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Standard Bearer

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Mouth Almighty: Don Braden peppers selections from the classic jazz songbook with youthful brio.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/6/2002

Don Braden

Don Braden


From the opening notes of a solo saxophone prelude that set up a surprisingly swinging version of Johnny Mercer and James Van Heusen's "I Thought About You," Don Braden laid the groundwork for his three-set stop in Baltimore at the Caton Castle. Joined by Maryland jazz players Allyn Johnson on piano, Gavin Fallow on bass, and Lenny Robinson on drums, Braden eased into the strolling melody and delivered a carefully constructed solo that kept to the midrange of his tenor sax's register and displayed adept command of hard-bop phrasings. For the rest of the evening, he'd flirt with standards from jazz's songbook but pepper them with enough youthful brio to give them a refreshing waft of contemporary flair.

On the surface, the 38-year-old New York player sounds a bit conservative. He's got a warm, bright tone that makes you think of the straight-ahead punch of Dexter Gordon. But Braden shies away from vibrato or reedy timbres and his bubbly, plucky solo phrasings immediately bring to mind Cannonball Adderley. The influence is right there on his sound's sleeve, making you think he's a more than a bit derivative.

What may sound imitative at first, though, is actually a rather charming approach to jazz's staunch neo-modernist outlook these days. It's a quality best represented in Braden's choice of songs and his adaptation of them. He sounds at ease with undisputed classics; the quartet confidently handled Erroll Garner's lovely "Misty" and Sigmund Romberg's "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," performing them with an attentive reverence. But Braden also opted for some lesser-known sparklers, such as Antonio Carlos Jobim's 1967 "Wave," with its bossa-nova-propelled beat and clean, lean melody.

His most telling choice, however, was a powerful take on "The Closer I Get to You." Written by percussionist Mtume and guitarist Reggie Lucas, who met while touring with the Dark Magus-era Miles Davis band, the song was a 1978 top-10 single for Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. Braden included it on his 2000 album Contemporary Standards Ensemble (Double Time Jazz), on which he tackled other pop songs from the 1970s.

Jazz musicians have always enjoyed expressing popular music in their own idiom, but since the rise of hard-line neo-modernism in the early 1980s, toying with pop music outside the midcentury songbook has been frowned upon--and not without good reason. (Some people are still trying to forget Miles Davis' take on Scritti Politti's "Perfect Way" on 1986's Tutu.) But younger jazz musicians grew up surrounded by pop music that reflected a different time period and sound, and in that light Braden's choice of '70s R&B soul hits is quite poignant.

The memorable melody of the Mtume/ Lucas song's chorus serves as a launching pad for Braden's reflective version. And though he favors the tenor's velvety middle ground, when Braden does dig deep or push it into the squealing peals--as he did on "Closer"--it serves as punctuating reminder of his disciplined approach. He can go the dissonant route, but he chooses to use that vocabulary sparingly, injecting the classics with sparks of modernity without completely abandoning their melodic sensibility.

Helping him spice things up was the vigorous playing of the backing band. Johnson, behind the electric piano, was the most instantly startling. (Here's a wish to see him behind an acoustic piano sometime soon.) An energetic player with a seemingly endless well of resources to tap into, Johnson's solos were almost too heavily chromatic, exploiting his speed and two-hand coordination. He loves wide chords and extended, acrobatic notes runs that are dramatic without being flamboyant. Johnson comes close to drowning you with notes at times, layering idea on top of idea like a postmodern novelist. But he always leaves you a little breathing space somewhere in there.

Bassist Fallow is less flashy but no less impressive. He's got a levelheaded sense of rhythm, and he's equally comfortable in skipping swing time and at relaxed ballad pace. His bowed solo in the impromptu and extemporaneously named "Caton Castle Blues" was that rarity of rarities--a bass solo you wished went on longer.

Tucked away behind a package-goods storefront in West Baltimore, the Caton Castle is one of many jazz clubs in Baltimore that you're not going to come across accidentally. Its schedule (and that of most of Mobtown's other jazz clubs, for that matter), can be found on www.baltimorejazz. com. The shows start a bit early (5 p.m.) and only happen on the weekends. But with dinner included in the price of admission and a comfortably cozy performance space, there are far, far worse ways to spend a weekend afternoon into evening.

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