If tenor saxophonist Don Braden can be called a neo-traditionalist, it isn’t only because he is one of the recognized team members in the retro movement led by Wynton Marsalis since the 1980s (having replaced Branford Marsalis in Wynton’s band). Braden’s traditionalism is also apparent in his playing on this quartet date, which combines seven standards with three originals. His solos can be imaginative, but he has a tendency, when he’s about halfway through an improvisation, to find a way to work back to the basic melody of a song, just for a brief restatement, as if to remind listeners that it’s the composition that counts, not the soloist.
That tendency is consistent with the warmth with which he plays the melodies at the outset. There is an obvious affection for the music as written. When he plays “Secret Love,” it sounds like a rendition that could have been performed any time since the song was a hit in the ’50s. You can’t say that about “Never Can Say Goodbye,” the ’70s hit by the Jackson 5, but Braden wisely recognizes the swinging potential in a tune that sounded old and familiar even when it was new. He can be just as warm on an original ballad, as he is on the title tune, although he can in a few bars demonstrate his technical ability, delivering a flourish of notes up and down his horn that can leave the listener, if not the player, breathless.
Among Braden’s accompanists, pianist George Colligan and bassist Joris Teepe get occasional space to express themselves, Teepe particularly in two duo performances with Braden, the original “The Hunter” and “My Foolish Heart,” which finds Braden switching to alto flute. (Drummer Cecil Brooks III makes a less obvious additional contribution; he produced the album.) “My Foolish Heart” is a delicate palate cleanser after the assertive original “Two of a Kind,” providing a transition to Braden’s closing tribute to a hard bop progenitor in Lee Morgan’s “Speed Ball.” This is an album on which Braden makes the neo-traditionalist case that the music he has studied and loved remains viable, and that a younger musician can still find new things to say with it.