Mondays With Morgan: Don Braden (new album ‘Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with Don Braden, a revered tenor saxophonist who has performed with Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Tom Harrell, Art Farmer, and many other leading lights of the music.

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His new album, Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2, was released on 16 June; a purchase link (*) can be found at the bottom of this article.

Don Braden sitting in a chair wearing a white shirt, smiling and holding his saxophone
Don Braden. Photo credit Lindsey Victoria

Black American music is a web: for a practitioner of such, it’s not contrived, nor a stretch, to hop from jazz to blues, from blues to hip-hop, from hip-hop to gospel – et cetera. 

As someone who grew up loving Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire along with jazz heroes from Joe Henderson to John Coltrane, the exceptional tenor saxophonist Don Braden doesn’t pay these genre distinctions any mind. 

That’s partly why, on his new album Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2, he was able to interpolate said luminaries’ offerings – which simultaneously evade and straddle genres – into a straight-ahead jazz format. These include Wonder’s “Bird of Beauty” and “Creepin’”, and EWF’s “Reasons” and “That’s The Way of the World”.

That was the beauty of the project: it’s so logical, in a way,” Braden tells LondonJazz News. “Because it’s part of the African diaspora, in a sense – an African American jazz diaspora.”

As Braden explains, Wonder and EWF – as well as other Black American music greats, like Marvin Gaye – are highly influenced by jazz. “So, it’s a totally logical thing,” the self-proclaimed “proud geek” says. “I’m a super logical guy; I have a systems background. I wrote software for 12 years.”

That being said, the brilliance of Braden is this: he understands when to toggle from the analytical side of his brain to the emotional one. He applies this to the chemistry between him and his accompanists on the album: pianist Art Hirahara, keyboardist Miki Hayama, bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Jeremy Warren, and percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell.

“We all do the work, in terms of focus and conscious implementation of a whole host of specifics – chromatically, rhythmically,” Braden says. “When it comes to playing, that stuff goes out the window and we try to just fly as much as possible.”

Read on for an interview with Braden about the core concepts behind Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2; the genius of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire; and the core idea he wishes to transmit to his listeners: Wow, how fun was that?

Don Braden playing the saxophone wearing a zip-up sweater. Saxophone has ornate detailing
Don Braden. Photo credit Lindsey Victoria

LondonJazz News: How would you characterise the creative path that led you to Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2?

Don Braden: Well, the creative path started with the emotional path. The emotional path is based on growing up here in Kentucky, where I am now with my mom. Mom and Dad are big R&B fans, and big music fans – although not musicians. 

That environment is what set up the emotional connection that I have with Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Minnie Riperton. All those classic singers from the ‘60s and ‘70s, with whom I grew up before I knew what jazz was. 

So, that was all set up by the environment of an African American family in Kentucky back then. The next part of it was the beginnings of my musical adventures, which were in school – like most people, the school band.

Then, the school band pretty efficiently led to a garage band – an actual garage band, like practising in a garage. They were called Stratosphere; that was the first band I played in, other than the school band. 

That was the first instrumental, funky music that I could learn how to play. I was very rudimentary, but I could actually do it, and I had some improvisational verve because I’d already had the joy of practising with the radio. I mentioned all Black bands, but also white bands – the Carpenters, Sonny and Cher, Kansas, Boston, Queen.

Long story short, that led to a few other great bands here in Louisville. Then I met the great Jamey Aebersold, who’s a legendary educator. He lives across the river – like 30 minutes from here. Having access to him opened the door for all the details of jazz, and jazz improvisation.

At that point, I learned about chords and scales, and jazz tunes and jazz players – Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, all those guys. That was all through high school and college and moving to New York and stuff – a lot of things continued to happen.

To fast forward past all the decades in between: in the early ‘90s, when I started making my own albums consistently, I started exploring which pop tunes I could turn into jazz tunes.

LJN: And what were those?

DB: The first one I recorded, I think, was Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’”, which is on my third album, 1994’s After Dark. I happened to put it on my new album – a new, significantly updated version, with the alto flute. So, it’s kind of a full-circle moment.

I recorded some other Stevie Wonder tunes on some other albums. Then, I was thinking, How can I get Earth, Wind & Fire in there? Number one, I love them more than anybody. Number two, how can I package it so it has some kind of artistic or musical focus?

That’s when the Earth Wind and Wonder concept came up. I had enough Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder tunes I’d developed, but I couldn’t put everything into this jazz soup that I was making, so I decided to focus it in Earth Wind and Wonder.

I started recording Earth Wind and Wonder in 2014, finished it in 2017, and released in 2018. So, it’s about a nine-year journey. Now, with Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2, with the band developing more music and getting a vibe, gigs and a certain amount of interest, it’s just continuing to be musically satisfying and an awesome, fun thing to do.

LJN: Tell me about your methodology for stretching these tunes into a straight-ahead jazz context.

DB: I transcribe the whole thing; that’s the first thing. I go from soup to nuts – from the beginning to the end – and look at what’s there in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm, space, what the arrangement is and what the dynamics are. I pay attention to the vocal nuance along the way.

I look at what makes sense with a jazz quartet, what sections might not make sense, and what’s happening in terms of the possibilities for an improvised section. 

The biggest job is where it goes from inspiration to perspiration, as they say – what I do with the harmony and rhythm and vibe of it to make it a jazz tune, as opposed to a pop tune. Because it’s going to be swing, or some other kind of jazz rhythmic environment.

Then, there’s going to be jazz harmony of some sort – some of which is already built in, particularly in a Stevie Wonder tune, but also in Earth, Wind & Fire tunes, the harmony is pretty hip.

To make it the next level of a modern jazz sound, the tunes get a lot of harmonic treatment on my end to give them what I would consider the jazz sound, from my aesthetic – the way I hear music.

The way I hear jazz, and how I want the group to sound. A certain kind of harmonic and rhythmic substance and presence, and kinds of elements that I want to put there.

LJN: I want to bring it back to Stevie and EWF for a second. How would you summarise both artists’ particular genius?

DB: Stevie’s genius manifests itself on several levels. The first is, the man is a brilliant storyteller, so he’s basically able to look at different parts of his life and express these things in a way that touches a lot of us.

“Creepin’” might be a good example. It’s about a haunting woman – a woman who is so incredible that she’s in you, and you’re asking, Why are you creeping into my dreams? What is it about you? I think he means it in a beautiful way.

Number two is his musical creativity. He just has his own voice, and it manifests itself into completely unique-sounding songs. I think of “Village Ghetto Land”; I think of so many of them. Even though you hear James Brown, and a whole bunch of influences – not to mention jazz – he just has his own spin.

Number three: keyboards, drums, bass, harmonica, background vocals, percussion: on a lot of the records, he’s playing all these instruments, and killing it – vibing like it’s not that awesome technique. There’s one more, which is producing – his ability to put together a track and an album.

Those are my four specific things about him that make him arguably one of the greatest musicians ever.

Don Braden sitting and smiling holding his saxophone up to he camera, wearing white shirt and grey waistcoat. Dark wood panelling and windows in the background
Don Braden. Photo credit Lindsey Victoria

LJN: And Earth, Wind & Fire?

DB: Earth, Wind & Fire’s philosophy was and is driven by something that was formulated between Maurice [White] and Philip [Bailey] – and some of the other early members of the band – called “the Concept.” The Concept was the overall philosophy of sending love and positive energy.

Charles Stepney was the main arranger for most of their major hits. His super genius was arranging and producing; he wasn’t much of a player, as far as I know, but he obviously must have played quite solid piano, at the very least, because you can hear it in the music. But he was not an instrumentalist, per se.

But his vision as an arranger – those horn sections [in all their] harmony, form and rhythm. And I transcribed a bunch of it. There are all these nuances of the harmonies and the way the vocals go.

This is Stepney envisioning all this stuff and intermingling it with the idea of the Concept – putting that love and positive energy thing, and yet groove and entertainment, into the music. 

The brilliance of the music that Stepney created – and Maurice and Verdine White and Philip Bailey – is crafting the journey of the band via the Concept, and telling that story and implementing it over decades.

LJN: Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2 is another stop on your long journey. Where is your creative train headed from here?

DB: I see myself, overall, the most like Earth, Wind & Fire. Like a sonar that wants to send out music that energises my fellow humans, and inspires us to use our imagination. That inspires us to look for something new, and enjoy when something new comes at the moment.

Ideally, [people are] going to groove to what I do. We’re all going to groove together. We’re all going to use our imagination together. We’re all going to be surprised together; we’re all going to laugh together. We’re all going to have our emotions energised together.

I know, for myself as a player, I come away and I’m like, Wow, how fun was that? And we can’t wait to do it again. In terms of future records, I want to have those elements of creativity and imagination and swing and dance and love.

Hopefully, people will get their version of that, in a similar way that I get it when I come away from a concert. If I can do that for someone, I think I’ve done my job.

LINK: Purchase Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2

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