Interview: Braxton Cook \\ How Julliard left me Somewhere in Between
In 2017, Braxton Cook transitioned from sideman to frontman with the release of his jazz and R&B tinged album Somewhere In Between, released on Fresh Selects. He stepped forward not only as a saxophonist but as a vocalist, too, bringing serious groove into his songwriting.
Based in New York, Cook is a also member of Christian Scott’s band. This year however saw him touring Internationally as an artist in his own right for the first time, hitting Japan and the UK.
Following his debut London show at Camden Assembly, we ask Braxton Cook to reflect on the success of his debut, his writing process, and his love/hate relationship with Juilliard.
\\ Paint us a picture as to how you got into music and became a saxophonist.
I grew up in a pretty musical household. Neither of my parents were professional musicians but my mother played classical piano during her high school years. Both of my parents appreciated music a great deal and raised me and my brothers on soul music of their day. I always gravitated towards horns even when listening to Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, or some Motown tracks. I would remember the sax solos and horn parts more than the lyrics.
“[Julliard] became less about fun but more about grades, juries, technique and harmony”
I like to think I was born to play the sax. I remember one day my mother rented my dad an alto saxophone for his birthday and he would practice it in the basement in his free time. Well, one day he let each one of my brothers come and try the horn. When it was my turn to try it out I remember not only getting a note out but a decent tone. My dad was shocked because most kids would either squeak or not get a sound out at all because of a lack of muscle in the embouchure. From that point on I was always attracted to the saxophone. I have my parents to thank for all of this.
\\ How has the New York scene informed your playing?
The New York jazz scene is like no other. It’s where the music really developed and progressed into one of America’s greatest art forms. So there is a lot of history here. I always wanted to move here and be amongst some of the world’s greatest musicians. So when I got accepted to Juilliard in 2011 I was super excited. I remember moving to the city and hitting as many jam sessions as possible. I went to Smalls Jazz Club, Dizzy’s Club, Cleopatra’s Needle, Zinc Bar, Fat Cat and many other clubs to sit in and play amongst peers. This really pushes you to grow quickly.
The D.C. scene, where I’m from, was a great stepping stone that got me ready for New York, in that I got a lot of performing experience at a young age. However, the level of individual players in NYC pushed me to a higher level on my instrument. The stuff that 18 year old alto saxophone players were doing was just mind-blowing. It made me want to practice. It still makes me want to practice.
\\ Doing a bit of internet stalking, your merch includes ‘F*CK JULLIARD’ shirts. What’s that all about?
Juilliard and I have a sort of love/hate relationship that one might have with a family member. I learned a lot from my time there and my time in NYC. However, personally, I went through some turmoil. I remember in my second year I struggled a lot with whether I wanted to continue playing music. The school seemed to be sucking the joy out of this music for me. I had never experienced this before where it really became less about fun but more about grades, juries, technique and harmony. It seemed soul, feeling and emotion were qualities that fell at the bottom of the totem pole as far as priorities amongst the Jazz community.
My career outside of school was just starting because I joined Christian Scott’s band that year. Something I was quite proud of served as a much needed cathartic release from the pressures of school. The atmosphere amongst the student body at that time was one where I felt like I didn’t fit in. The student body didn’t seem to have same values that I did and they would look down on my musical choices rather than embrace or celebrate them. In addition, I was one maybe five black students in the jazz program at the time so I felt very alone in a lot of ways. These are the personal emotions that spawned my composition FJYD.
“The most important words of advice that Christian [Scott] told me was to always have the ability to say no”
After graduating and self-reflecting on my years at school, FJYD has taken on a more symbolic meaning. I realise now that jazz is an art form about freedom and self expression; one that is very difficult to teach, particularly in such an elite institution such as Juilliard. The institutionalisation of Jazz ultimately sucks the sweetness out of the art form I had grown to love and nearly changed my course. The true essence of jazz existing at Juilliard just doesn’t work…
\\ What have you learnt from working with Christian Scott?
I’ve learned a lot during my time in Christian’s band, mostly surrounding the music business. I’ve learned a lot about branding, marketing, and the nuts and bolts about touring, recording and releasing an album—I mean the list goes on and on. Most of our conversations on tour were about business and it made me more aware of all the moving pieces happening behind the music; that was the most helpful information I learned that I apply to my own career.
I learned a great deal on the band-stand and in the studio as well. The most important words of advice that Christian told me was to always have the ability to say no. What he means is to remember to have enough things going for yourself so that as an artist you have agency in the decisions you make for your career. For example, many artists are financially confined to a certain gig and lifestyle and feel obligated to accept it because they have no financial freedom. I always remind myself of this. I think to myself; ‘how I can add value to any situation that I’m in and how can I be in a position of leverage so that I can only do the gigs that I want to do and make the deals that I want to do?’. This takes strategy and planning but it’s worth thinking about. It’s easy to say yes to everything that comes your way and lose sight of your vision.
\\ If you could have any artist cover one of your songs, what song would it be and who would you choose?
Because my music is half instrumental and half vocal I have to pick two; I would love to hear Kenny Garrett cover my song Hymn—he would slay it! Then I would love to hear Daniel Caesar cover a song. I feel like if he heard my music he would get it. We have a similar background and laid temperament. I’d like to hear him sing the title track Somewhere in Between.
\\ Your previous album ‘Braxton Cook meets Butcher Brown’ was instrumental. What inspired the change to songs with vocals, and have you always sung?
My songwriting process always started with me singing the melodies and writing more lyrics. Maybe that‘s why they sound so catchy. I sang a melody and wrote lyrics to most songs on the Butcher Brown project. I always sang growing up as well. I used to sing in chorus, church and did musical theatre but took a long break from singing publicly during my high school and college years while I was focusing on saxophone. When creating Somewhere in Between I wanted to get back to all the sounds and things that first brought me to music and ultimately jazz. I grew up on soul, R&B, pop and other styles. So when creating the demos for this project I decided to sing as to get closer to my whole self artistically. That is what Somewhere in Between is about; there is going to be self-doubt and fear and all of that stuff—but power through it when your gut tells you to. That’s real courage.
\\ Your album’s title track ‘Somewhere in Between’ is about being torn between two loves. Tell us more?
Funny, the title of this album has evolved to mean so many things. The subject matter of many of the vocal songs such Run Away, Never Thought or I Can’t are about my girlfriend and music. I’m sure many musicians can relate, but finding a balance between music and your significant other can be tough. I was used to practicing five to eight hours a day and with a girlfriend that can be difficult. I can only speak for myself, but I can be very selfish at times. I always put my music first but to fall in love with someone and try to find a balance between the two can be tough. That’s the feeling I tried to convey in these songs. They could be about my girl or music. Sometimes it’s interchangeable.
Another meaning of the name Somewhere in Between is how I mixed this project. I previously released two other projects called Sketch (2014) and Braxton Cook Meets Butcher Brown (2015) and I literally picked songs from each album and tried to create one cohesive project. Then I used both of those albums as a starting place to mix Somewhere in Between. The most obvious meaning for the title, I think, is in the genre. I wanted to make a jazz crossover album that incorporated some R&B elements, some funk elements, some indie elements, and pop elements.
\\ Tell us more about the writing and production process behind your solo debut?
I first went to a cheap studio in Jersey in October of 2015 to record some demos of the instrumental tracks. I wanted to get an idea of how the band sounded, how I sounded and which songs I wanted to be on the project. Then in early 2016 I spent that time writing and producing the other vocal songs in Logic. I wrote maybe ten songs and only half of them made the final cut. I spent March arranging the order and getting feedback from other artists about how this album should flow. It was tough to get an order together at first because—at least to my ears—to introduce vocals for some songs and then suddenly for there to be no vocals for like 15 minutes was like ‘woah’. But I figured post-production would help smooth this over. So I picked an order that I was happy with and planned out my two days in the studio. We ran through everything smoothly and after that I just chilled with the tracks from the album for a few months before mixing.
\\ What does ‘Hymn – For Trayvon’ mean to you? Do you feel that musicians—especially black musicians—have a duty to address political issues?
I have three brothers and when you see a case like Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice in the news (or so many other young black boys killed by the hands of police officers) it really hits home. As a human I feel that fear and as an artist I share that vulnerability. Also I believe a jazz artist should be aware of what’s happing in our communities and in the world. I understand that everyone processes things differently. Not everyone wants to express themselves that way. However, I know that music is my gift and it reaches the most people so I should used it for good. Plus every jazz artist I ever really loved and looked up to such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Duke Ellington took a stance on these social issues that plagued our black community.
\\ Tell us about your 2017 highlights and where you’re heading this year?
Everything this year has felt like a milestone. Releasing my album was definitely a highlight! My first West Coast and East Coast tours were highlights. Then going to Japan and London as a leader—mind blown. Everything I dreamed of… as a sideman, a huge highlight was playing with Christian McBride—he’s the man! I also recorded horns for Logic’s new album—I’m excited for that to drop. And I believe I was on some HBO show called The Deuce. It’s a dope show!
I’ve already started writing a bunch of songs for the next project. I want to dig a little deeper with this concept that I’m developing. I’d also like to collaborate more. So I’m open to writing for other artists as well…
EZH | Jelly Cleaver