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Don Braden: Harvard Hipster

By Published: January 22, 2007
The Time Is Now

AAJ: When did you record you first record, The Time Is Now (Criss Cross, 1991)?

DB: About a year before I left Freddie, I got approached by Criss Cross. Someone had canceled and they had the date available, and they'd been hearing about me—maybe from [pianist] Benny Green. He'd already recorded a record for Criss Cross, and he and I were in Freddie's band together. So when Criss Cross approached me, I had a week to get the session together. The first band I was in with Freddie was [drummer] Carl Allen, [bassist] Christian McBride, Benny Green, myself and Hub. My first record had Benny, Carl, Christian, and then Benny recommended [trumpeter] Tom Harrell, who I didn't know at the time. I knew who he was, of course, but I didn't know him. So they pulled him in and he was killin,' naturally. We had a rehearsal and then did the date in a day.

AAJ: What was the music on that first record?

DB: A combination of my music and then some standards. I did an arrangement of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise." I did "Butterfly," which is a Herbie Hancock tune. We did several originals—most of them came from my college days. And I wrote some newer things, including "The Time Is Now," which became the title of the record. I'd written one suite when I was in college, a suite about the stars that had a theme associated with each planet. I borrowed from that. The vibe was similar to the Freddy Hubbard vibe, because that's what that group had been doing. So it was that kind of modern sound and language.

AAJ: When was the last time you listened to that record?

DB: It's been a while, now that I think about it. Of course, back in those days I listened to it quite a lot, but it might have been five years now.

AAJ: Some people can't listen to their own stuff and some can.

DB: I love to listen to my stuff, because it was a great learning experience, and it makes me feel good. Not everything about it makes me feel good, but you know... [laughs] At the time I started recording, I was 27 or 28, so I'd been through the insecurities that I faced in Wynton's band and the insecurities that I faced going through Tony's band. By the time I got to Freddie Hubbard's band, I'd worked through the bulk of the major issues. By the time I started recording, I was pretty listenable. The stuff before that, the demos—even those were okay, because I'd listened so much to the masters and I was around so many serious cats that I was lucky. It was never painful to listen to.

AAJ: When did you start to step out as a leader?

DB: It took a while. The first serious runs were in the middle '90s, after I'd done a few records. When I got signed to RCA, I was able to work with my octet a little bit, and I'd done quite a number of quartet gigs. When I had a number of records out, I was able to land gigs, even if I was just a single act with a rhythm section. I did quite a few tours in Europe in the middle '90s with bassist Joris Teepe, a longtime partner of mine. We did a lot of tours in Holland starting in about '93 or so. My octet was the first band at the Jazz Standard [in NYC] when that opened. I worked at the Iridium a number of times.

The Octet Is Born

AAJ: Why did you put together the octet, and what were the financial realities of getting work?

DB: I wasn't able to keep it working that much because of those financial realities, especially with some of those names in there. The octet sound—the sound of all those horns—was something I really got into back in that period, and I'm getting back into it now. I love all the harmony. That's really one of my favorite things about music, the harmony, both in terms of blends and also in terms of chord progressions. I'm a big fan of big bands. I love all kinds of harmonies, which is interesting because I'm also a fan of open improvisation, which is a whole different thing.

My records had been adding more horns every time. My first record was a quintet, my second was a sextet, and my third, After Dark (Criss Cross, 1993) was a septet—four horns and a rhythm section. That record has strong writing based on the harmony of the horns and the chord progressions of the tunes. It reflects a big part of what makes my wheels turn and what gets my juices flowing.

The octet was the next logical step to get further and further into harmony. I worked two solid months on writing that record [The Voice Of The Saxophone (RCA, 1997)], working 12 hours a day. I'd play the saxophone for a couple hours in the morning, then I'd hit the computer and the keyboard and write for the rest of the day. That was before I had my daughter, so I wrote all day and hung out with my wife for a minute and practiced, and that was the cycle for about two months. It was a tremendous learning experience, and the joy of being in the octet and hearing it around me was tremendous. But it was just too expensive for plane tickets and hotel rooms, and my career wasn't to the point where I could pull in the kind of money to keep that going regularly.

AAJ: You found what seems to be a little more common way to fund that project, which is a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation and Chamber Music America.

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