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Don Braden: Harvard Hipster

By Published: January 22, 2007

AAJ: Let's talk about your most recent album, Workin' (HighNote, 2006). It was recorded at a really fantastic club called Cecil's, which is owned by your friend and musical partner, drummer Cecil Brooks III. Will you talk about the club and then talk about the new record?

DB: Cecil's is great. It's in its third year now. I can remember when Cecil and I were sitting in Connecticut at the Litchfield Summer Jazz Camp, which I run, and we were talking and he said, "Man, I'm going to start a jazz club." And when he says something with that level of seriousness, that means he's going to do it. I've known him long enough now to know that he does what he says he's going to do. And sure enough, he was able to pull it off. I helped him a bit at the beginning on a few different levels, both physically and financially, just to help get things going. I ran cables and the whole drill, as a number of us did. The main thing about Cecil's is that he's configured it as a place where musicians can be openly creative. That's what his objective is.

AAJ: Not only does he own and run the club, but he's also the drummer on Workin'.

DB: He's been my drummer for years. He's on five or six of my records now. He's been working with me since the octet days, and he made some of those tours in Holland. We have quite a long history of recording and gigs together. He's made a lot of gigs with me in Spain, Germany, Holland and the United States. He's also been my record producer over the years, and he hooked me up with HighNote, my current label. He's been an influence and artistic collaborator, both musically and as a friend and with the club.

AAJ: And he's killin' as a drummer.

DB: He's a great all-around musician and businessman. I've learned a lot from him. The new record was recorded live at Cecil's. We formed the Organic Trio there, and I did a lot of gigs there with the group. This is a documentation of one of our gigs, of us doing our thing.

AAJ: Talk about organist Kyle Koehler.

DB: Kyle's from Philadelphia. He's been working with Lou Donaldson. That's been his main gig for a number of years. He also subs for Dr. Lonnie Smith on various gigs. He's worked with Dave Stryker—lots of different things. He's one of the "on call" organ players. He's really developed his sense of harmony, which is one of the great things for me. Most jazz organ players are not really versed in the language of modern jazz harmony. They can do it, but they're not comfortable. It took Kyle a little bit of time, but after a pretty short time he managed to get into it. It's been four years now, and he's really gotten into my compositions and the way I write. That's worked out well. I assume it's helped him in terms of his own sense of breadth, but in terms of my gigs, he's gotten to the point where he can be extremely effective. There aren't that many organ players that can do that.

AAJ: Why an organ trio?

DB: I'm not sure. It's just something that evolved naturally. We'd said, "Let's try this." Then it was, "Hey, this feels great." So we did it some more, and four years later, we're still doing it. It just so happens that we formed a trio. It works musically and it works financially or practically because it's a small group and it's easy to move around with it. It kind of happened without my even realizing it.

AAJ: Is it true at all to say that this group gives you a chance to dig back into some of that music that was on the radio when you were first figuring out how to play the saxophone? The new record opens up with an Earth, Wind & Fire track.

DB: No question. Although the organ sound per se doesn't really inspire that—it has more to do with my own desire to do that music. I've been touching on various pop tunes over the years—Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan. I've recorded a couple Stevie Wonder tunes.

AAJ: You did a whole album based around contemporary standards [Contemporary Standards Ensemble (Double-Time, 2000)].

DB: That's correct—Steely Dan and those kinds of things. That's part of my history. So this is a full-circle thing, but the organ trio is not necessarily the catalyst. It just so happens that this particular group gives rise to a certain approach to that music, but that music is in my vocabulary. It's in my heart and my soul. It's right in my very foundation. To me, those are my standards. Earth, Wind & Fire; Stevie Wonder; Brothers Johnson; Steely Dan—that really is my era. That's the music I'm looking to express myself with. However I can adapt that for organ trio, I do.

AAJ: One thing that jumped out at me about this record is that it's really well recorded. And I noticed that it's engineered and mastered by some guy named Don Braden. You should keep using him.

DB: Right. [laughs]

AAJ: One of the places where that most comes through is on your tune "She's On Her Way." The clarity of the sound allows every piece of the emotion to come through. It must have been a great experience for folks in the club.

DB: One thing I learned years and years ago from Tony Williams and Freddie Hubbard is the real necessity of emotional honesty. Tony and Freddie just put their hearts out there. All of them did—Betty Carter, Roy Haynes. So I've really prioritized that. On The Fire Within (RCA, 1999), I really synchronized myself with my emotionality. I was really acknowledging my emotions and saying, "Whatever is within me, let it come out." By the time I got to a live performance of "She's On Her Way," which is for my daughter, that part of it takes care of itself for me.

As an engineer, I still have tons of gear in my house—analog gear, tons and tons of tapes, digital gear. I've been through the process, recording projects of many types, so I can bring that experience as well. I bring all that to what I do, and I spend a lot of hours trying to preserve and express—from an audio standpoint—that sense of vibrancy that we get when we play. That's the beauty of having control of my own mixing and mastering. Plus I have a mentor, Paul Wycliffe, who's one of the greatest engineers on the planet. And I have Tommy Tedesco, who owns a recording studio in Paramus, New Jersey. So I have the help of a couple professional engineers.

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