him to juggle bass, marimba and exotic percussion.
"We're very much into masking and changing sounds," Brewer says. "When we feel the crowd sagging, we'll both look at a certain instrument and go, 'Yeah.'"
Draper pulls his drum loops in and out like a DJ would, creating a dynamic ebb-and-flow that reacts to the crowd's temperament.
"Our goal in bigger venues is to get the audience to play with us by dancing and having a good time," Draper says. "If people are getting down, this whole new freedom opens up."
The resulting sonic frenzy can be heard as drum-'n'-bass, downtempo trip-hop, experimental jazz, fractured funk or all of the above.
"Sometimes the loop will get out of synch," Brewer says. "But we're listening close enough that it doesn't necessarily sound bad — we just make it work."
Brewer is used to working in a high-pressure environment: He works as a firefighter. Though such a gig precludes extended touring, it allows him to maintain high standards as a gigging musician — i.e., not live out of a tent with a bunch of schwag-toking festivarians.
"There's stuff we were willing to do when we were 18 that a lot of these bands are still willing to do just to get into these festivals," he says.
Instead, Organic Proof has taken up twice-monthly residences at J.P.'s Wine Bar and Jardine's as well as branching out into rock clubs such as the Record Bar. The duo has also collaborated with the fledgling Innatesounds hip-hop crew headed up by KC producer Miles Bonny.
Organic Proof is still finding its footing. The group's recorded output thus far amounts to a live recording captured at J.P.'s (which actually sounds quite polished) and some simmering demos. Both members have recently begun singing and hope to develop that aspect more in the studio.
Whatever path Organic Proof takes, it's certain to develop — you guessed it — organically.
"What's really important to us is creating something new," Brewer says. "All the jam bands out there that just sound like Phish — that's what they're going to do forever."