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Don Braden

One car ride with tenor saxophonist Don Braden is like a trip around the world. Within an hour of dropping off his instruments for repairs and locating our destination for a chat, we talked about finding spirituality in The Big Apple, the presence of God in the music industry, his four-year old Lexus, our disappointment in the present political administration, the insane traffic jam in mid-town we were caught in, and the Braden family fish. What he exemplifies is the attitude of some of today’s African-American players; his acceptance of his role in extending the musical traditional of Blacks and African-Americans, speaking about centuries of struggle and fervent joy in "getting over", and the parallels of jazz and commerce within American’s social structure and business jungle. He expresses all of this without heroics. Just matter-of-factly in his music and his life.

Braden is one of the most consistent players today. From his debut release as a leader on Criss Cross Records in 1991 (The Time Is Now) to his new release on High Note Records (Workin’), it continues to be a celebratory exclamation of love and freedom in the groove. Workin’ is a live recording at Cecil’s Jazz Club in New Jersey with his longtime friend percussionist Cecil Brooks III and organ player Kyle Koehler. The Organic Trio, a unit for the past three and one-half years, takes a soulful swagger through contemporary standards and Brandon’s compositions. From the warm introduction from the stage by Brooks III (he owns Cecil’s and produced Workin’), you already sense the brotherhood. What’s exciting to hear is how this group comfortably changes its musical stance - from ballad to blistering hot. There’s much love in Braden’s solo on "She’s On Her Way", performed on his first High Note release Brighter Days announcing the upcoming arrival of his daughter (later written as an orchestral piece.) Then on a dime the Trio wheels around and does "Where There’s Smoke", an intense, driving tune. And then another turn into the sensual rendition of "The Closer I Get To You". Braden possess the energy to stoke the fire within his music and with the tap of a keypad, arise from churchy and soulful to pure amore.

Along with his music, Braden’s life is enriched by the teaching that he does. One of his assignments has been as the "artistic ‘voice'" of the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut since 1997 (preceding the Litchfield Jazz Festival in August). He’s also a clinician for and endorses, respectively, the instrument makers Buffet-Crampon and Keilwerth Saxophones.

Our conversation was dense. Braden leafed through a myriad of topics, all interconnected like colorful Legos. In talking about his musical progression, he listed the goals he’s coming closer to achieving. He’s becoming technically more proficient on his instrument, he’s sounding better, he’s more relaxed and freer coupled with his increased expressive energy and his focus is clearer. He credits his years at Harvard University as an engineer for his growing proficiency as an audio engineer. What you learn about Braden is that he’s eclectic, all- inclusive, and it all shapes his musical and personal life.

On Swing "Swing is not just one thing a rhythmic beat that has a syncopated emphasis a little bit [of a] broad [definition], but that’s good because you can take twenty or a hundred or five-hundred or a thousand jazz players and they’ll all say something differently the core of the music is not the improvisation, the core of the music is the rhythm, and they work together."

On Free-Jazz "I have to work with a bunch of cats, including some free, avant-garde types. The beauty of jazz, as far as I’m concerned, is its ability to include all kinds of other "musics," including real free music...[free music] being defined as music that’s literally without boundaries jazz has boundaries. Now how we define those boundaries, that’s a little bit tricky."

On Playing Jazz "Playing jazz is hard. I don’t know if critics and writers and people who are not jazz players realize how hard it is to negotiate changes, play rhythmically and with synchronization, interact and really do this, how hard it is. What does a jazz player do? Think about it. What a player does at any given moment they gotta tune [in front of them], they gotta keep track of where they are, I teach kids and I know this can’t be done off the cuff hear where you are and know where you are and feel where you are and play where you are and then you have to figure out how to improvise over this language that is a sophisticated language."

On Emotions "Depending on what you personal expressiveness is artistically, depending on what your language is, the emotion can come out easier or it could be stifled. For certain guys who are all into the intellectual parts of it, [they] never put any emphasis on the emotional parts of it they have a pile of chops and whatever and then you’re like [whistling into the air] and then you’ve got a guy without a whole lotta chops who’ll make you cry A lot of times, certain jazz players have so much expressiveness and emotion in their playing, it’s cool So what if they’re not a "Master"? They have that emotional thing."

On John Coltrane "The reason Coltrane was so profound is that he had all this stuff together, he had crazy technique and crazy creativity and crazy emotion and crazy spirituality and intellect and swing and swingin’ by whatever his definition was. The part of recognizability is the ubiquity of somebody. Like, when somebody is really there, part of recognizing them is that they’re unique. But part of that is that they’re out there all the time. Coltrane is another y’know, I tell my students don’t even translate Coltrane yet until you’re really ready for it ‘coz it’s so heavy."

On Soul "Stylistically, soul music is very specific from the late ’50’s organ/tenor tradition Arnett Cobb and Stanley Turrentine - I’m highly influenced by these guys. This is why I’m being connected [to this music] from the standpoint of writers because they can here the connection to me with them. For me, what I consider for myself as a soulful player is the emotional, unbridled, free passion. The record that I did, The Fire Within, was a symbol of that. I was going for a passionate approach to the music as far as I could. I was in my 30's [at the time] and as you grow up, you become more passionate. I’m putting soul into the music 24/7."

On Jazz and the African-American Experience "It’s about freedom and it’s about love because those of us who do it do it because we love it and we’re expressing that kind of energy. We’re expressing love energy, we’re expressing fun energy. But there are components that add to the richness to the music that comes out of the Afro-American experience. The energy, that spirituality. It comes out of the stuff that we withstood."

On Freedom Within the Groove "Jazz is a celebration of freedom because one of the biggest spiritual elements that jazz came out of is freedom. You’re not looking at the page, you’re not constrained by what’s on [it]. You’re expressing yourself freely, right? But the groove is there. [Trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis said a thing [in an article] - "freedom within the groove." And if I could give a one-sentence description of jazz "freedom within the groove."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Don Braden
  • Interview Date: 7/1/2006
  • Subtitle: Freedom Within the Groove
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