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Jazz Saxophonist Don Braden LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

It’s a breezy day for a new installment of the Jazz On a Sunday Afternoon concert series at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts this Sunday Oct. 27, 2018 afternoon. Today’s special 3pm performance is entitled Earth, Wind and Wonder and is presented by jazz saxophonist Don Braden.

Don Braden was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Although there were no musicians in his family, he showed a strong interest in music. As a youngster, his introduction to music came from listening to his parents’ record collection and from listening to the radio.

At the age of 13, Braden started playing tenor saxophone in his middle school band, and at the age of 15, joined his first professional combo, a group which was influenced by such contemporary jazz artists as The Crusaders.

After being introduced to acoustic jazz in high school, Braden went on to be chosen first chair for the McDonald’s All-American High School Jazz Band and the McDonald’s All-American High School Marching Band. He also received a Yamaha Instrument Award, an honor bestowed upon outstanding All-American Band members.

After his acceptance to Harvard University in 1981, Braden divided his time between studying engineering and performing at jazz clubs around the Boston area. He studied briefly with local saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and Bill Pierce, and also began composing, writing, and arranging pieces for several Harvard-based dance, film, and music projects, as well as for his own quartet.

In 1984, Braden moved to New York City where he started playing with Betty Carter, among others. After touring with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet for over seven months, he worked with Betty Carter on her Grammy Award-winning album, Look What I Got.

Following gigs in Europe, Japan, and the Americas with Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, and many others, Braden worked as a member of the Freddie Hubbard Quintet from 1989 to 1991 and, since then, he’s performed with the Mingus Big Band, Kenny Barron, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, as well as with his own groups.

Today, Braden tours the country playing tenor saxophone, flute, and alto flute. He’s also recorded 21 albums, the latest of which is Earth, Wind, and Wonder — a jazz tribute to the music of Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder.

Inside the Grunin Center auditorium, concert producer Sandy Josephson welcomes the crowd and informs them that on March 31, 2019, Alexis Morrast — a 17-year-old singer from New Jersey who admires Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn will perform here, stating, “She’s an up and coming artist — come see her now, because in a few years she’s going to be very big!”

Then, Josephson introduces today’s headliner. Calling him a “titan of tenor sax and a master of flute,” Don Braden takes the stage in the modern Grunin Center auditorium along with his band which features Julian Shore on piano, Kenny Davis on bass, and Jeremy Warren on drums.

Opening with Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy,” the music begins slowly with bowed bass and cymbal flourishes before the main melody kicks in with an upbeat tempo and jazzy swing feel. Braden plays his tenor with a Coltrane-esque flair before Julian Shore takes a lyrical piano solo. The audience applauds for the trio as Braden reenters and plays up, down, and around the melody. Slowing down at the end with piano chords and bass bowing as the quartet rolls to a stop, Braden’s style is smooth yet playful as he embellishes the final notes of this top-notch arrangement.

The audience heartily applauds as Braden and Co. launch into Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Kenny Davis’ bass slides in time to to the sultry tone of Braden’s sax on this sexy swing number. Calm and intriguing, the trio lays back supporting Mr. Braden’s sax solo as he intelligently meanders through the melody. The audience appreciates Shore’s piano solo and Braden’s agile bass solo as drummer Jeremy Warren provides a gentle swirling sound with brushes before changing over to sticks when Braden’s sax re-enters. The musicians smile as they play along, and Braden even shouts “Yeah!” in the midst of playing, obviously having fun himself.

Introducing his next Stevie Wonder-composed song, Braden says, “This song was made famous by Michael Jackson on his Off the Wall album and it’s one of Michael’s Jackson’s jazziest songs. We’re modern-jazzing it all today, so we’re going to let the pianist start and we’ll see where he takes it.”

Here, Julian Shore’s grand piano rolls and sinks softly, setting the mood for Braden who impresses with his flute playing on “I Can’t Help It.” Although opening with a rubato feel, ultimately, the rhythm takes a Latin turn and Braden plays a beautiful solo which elicits applause from the crowd.

Davis plays a solo high on his bass, taking the audience on a musical ride of tone, texture, and dynamics. When Braden re-enters, he plays a happy-go-lucky solo which is followed by Shore’s chording up and down the keyboard, to which Braden responds “Nice!” from the sidelines.

Warren tastefully uses mallets to soften the sound before the melody returns with Braden’s artful flute playing at the conclusion.

Following avid applause, Braden introduces an original song, “The Time We Shared,” from his album, Luminosity. Opening with a tenor sax solo, Braden growls and squeals as he incorporates the total range of his sax, showing his mastery of the instrument on this breezy, bluesy tune. Following a rhythmic Julian Shore piano solo, it’s back to the sax as Warren emphasizes multiple subdivisions of the beat on his drums. An energetic Kenny Davis bass solo has Braden nodding with approval.

The quartet ends the number to large applause and whistles.

A swinging shuffle version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” is up next. Complex and compelling, the arrangement features sax and piano solos, treating jazz lovers in the house to the seasoned mix these talented musicians cook up before their very ears.

Davis solos on his bass with dexterity and Warren switches off between brushes and sticks before the entire group is back together for an ending which inspires huge applause.

A highlight of the afternoon’s concert is Braden’s original composition, “The Elements.” Explaining how “Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder tunes make for really good jazz tunes,” Braden shows how his original piece was constructed by incorporating four themes — “Earth,” “Air,” “Fire,” and “Water” — and he plays them individually on his sax for the audience before launching into the song. Sounding somewhat reminiscent of Coltane’s “Naima,” the four themes are intertwined throughout the composition and embellished as Braden solos. Taking these elements and recombining them to create new compounds, the quartet plays to shifting rhythms while always coming back to the four elemental themes.

Before the piece is through, Jeremy Warren impresses with a drum solo, and pianist Shore smiles as Braden takes the audience on a wild ride with his sax as the crowd responds with whistles and applause.

After Braden asks the audience, “Did you hear the four elements floating throughout the piece?” the crowd responds in the affirmative. Next, he demonstrates his alto flute, sharing its rich, deep sound with the audience before playing Stevie Wonder’s “Visions.” On this slow Latin arrangement which features lovely chordal reharmonizations and complex piano arpeggios, Braden’s alto flute sounds soft and sultry before the feel shifts to swing on the bridge and then back again to Latin. Solos abound and Braden holds out a long note on the alto flute — its vibrato swirling — at the end.

Saying, “I really appreciate you guys!” Braden thanks the audience before playing his final number, Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love.” On this swing version of a funk tune, toes tap on an innovative arrangement which features impressive extended solo runs on sax and piano.

Warren plays a crisp and precise drum solo and the arrangement takes a jazz funk turn before it segues back into a swing number which leaves jazz afficianados on their feet!

As audience members make their way out of the auditorium, we take a moment to chat with Don Braden who says, “This was really fun for us! The Grunin Center is a beautiful place. The people here are so welcoming and warm, and the sound, the stage, and the whole atmosphere is so warm and welcoming, it made it easy to express ourselves.”

When asked about the impetus for creating jazz arrangements of Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder tunes, Braden says, “This music is special to me. I grew up with it — it’s in my DNA — and people connect with it,” before concluding, “It’s an extension of the amazing modern music which lends itself to jazz.”

We also chat with several music lovers in the audience who share their opinions of today’s concert.

Says Fran from Holmdel, “Don Braden was fabulous — I really enjoyed his performance!”

Mike from Toms River remarks, “Don Braden was awesome, fantastic, amazing! All of the musicians are awesome — and I especially loved when he played the alto flute.”

Reverend C. from Toms River comments, “This was an extraordinary concert! I’m 78 years old and I’ve seen jazz in its heyday. Nowadays, it’s the age of the synthesizer and it’s hard to get people to play instruments — you really have to be a purist who loves what you do.”

Don from Toms River calls Braden, “phenomenal,” adding, “he’s a real jazz artist. He’s got a rich full sound, and I loved his improvisation.”

Don’s wife, Elaine, agrees, noting, “This concert was very impressive — I loved it! All I can say is, ‘Just wow!’”

To learn more about Don Braden, please go to donbraden.com. For information on future events at Toms River’s Grunin Center — including Max Weinberg’s Jukebox on November 19, Rockapella on December 13, and Alexis Morrast on March 31, 2019 — please go to grunincenter.org.

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