WHEN YOU HEAR OF AN ARTIST PLAYING “THE STANDARDS” WHAT COMES TO YOUR MIND?
RIGHT. SOMETHING BY GERSHWIN, PORTER OR BERLIN.
BUT AT ONE TIME, ALL OF THOSE SONGS WERE CONTEMPORARY PIECES.
SO, ASKS DON BRADEN, DOES A STANDARD HAVE TO BE A SONG THAT GRANDPA KNOWS, AND NOT SOMETHING THAT HE HIMSELF GREW UP WITH/
THAT IS WHY THE SAXIST WHO’S PLAYED WITH THE LIKES OF WYNTON MARSALIS, TONY WILLIAMS, BETTY CARTER AND THE MINGUS BIG BAND HAS RELEASED AN ALBUM WHERE HE REVISITS AND REJUVENATES THE MUSIC OF HIS BIG AFRO DAYS, STEVIE WONDER AND EARTH, WIND AND FIRE.
THE ALBUM, EARTH, WIND AND WONDER MIXES MODERN JAZZ ATTITUDE WITH THE IRRESISTIBLE GROOVE OF VINTAGE MOTOWN, MAKING IT ACCESSIBLE TO BOTH JAZZ HEADS AND R&B AFICIONADOS.
WE RECENTLY HAD A CHANCE TO CATCH UP WITH MR. BRADEN, AND AS WITH HIS MUSIC, HE WAS ACCESSIBLE, ENJOYABLE AND THOUGHT PROVOKINGLY CREATIVE.
DO YOU EVER COME OUT TO THE WEST COAST?
Unfortunately, it’s rare. I used to play there in the 80s and 90s at Catalina’s with Tony Williams and Tom Harrell. I was last there in ’98 or 99 at the Jazz Bakery, so it’s been awhile.
YOUR CAREER STARTED WITH THE HARPER BROTHERS BACK IN THE 1980s. THAT WAS DURING A PERIOD WHEN THE “YOUNG LIONS” OF JAZZ (MARSALIS, HARGROVE, HARPER BROTHERS, DAVE MURRAY, JAMES CARTER) WERE MAKING ALL THE HEADLINES. DID YOU FEEL YOU WERE PART OF A “NEW WAVE” OF JAZZ?
At the time I didn’t have a context for it because I was so young, coming right out of school. I didn’t have a framework to help me perceive it that way. I was just into playing and having fun; I was lucky that there was so much to do. You still had so many great players still alive and lots of young guys just trying to play well. A lot of opportunities. It was just of time of learning my way around and trying to play well.
WHAT SAX PLAYER INSPIRED YOU THE MOST?
There have been a number of them over different times.
My main central influence is first, Grover Washington Jr. I was just thinking about him last night because I was playing soprano. I play the same kind of soprano that he played; every time I play it I think about Grover because the sound reminds me of him.
The next one was probably Stanley Turrentine, who’s kind of a cross between the funky and straight-ahead. Then I got into Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Wayne Shorter; those were my main ones.
I then started going back and discovered Lester Young, Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins.
YOU LIKE THE WARM AND BIG SOUND. HOW DO YOU DEVELOP A PERSONAL TONE LIKE THAT?
All of the pieces of the puzzle are important. The number one thing is developing a concept of a sound of what you are hearing in your ear, whatever your voice is. So there’s a mental component and a physical component inside you that you develop through listening to different saxophone players as you become aware of the concept of what a saxophone is and what jazz is.
The participation of the art form and the listening go together. When you’re participating you’re also listening. So you need a ton of listening, a ton of practicing with experimenting with different equipment to get towards the sound that is in my ear, influenced by the players I’ve mentioned. They trained my ear and brain for what I was going for.
The reed, mouthpiece, saxophone and all of the details therein developed over the years as my sound concept matured.
YOU’VE STAYED CONSISTENT IN THE MAINSTREAM WHILE MANY ARTISTS GO FAR OUTSIDE. IS IT DIFFICULT TO PLAY STRAIGHT-AHEAD JAZZ THESE DAYS WITHOUT GOING “SMOOTH” OR “OUTSIDE.”
There are challenges. Living out here on the East Coast is easier, because this region has more straightahead venues and festivals. Not as much as in the ‘80s, because it was really happening then. I’ve become aware of that in retrospect, big time! We were really busy and were going for it.
Then the cd revolution came, and it was huge. With cds, people bought all of the old records again, and the labels had money to promote the music and the artists. There was money everywhere. That’s all gone now. It’s a whole different deal.
With all of that said, in the East Coast and the East-Central US like Chicago, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia…there’s a circuit that I can do with universities and jazz joints that I can join with. I was just with a big band in Valparaiso (Indiana), so if you put it all together the mainstream circuit is pretty fertile.
“”What he was attuned to was the concept of the trumpet and tenor sax as its own entity. Almost like the “Trumpten” or the “Tentrump.” It’s its own instrument. You know what I mean?””
YOU SPENT SOME TIME WITH ROY HAYNES. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THAT PERIOD?
Roy Haynes kicked my butt! The main things that Roy Haynes was about that I learned was that the main thing is melody.
I know that’s funny coming from a drummer, but he was one of my main melody guys that kicked my butt about being attentive to the melody of a song, especially standards.
He knew all of the melodies, and he could sing pretty well. He’d never sing on stage, but he’d sing at casuals and he was pretty good. I think his playing with Sarah Vaughan all of those years got him attuned to the melody.
And all of the guys he played with, Charlie Parker, Monk and all the rest were melody guys. Monk is like a crazy melodist. You listen to a Monk melody, and it’s crazy and brilliant how there’s a logic to what he puts into a melody. It’s spectacular if you put in the time to get into it. Charlie Parker’s genius was his putting melodies into his improvisation.
We did a lot of standards when I played with Haynes, and he also got me attentive to articulation. He really got me into thinking about clarity and articulation, because that’s a drum thing. The rhythm of a saxophone comes from the articulation. It helps you create the rhythm, putting some energy into articulation helped me develop that.
HOW DID THAT COMPARE TO YOUR STINT WITH TONY WILLIAMS?
With Tony, it was a sound thing.
Number one, just pure sound. There was just so much 917 volume coming from the band stand that I really had to get my sound together in order to hang at all. Just volume wise.
I’ve been playing with (tenor saxist) Billy Pierce recently; he was the one that got me into Tony’s band. Playing in this sextet with Billy I got reminded how big his sound is, which he got from being with Tony.
Tony played so loud in the band. It was killing, but it was loud, so you really had to have it together. I had to do a lot of work on long tones.
Number two was the soprano sax thing. I hadn’t played that much before except a little bit with Wynton (Marsalis). With Tony I really had to get it together.
One time I bumped into (soprano saxist) Steve Lacy when we were on tour, Steve told me something that sticks with me to this day.
He said, “The soprano sax is kind of a wild animal. It sounds terrible for a couple of years until you play it every single day and just stick with it.” That’s what I did; I’d been playing it for a year and stuck with it for another year with Tony.
Almost to the day of two years with the soprano sax with Tony it started getting cool; since then it’s been cool.
I just pulled it out recently for a gig I had coming up, and sure enough it still sounded fine. Once I made the two year mark of playing it every single day, it was cool. That was from Steve Lacy. So, that’s what I tell my students; give it two years and you’ll be cool. (laughs)
YOU’VE ALSO BEEN IN BANDS LEAD BY TRUMPET PLAYERS, LIKE WYNTON MARSALIS, FREDDIE HUBBARD AND TOM HARRELL. DO THEY GIVE YOU MORE OR LESS LEEWAY THAN DRUMMERS?1217
One thing I learned even before I got with Freddie Hubbard was the concept of phrasing, and how you match up with the trumpet. I had this discussion with Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, who played with Art Blakey.
What he was attuned to was the concept of the trumpet and tenor sax as its own entity. Almost like the “Trumpten” or the “Tentrump.” It’s its own instrument. You know what I mean?
There’s a tone that goes with Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, or Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or Davis and Wayne Shorter. It’s its own tone. The “trumpten” is its own thing, and the way you participate in that thing that’s been there throughout jazz history is that you learn the phrasing that your trumpet player is doing exactly. You become one person.
So, I bring that as a tenor player. So whether it’s Wynton, Freddie or Harrell, I phrase precisely with them.
The solos are different every night, but the melody is exactly the same.
THAT MAKES SENSE WHY ALL OF THE HORACE SILVER ALBUMS HAVE THAT SAME FEEL.
That’s right; it’s a sound. Carmel Jones, Blue Mitchell, Joe Henderson and Junior Cook.
YOU INITIALLY WENT TO COLLEGE TO BE AN ENGINEER. WAS IT A BIG DEAL WITH YOUR FAMILY WHEN YOU CHANGED CAREERS DIRECTIONS?
It was interesting. (laughs)
They were always supportive, but they were a traditional family. “Get a job and play music on the side.” We had no professional musicians in the family, even though we had talent all over the place.
We had no concept of what being a professional musician meant. I thought I’d have a job as well; I had no idea that I could be a pro player. Thinking that I could actually do it was huge.
When I got hired by Wynton it became clear to them that I could do it. Maybe not forever, but I could do it. It was possible.
My folks were supportive but concerned, until they saw me on tv on the David Brenner Show. They then said, “I guess he’s going to be all right.”
I then did lots of touring with Tony Williams and then Freddie Hubbard. My dad came to see me in Chicago with Roy Haynes and saw how dedicated and successful I was.
I also did computer programming on the side part time, intermingling it with tours and stuff. I intended to go back to school, as I had dropped out to do music and kept getting nice gigs. But I kept my computer job for quite a few years on a consulting basis and formed a little software company, working it between tours. I expected to go back to school after a few years.
But in 1995 I got married, and was buying a house and got a nice tv writing gig, so I figured I didn’t need the computer programming gig anymore, so I stopped it. 1700
So, my family was cool with it once they saw my momentum
THE NEW ALBUM HAS A GREAT CONCEPT WITH THE MUSIC OF STEVIE WONDER AND EARTH, WIND AND FIRE. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
The music has always been in there. What I grew up with playing wise was the Grover Washington thing, but what I was listening to in the ‘70s was R&B. The first concert that I went to was an O’Jays concert. I still remember it to this day and can visualize “Back Stabbers” and “Money Money Money Money.” All that stuff.
I was into the Jackson Five and Michael Jackson. I had Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life on my 8 track and we were freaking out about that one. I was even into the Osmond Brothers and Sonny and Cher, Kansas…all of these bands. Even Buck Owens, Roy Clark and Tammy Wynette, so I had a big range of music that I’d listen to.
I got into straight-ahead jazz in mid high school. I went to Jamie Abersold’s summer jazz camp1904, and the instructor there, Mike Tracy, got me involved with scales and such like Horace Silver. But the Stevie Wonder stuff was inside my head.
As I started making more albums as a leader, playing standards and my own tunes, I figured I should play some of the tunes I actually grew up with.
The first one I did was Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” which was my nod of acoustic instruments playing a more of a funky sound in that context.
Over the years I’ve done one or two on an album. I did “Can’t Hide Love” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Live” and a Steely Dan tune, as these were part of what I enjoyed growing up.
I finally got the idea to do a whole record of this stuff, but I had to figure out how I could improvise over these Earth, Wind and Fire songs. That’s what it boiled down to. How can I approach it and have the same kind of musical fun I have with “Stella By Starlight” on a song like “Getaway”? How can I have the same jazz journey with a song I’ve known my whole life?
The Stevie Wonder tunes re-live themselves. I’ve been playing his songs over the years. They’re a little easier because they’re a bit jazzier to play. EWF is also jazzy, but the song structures aren’t. There are all kinds of arrangements and productions going on and so are a bit more difficult to adapt. Stevie’s songs are much more like normal jazz tunes, AABA, so they were easier.
But now that I’m on the bandstand, I’m in heaven as I’m enjoying the teenage renaissance of my music. It gets my limbic system going; it’s activating this part of my brain that has the emotional component that you can’t get any other way.
I might even get some polyester clothes out! (laughs)
YOU SEEM TO HAVE A POSITIVE ATTITUDE ABOUT LIFE. ANY BOOKS OR PHILOSOPHIES THAT HAVE INFLUENCED YOUR WORLDVIEW?
I’m interested in many things. An interesting book I read was Philip Bailey, called Shining Star about Earth Wind and Fire. He talks about something called “The Concept” which refers to the universal quality of humans to work together, and how they are strongest and happiest when building together and supporting each other.
Earth Wind and Fire’s music has that whole quality, which I didn’t notice as a kid. But when I read the book I realized that they crafted it intentionally.
All of their songs like “Mighty Mighty” and their album covers Gratitude and I Am 2406. The clear message is that we are strong and look out for each other. That summarizes what and who I am.
ADMIT IT; THE REASON YOU FIRST GOT INTO JAZZ IS THAT IT PUT A SMILE ON YOUR FACE. DON’S BRADEN’S LATEST ALBUM HAS THAT SAME ATTITUDE. IT SWINGS AND BOPS HARD, BUT WITH MATERIAL THAT IS IN YOUR MARROW AND DNA. BRADEN MAKES ‘JAZZ’ A VERB ONCE AGAIN. CHECK OUT THE ALBUM, AND HOPE THAT HE SOME DAY RETURNS TO THE BEST COAST.