His mother may be the Queen of the Mountain, but Christof Brownell has his own claim to fame.
A talented and accomplished musician (who began playing piano as a child), he developed his unique set-up, based around keyboards and drums (which he plays with his feet), that enables him to play sans sidemen, after knee surgery in 1995.
“It started as a form of therapy (both spiritual and physical),” he told me when we met for a coffee recently.
As we sat in the sun outside the World Cup Cafe, Christof regaled me with stories about growing up “on the Mountain” in Taos Ski Valley, while his parents ran the popular Thunderbird Lodge. Christof practically grew up with TSV itself, so his is truly a “bird’s eye view.”
“It was a real hub,” he said. “Because my dad had been a (Jazz) pianist, my parents became known for bringing world-class music to the Mountain, so I was exposed to it all through my childhood.”
“In a sense,” he recalled, “we didn’t have to go anywhere, the world came to us.”
He started out wanting to play guitar, but because they already owned a piano, his parents insisted he learn to play that instrument first, and paid for his lessons. Later, when his younger brother caught the music bug, Christof remembers they bought him a guitar, but by that time, he was well on his way to exploring music in all of its genres and instruments.
His early exposure to Jazz greats like Ralph Sutton and Milt “The Judge” Hinton inspired him, but so did the teachers who furthered his early musical education, along with friends he made along the way, including Livingston and James Taylor.
His school years were spent here in Taos until his last couple of years of high school, when he was sent to a school in Colorado, and his winters were spent working at the Thunderbird Lodge, learning the ropes and the strong work ethic his parents instilled in him.
That early discipline, along with exposure to different cultures – his parents had the travel bug and passed it on – served him well as he developed his chops through dedication and practice. He attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston and went on to play with several bands, opening for name acts, including Steel Pulse, Burning Spear and Taj Mahal among others.
His own music is an eclectic mix informed by all he’s been influenced and inspired by; Blues, Ska, Reggae, R&B, Funk, Jazz and World Music.
He’s played in Beijing, Paris, Hawaii and throughout New Mexico and Colorado, participating in the Telluride Jazz Festival and the Taos Solar Music Fest., exposing his unique sound – a fusion of genres – to audiences far and wide.
As far as he traveled both musically and literally, Christof always returned to Taos, and the Mountain. He was part of the early “Free Taos” movement, pressing for Snowboarding to be included in TSV, and once carved “Free Taos” in giant letters on the Mountain.
“We were losing so much business,” he remembered. “Families who’d been coming for years, stopped because their grandchildren wanted to go somewhere they could “board”.”
Things have changed since then, and Snowboarders are part of the TSV culture these days, along with old school skiers.
“I’m skiing again,” Christof informed me. “So are a lot of people I know who boarded exclusively for years.”
What goes around, comes around. Depending on the (snow) conditions, he now enjoys the ability to choose either his board or his skis.
Having recently returned to Taos from Colorado where he lived until his marriage ended, Christof is currently involved in helping his mother run the Brownell Chalet in Taos Ski Valley.
“It’s second nature to me,” he laughed. “I grew up in the hospitality business, and always thought I’d end up running the (Thunderbird) Lodge, so this feel right.”
He’s also got several gigs lined up throughout the winter, both on the Mountain (once a week at the St. Bernard), and in town at the Alley Cantina and Taos Inn.
His show is eclectic, engaging and inspiring; he’s an incredibly talented musician and singer,who has created a unique niche for himself in the world of music.
“Music is the universal language,” he explained when I asked him what keeps him inspired and connected to his creativity. “I’ve played in countries where there was an enormous language barrier, but music cuts through all that.”
“And of course, there’s perpetual heartache.” He smiled wistfully. “That’s always helpful in writing a song.”
A constant state of angst? I asked.
“No, not angst.” He clarified, “heartache.”
He didn’t look at all heartbroken as we sat together in the morning sun, sipping our espressos, wondering out loud if there’d be snow before Thanksgiving.
Well, there isn’t any to speak of yet, except for the man-made stuff, but Christof is ready for it when it starts to fall, and his Winter is already booked with guests at the Chalet, days on the Mountain and nights spent doing what he loves; playing in his one man band!
Besides the Taos Inn and the Alley Cantina, Christof often plays at the Taos Mesa Brewing Tap Room, and KTAO, where he’s been featured frequently in “Off The Cuffs”, with his friend and mentor, Jimmy Stadler.
For more on Christof Brownell – to see his upcoming schedule and to order one of his CD’s – and the Brownell Chalet, please visit the links below this post.