Favorite Track: All That I Want Least Favorite Track: Virgo
The first time I heard saxophonist Braxton Cook was on Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s 2015 album Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes). His notorious alto saxophone solo on the short interlude track “The Corner” was my introduction into the ever-growing world of modern jazz music. After about four years, I finally started to listen to Braxton’s entire discography, and found that he was even more of an amazing and influential musician than I had originally thought. His 2015 collaboration album, Braxton Cook Meets Butcher Brown, with the garage punk/funk/jazz group Butcher Brown is one of the most groove-sensational and electrifying projects I’ve ever heard. The beginning to my favorite track, “Sao Paulo,” mimics the intro to the legendary Stevie Wonder tune “Boogie on Reggae Woman” before diving into a lively bossa-nova/samba beat, where Braxton takes a well-shaped, insane solo. This album helped launch his career; however, where most artists would try to replicate their best album’s success, Braxton takes it a step further by adding his candied and mystical voice, creating some of the sweetest neo-jazz works of the modern era. His 2017 release Somewhere in Between matched many of the elements that made Braxton Cook Meets Butcher Brown such a powerful project. The instrumentalism and overall tightness of the group, paired with some amazing vocal performances on “Somewhere in Between” and “Never Thought,” opened the paths of Neo-soul, R&B, and Alternative genres for Braxton to venture down and experiment with. Moreover, his piece “Hymn (For Trayvon)” is one of his most passionate, heart-felt instrumental pieces, letting his saxophone do the crying and mourning that so many were feeling after the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. A year later, Braxton released his 2018 work No Doubt, and it was clear that his duality as a vocalist and a saxophonist would continue to grow to unimaginable expertise. I love the progression throughout this album. It’s almost as if Braxton Cook knows to place a sensual, baby-making track like “For More” after an upbeat, airy instrumental jam like “We Major.” After seeing how Braxton reinvents himself after every project, I was eager to see what he would come up with next; sure enough, his thirty-one minute 2020 project Fire Sign satisfied my eagerness. On this release, he embraces his intersectionality across the genres of soul, R&B, and contemporary-pop while still holding a strong emphasis on his jazz vocabulary.
The influences of any given artist are crucially important to their artistic development. Hearing Braxton Cook’s music assures me that his influences are diverse. In terms of his saxophone playing, I hear notary elements from legendary jazz saxophonists. Braxton’s articulation and improvisational ideas remind me a lot of alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and 90’s/early 2000’s tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. His delicate, airy, yet powerful tone compliments Fire Sign’s sentimental songwriting, and when combined with Fire Sign’s astonishing licks, my cravings for jazz proficiency implemented in a modern context is more than fulfilled. With regards to Braxton’s voice, I hear inspiration from neo-soul greats like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, which is especially noticeable in his harmonization dexterity. Braxton’s knowledge of chordal richness is impressive, creating some of the sweetest stacked voice chords on tracks like “Shooting Star'' and “Moonchild.” Not only that, but he also adds some sweet voice riffs that seem to be call-and-response to his saxophone noodling, which is something that D’Angelo is a master at. I also hear elements of Frank Ocean, mostly in his tone and songwriting. Frank generally stays away from rhyming and repetitive lyrics; however, Braxton’s improvisational instrumentalism and lyricism relates to Frank’s experimentalism with sound, lyrics, and overall emotional persistence. It is truly amazing to see Braxton combine and compose certain qualities from masterful artists of the past and present, creating a hybrid new world of music for listeners to relish in.
To no surprise, I am absolutely astounded by Braxton Cook’s multi-instrumental virtuosity on Fire Sign. In previous works, he has been great at switching between saxophone and vocals; however, I always felt a bit of disconnectivity, as if he wasn't truly embracing the status of the frontman. Music is full of artists who are both vocalists and instrumentalists, which is a tough role to fill considering the skill it takes to maintain authority and authenticity on both fronts. Fire Sign presents Braxton’s freedom and strength in gracefully transitioning between being the vocalist and saxophonist, supporting one distinct but similar form of expression with the other. The track “All That I Want” is a great example. Braxton begins with an amazing vocal performance, singing about his devotion, hope, and love to who I assume is his newlywed wife. The chorus recites “You’re all that I want, all that I need/All that I hope for, all that I see,” and his killin’ saxophone solo, filled with sensual lines and formidable phrasing/shaping, models those exact feelings in a passionate way. The opener “Moonchild” begins with audio from the Discovery space shuttle launch, where Braxton alludes to the adventure by beginning the first verse with “Lady, let me take your hand, and take you to uncharted lands,” painting an image of Braxton and his newlywed floating through the cosmos as stars whiz by. Between some of the phrases, you can hear some soft, suppressed saxophone noodling, complimenting the overall sensitivity in the song and being a prime opening example of Braxton’s outstanding multi-instrumentalism.
Fire Sign has some of the most emotional songwriting that I have seen from the up-and-coming star, which could be due to his relatively new marriage to his wife. Needless to say, it works for Braxton, creating an album that gives people the warm feeling of love and belonging in these gloomy and depressing times. “Shooting Star” is definitely the highlight in terms of Fire Sign’s emotion-inducing music. The instrumental, made up of long-tone saxophone and voice chord tones, suppressed saxophone riffs, a strong bass guitar, and a tight groove on the drums, really supports Braxton’s voice, perfectly tailoring to his sensuality while still creating a full, atmospheric soundscape for listeners to completely vibe out too. Fire Sign also includes a reprise to this masterful track, featuring Braxton on saxophone paired with what sounds like an EFX pedal. It’s also interesting that he would include this at the end of the album, following the instrumental track “Virgo.” It is almost as if Braxton wants to reintroduce those emotions and feelings that “Shooting Star” presented before ending the project, which is an effective element to the entire album's dynamism. Emotional songwriting doesn’t pertain solely to feelings of love; the track “Don’t Wanna See You” is quite the opposite. He mentions in this song how at first he did want this specific girl, saying that she “had something special,” but soon realized that the thing they had “can’t be defined.” Moreover, the track seems to be an instance of growth for Braxton, stating how good he is doing without her by his side and singing “I don’t wanna see you, no more/I don’t wanna see you in my dreams no more.” Following this song with “The Rise” is a testimony of his production, knowing exactly where to place certain tracks to keep the flow and story going. This track builds on the growth established from “Don’t Wanna See You,” showing how that his time with his true heart’s desire has finally come, and how the two of them are “on the rise.” The level of honesty and maturity that Fire Sign is written with explains why Braxton has made such a breakthrough with his songwriting, and hopefully, he will continue on that path in the future.
It is no surprise that Fire Sign has been my favorite 2020 release. Braxton Cook has always been one of the most influential and inspiring musicians in my life, and for him to release music that appeals to all my different musical genre obsessions shows that I can too. As I discussed, musician influence in this profession is such an important role in the development of tone, vocabulary, and overall enjoyment. Listening to Braxton release re-inventive projects, going in par with his relationship status over the years, I gain more of an understanding on how I can shape my musical progression and how I can create music that showcases my many passions, both musically and ethically.