Don Braden: Harvard Hipster

Jason Crane By

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Working With Wynton

AAJ: When did you first get introduced to Wynton?

DB: When I was hanging out with the Harpers, Betty Carter became interested in jazz education and in expanding her band a bit. A few things happened at that time. The Harper Brothers and myself became part of Betty's band. [Drummer] Winard was already in the band, and she invited [trumpeter] Philip and I to join. We also made a record with her, Look What I Got (Verve, 1988), which was her first record on Verve. Plus she started her Jazz Ahead program at that same time. Philip Harper and I were the first students. My first gig with Betty Carter was in 1986, and it happened that Wynton Marsalis was there. I had cold-called him in late 1985 when I first got to New York City and said, "Hey man, my name is Don Braden and I'd like to play with you." The reason I did that was because I was bold, and I'd learned that boldness is a highly advantageous way to go, if you want to get somewhere.

AAJ: He's a household name now. Was calling as daunting in 1985 as it would be today?

DB: Wynton was the hottest thing around in 1985. He was super-hot. I had all his records; I knew all of that stuff. This was during college, and my playing level was getting up there. So when I called him, I was able to discuss things intelligently with him. Not that I knew the music on the level that he did, but I was able to have a discussion with him having really checked out his records. And I really thought I could do it. It was a bold thing to do. He was on the cover of Downbeat and selling out places. But it made an impression on him, because he entertained my enthusiasm, which I thought was very generous of him. And when he came to hear me with Betty, I think he could hear that I had some potential.

AAJ: Were you playing with him while you were also playing with Betty?

DB: There was some overlap, but the Betty Carter thing didn't turn into a whole lot of gigs—maybe 10 or 15 or 20. Then I had to tell Betty that I couldn't make any more gigs for a while, because I was going out with Wynton. She understood that, and I was able to rejoin her for a while after I went with Wynton. That's when we did the record. We did sessions from '86 to '88. It came out in 1988.

AAJ: And it won a Grammy. You were with Wynton for about seven months?

DB: Yeah, and that was mostly on the road. We played a few gigs in New York, but it was mostly on the road.

AAJ: Who was in that band then?

DB: It was [bassist] Bob Hurst, [drummer Jeff] "Tain" [Watts], [pianist] Marcus Roberts, and Wynton and myself.

AAJ: So you went out with Wynton for seven months, and then ended up touring the world with guys like drummers Tony Williams and Roy Haynes. Was this because by that time you'd established yourself and it became easier to get work?

DB: I'm not quite sure. I tell my students that the most important thing that helps you get work is general professionalism—competent playing; a good personality, being cool and friendly and not egotistical; showing up on time and looking good; learning the music and memorizing everything—it all goes into it. And the whole thing of networking and meeting folks and building your reputation. All that is really key. You have to bring a lot of energy to everything that you do. And luck is part of it.

It happened that I was with Wynton, and that was a high-profile situation, and I sounded pretty good most of the time. So people thought, "Braden was with Wynton, so he can probably handle Tony Williams' band." And then once I was in that band for a while people thought, "He can probably handle Freddie Hubbard." For example, Tony Williams' manager felt that I could handle Freddie Hubbard's band, and she was the one who called me in February of 1989.

AAJ: And you stayed with him until 1991?

DB: That's right.

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.


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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