Braxton Cook: Among Friends

The saxophonist on coming up in the D.C. scene and balancing his jazz and R&B influences

Braxton Cook (photo by Ronald Stewart)
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In 2014, then 23-year-old Braxton Cook released the Sketch EP: a 30-minute debut featuring the kind of progressive acoustic jazz one might expect to hear from a recent Juilliard grad most recognized as the alto saxophonist in trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s band. The next year, however, he threw those expectations to the curb with Braxton Cook Meets Butcher Brown, a collaboration with the electrified funk-soul band from Richmond, Va.

“I knew that having gone to Juilliard and made Sketch, people would be expecting more of a straight-ahead modern album next,” Cook says. “I really wanted to make sure that I put out that Butcher Brown album to show my influences—my first loves are Hank Crawford and Grover Washington—and show the direction I’m going. It was kind of a strategic thing, where I’m going to play some modern stuff I like, and some of that groove stuff I like, and show off who I am.”

Cook’s new full-length album, then, can be summarized by its title, Somewhere in Between. Indeed, the album combines the harmonic and improvisatory trajectory of Sketch with the soulful grooves of Butcher Brown—and adds in smooth R&B vocals by Cook himself, with accompaniment by Lauren Desberg. He wrote the music and lyrics and produced the album—again with a blend of both approaches. “There’s a sweetness to the horns and to some of the vocals,” Cook says. “But I used some of the same postproduction techniques I’d used on Butcher Brown: a lot of compression on the drums; a more rugged, kinda distorted vibe.”

That’s quite an evolution for a kid who grew up on bebop in the Washington, D.C. area. Cook was raised in Silver Spring, Md., and listened to soul and gospel music as well as jazz. But it was Paul Carr, a tenor saxophonist and educator with a long list of mentorships in D.C., who set the 15-year-old Cook on the path to becoming a professional jazz musician. Under Carr’s tutelage, he nailed an audition for the all-county public-school band in Montgomery County, then made Maryland’s all-state band. From there he went national: the 2009 Grammy Jazz Ensemble, the Vail Jazz Workshop. The following year, as a freshman at Georgetown University, he won the silver medal at the YoungArts Foundation’s arts competition.

Cook had applied to several music schools, but went to Georgetown because it was tuition-free; his father was a law professor there. It didn’t slow down his musical education, however, as D.C. was in the midst of a new golden age of jazz. “It was really popping. U Street was everything!” he recalls. “From Bohemian Caverns, to Café Nema, to Utopia, all those clubs that were right there. I couldn’t drink or get in, but I was outside, checking out the Young Lions [a D.C.-based piano trio], or the Jolley Twins, and they would just let me play. They let me sit in when I could. And you couldn’t get that anywhere—you can’t get that now, even in New York!”

In his junior year, on the advice of a friend, bassist Joshua Crumbly, Cook transferred to Juilliard in New York, and shortly thereafter, Christian Scott heard him play. Scott set him up with a gig for a local TV show, then invited him to sit in with his band at the Blue Note. “And then I started getting e-mails from his manager, talkin’ ’bout, ‘Are you free for November? We’re going to Europe!’ And that’s really how it all started.”

“I told myself I’d never play with another alto player, but upon hearing [Braxton] the first time, I knew I had to have his voice in our sound,” Scott says. “I knew I was going to have to adjust the music for his voice. He is an incredibly creative and acrobatic player.”

It was Scott who urged Cook and his bandmates—including drummer Corey Fonville, a founding member of Butcher Brown—to find and to fight for their own musical vision. He told them stories of his own beginnings, and not only encouraged them to follow suit but demanded it.

Soon enough, Cook had a solid set of original compositions, and, per Scott’s guidance, he simply called up Fonville, keyboardist Samora Pinderhughes and bassist Chris Smith to record them. The rest is history.

Pinderhughes appears on one track on Somewhere in Between; the remainder is filled out with Cook’s Juilliard buddies: Crumbly, pianist Mathis Picard, guitarist Andrew Renfroe and drummer Jonathan Pinson. It was very important to Cook that he use his friends, even at the sacrifice of the usual top-call New York musicians. “I look around and—no shame on anyone, but I look around and it’s the same rhythm section on every band!” he says. “I didn’t want to call the cats that everyone calls, the baddest people that you don’t even know. Just call your friends!

“I think there’s something special and intrinsically unique in doing that, as opposed to hiring people who are already set in their ways. I wanted to build something unique.”