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Don Braden - Comtemporary Standards Ensemble

DTRCD - 177

Don Braden - Tenor Sax, Vincent Herring - Alto Sax, Terrell Stafford - Trumpet, Flugelhorn, George Colligan - Piano, Richie Goods - Bass, Ralph Peterson - DrumsTracks

1. Kid Charlemagne 6:38
2. The Closer I Get To You 6:34
3. The Vail Jumpers 6:59
4. Dance Of The One 7:43
5. Overjoyed 6:04
6. Feel Like Making Love
7. Nandhi 7:12
8. Arise 6:57
Total Time 56:25

Listen to CD Tracks

     For his tenth record release since his solo debut a decade ago, saxophonist Don Braden has chosen a concept he has been considering for some time: “contemporary standards.”  The jazz repertoire has always revolved around popular tunes. Its harmonic genesis was in the hymns and folk tunes of the south. Tin Pan Alley songs and hits from musicals became standard fodder for improvisation and the basis for jazz tunes under assumed names. 

 The four pop tunes Braden has chosen for this ensemble are from the last quarter of the 20th Century, while most of the popular tunes currently in the jazz repertoire are from much earlier in the 1900s.  He has also included four originals — three of his and one by the bassist on this date, Richie Goods - for the recording debut of his Contemporary Standards Ensemble.  Completely new jazz compositions can become standards in the jazz catalog if several other artists record them.  Other artists have recorded each of these originals and, Don speculates, they might be on their way to becoming jazz standards.

 Presenting pop tunes along with new compositions may be a way to lure a new, younger audience for jazz. “I think it’s a way at least to try to bring the people my age to jazz,” Braden says. The pop tunes on this CD should be instantly recognizable to anyone who listened to the radio in the 1970s and 80s, as well as to those who tune in to stations featuring “oldies” from that era. “It makes more sense to add newer music to the overall repertoire,” Braden continues. “It gives new listeners to jazz a comfort zone, a tune they know and can relate to in a jazz context.  Then they can better understand the jazz tunes on the CD.”

 After all, that’s how young Don became interested in playing the saxophone and, eventually, jazz. He began by listening to the popular music of Grover Washington, Jr., Ronnie Laws, Spyro Gyra and even Kenny Gorelick (aka Kenny G) with the Jeff Lorber Fusion band. “That music was my gateway to the real deal.”  Braden grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and started playing tenor sax at age 13. Two years later, he was playing in a professional band that covered the music of contemporary jazz or pop artists like The Crusaders, Laws, Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind and Fire.  He credits his sax teacher, Mike Tracy, and the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Camps for turning him on to acoustic jazz.

 Braden takes these new standards and morphs the regular rhythms of the originals into engaging and sometimes startling jazz, Latin and funk rhythms. He puts intricate horn arrangements on top and substitutes chord changes that nudge and sometimes thrust the tunes into the jazz idiom.  He chose the tunes from a long list of favorites from his youth, explaining that, “I just needed to find ones that could be adapted to the jazz esthetic and for this particular ensemble. Most of them would adapt themselves to jazz pretty easily.” He also considered some more contemporary pop hits of the 1990s, but dismissed them since they were too new to be true classic tunes.

 A rhythmically intricate arrangement of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” sets the CD in motion. Drummer Ralph Peterson and pianist George Colligan propel the band as they push and pull between a funk and a hard bop feeling.  Braden takes the tune out in a blazing, hard bopping style which he showcased in his last album, “The Fire Within.”

  On Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get To You,” plush ensemble sections embrace Braden’s melodic solos. His full, soft tone contrasts with the first tune, revealing the gentler side of this tenor player.

  “Vail Jumpers” is a swinging blowing session showing the ensemble members to their best advantage, including Vincent Herring’s blues-rimmed alto sound, Terrell Stafford’s mellifluous trumpet, and Goods’ dexterity underlined by unerring time. Braden jumps in with a well-crafted solo that flows between theme and variation. Everyone trades fours with Peterson, whose talent for coming up with the perfect groove and inspired fills is more than evident on this recording.

 Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” gets a Latin treatment with each horn player taking the lead in the ensemble followed by plenty of solo space for all. But the theme is perfect for Stafford’s long, lyric lines and shimmering tone reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard in his prime. 

 Art Farmer recorded Braden’s “Dance of the One” on the album “Silk Road” following a two-week engagement at the Village Vanguard with Braden as a sideman.  “I was very honored when Art said, ‘Braden, bring that tune with the groove!’” Don recalls. “It was also at this gig that I met Benny Golson who subsequently gave me a tremendous career boost by introducing me to Bill Cosby.”

 With just the rhythm section Braden strolls through another Roberta Flack hit, “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” in an unhurried swing that gives Colligan a chance to stretch out. Stafford’s fluegel horn cruises through Good’s infectious melodies on “Nandhi,” and the trio of horns engages in a playful, improvised exchange at the end of the cut.

 On “Arise,” Braden advises the listener to note the melodic ideas that keep coming back, repeating themselves in various forms. Note newcomer Colligan’s thematic approaches here.  While Braden has worked with many superb pianists on past performances and recordings, in Don’s words, “This is a guy to watch!”

 When 27-year-old Don Braden released his first solo recording, the critics were enthusiastic but cautious. Some reviews of his early releases referred to his great potential “once he has matured.”  Since that first release, he has performed and toured with dozens of artists, averaging 250 gigs a year. He also has recorded 38 albums as a sideman with a variety of jazz artists including Tom Harrell, Freddie Hubbard, Darrell Grant and Cecil Brooks III. Combined with his albums as a leader, that’s an average of five records a year.  He put all those hours in the studio to good use, learning a lot about recording and how to get the sounds he likes.

 Working with great composer/arrangers like Harrell has honed Braden’s composing and arranging talents. He also learned a great deal about arranging for horns from the legendary Golson, who was associate producer on his octet album,  “The Voice of the Saxophone.”  Playing in the sax section and sometimes directing the Mingus Big Band gave him another, freer, perspective on composition and arranging. In addition, turning out music on a regular basis as composer, arranger and music producer for the CBS sitcom, “Cosby,” certainly gave him a lot of practice.

 All this experience has given him the confidence to add pop tunes to his repertoire. For those who might scoff at this foray into pop or cry “heresy” as the critics did with Hubbard, among others, Braden has this to say: “All they have to do is to look at the substance of the music. Each piece is through-composed, with sophisticated arrangements . . . and when you look at it historically, jazz is filled with people who performed the popular music of their day in a jazz style.”

 If his excursion into the pop tune realm is overwhelmingly successful in bringing in a new audience and he has a “hit” on his hands, there’s plenty of precedent for that, too.  “Every single jazz artist that is very famous has had a hit based on a contemporary standard of their own time or a blues tune. . .. people like Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard, John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Houston Person and Etta Jones and Stanley Turrentine,” Braden said. “And once they had that, they could concentrate more on their art.”

 Braden has had more to concentrate on than composing and arranging music. He feels that his growing maturity as an artist goes hand-in-hand with his personal and professional growth.  Since his first album, he has become a husband and a father, an adjunct instructor at William Paterson University, a clinician for Boosey & Hawkes, an endorser for Keilwerth saxophones, and music director of both the Litchfield Summer Jazz Festival Music School and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center Jazz for Teens Program.  And, coming full circle from his teenage days, he now teaches at the Aebersold Jazz Camps!
 What is to come from Don Braden in the next decade?  If his growth as a performer, writer, arranger and producer in the past ten years is any indication, we should expect him to more than fulfill the “promise” so many musicians and critics have heard in his work to date.

Yvonne Tost Ervin - Nov. 2000