In the Motown-inspired local band Brownish Black, three members’ path to the group took a detour through the navy and gold of Portland Community College.
Brownish Black’s mub FRACTAL (aka Peter Thatch) on bass, Vicki Porter on vocals, Stephanie Shea on tenor sax and Ethan Boardman on drums all met while taking classes in PCC’s Professional Music Program, based at the Cascade Campus (705 N. Killingsworth St.). Then already part of the band, FRACTAL recruited the others about two years ago to complete the eight-member ensemble that today can be found performing soul-bathed tunes at venues such as Mississippi Studios, Jimmy Maks, Alberta Rose Theatre and Doug Fir Lounge, to name a few.
Serving as a talent scout for the band, FRACTAL met Shea in a jazz improv class and soon they played together at jazz jams at other students’ homes. When Brownish Black was in the market for a new tenor saxophone player, FRACTAL asked Shea to fill the role. After several terms of hearing the powerful voice of Porter in the program’s band workshop course, he invited her to sing backup vocals and help guide the band through its Detroit soul journey. Soon after, he and singer/songwriter M.D. Sharbatz started writing songs for Porter to sing lead on.
“I finally got the courage to ask Vicki to sing with us,” FRACTAL remembered. “The original trio played in rock bands and didn’t really know how to do (soul) necessarily. We are used to pretty straightforward stuff, but we envisioned maybe we could turn this into something Motown/Stax-inspired and that started when we added Vicki to the project. We didn’t want to be a normal rock band and thought maybe we’d do something that’s different.”
It isn’t unusual to have people meet and form a band or part of one while going through the program. Allen Jones, head of the Professional Music Program, said it attracts working musicians, budding songwriters, producers, all tapping resources and honing skills. For seasoned professionals or those just getting started, the program offers technical courses in studio recording and production, instrumental instruction and performance-oriented courses, music theory, music business workshops and seminars in career options.
“We have a wide range of students coming to our program,” Jones said. “Their backgrounds are varied. Some are seeking to add new skills or diversify within the music business. Others are just getting started.”
Stephanie Shea is a good example of the typical student. Shea and her husband Rob Taylor (who is now Brownish Black’s guitarist) played a lot while living in California before moving to Portland. She said she didn’t have a lot of formal training, but wanted to become a music teacher. But she needed to find a program that fit in with her current full-time graphic design job. As Shea looked for good schools to get the skills she needed, she settled in on PCC’s Professional Music Program.
“I just really decided I wanted to get much more serious about music,” said Shea, who earned the program’s one-year certificate. “I wanted to go beyond being a hobbyist and actually see if I could do something with it. As a horn player the more knowledge I can get about chords the better, Immediately, I could take what I learned in class and apply it to whatever musical project I was doing. It’s one thing to play by ear, you kind of know that certain notes go with certain sounds, but you get to see the breakdown of exactly why that is happening and actually what you can do to make it better.
“The program sounded really perfect because, like me, there’s a lot of non-traditional students there,” she added. “And, it’s not impossible to fit classes into a work schedule. It was such a great choice for me. I felt like I learned so much; a lot more than I ever expected to.”
Porter enrolled because she wanted to improve her music skills. She has been taking music classes on and off for years and is close to earning her certificate. Porter recalled that her favorite offering was the band performance course where students learned songs and performed them.
“I was always into music,” said Porter, who returns occasionally to sing with the band performance students. “When I found out about their program, I was like, ‘Alright, lets try this.’ When I joined music theory class taught by Cliff Waits and Allen Jones, who at the time was running a show band, I was just hooked. It was work, but it was fun.
“I felt at home at PCC,” she continued. “You can interact with people and get that instant feedback.”
FRACTAL is not only the bass player, but serves as Brownish Black’s informal music director, arranger, backup singer and co-songwriter. At PCC, the Olympia, Wash., transplant took sound engineering and band performance classes that gave him his first taste of playing R&B/Soul music from the 1960s and 1970s, sparking interest in the Detroit Motown sound. Over time he assumed leadership role and worked hard to earn his one-year certificate before transferring to the Sylvania Campus to earn credits in the campus’ music program.
FRACTAL has moved on to Portland State University’s Jazz Studies Program and plays bass with PCC’s staff/student jazz band “The Suspects” (Allen Jones on guitar, instructor Cliff Waits on sax, and three former students on drums, piano, and bass) in addition to his work with Brownish Black.
“I decided to go for it and right away I made connections at PCC and took my music knowledge to the next level,” said FRACTAL, who plans to earn a master’s degree in music and jazz studies. “I was totally self taught and PCC really helped me to get a few fundamentals. I also like how there are people from so many different places there. PCC is so much more of a community vibe. I’ve met more people there and have more of a stake in PCC than elsewhere. I like that.”