October 23, 2003

The Secret Garden Checks Out Rick Braun In Boston

Boston is a strange city in many ways. Not only does it boast a baseball team that is allegedly cursed never again to win a major trophy it is also one of the few cities not do have a dedicated smooth jazz radio station. Despite one recent failed attempt Boston is a smooth jazz dry city making it that much more difficult to find the promotion to attract the sort of live acts that cities like Chicago routinely do.

Consequently such events are joys to savour and one such tasty morsel came along on September 22 with the appearance of Rick Braun at the intimate Scullers Jazz Club.

coverDespite the fact that it was already heavily charting in the smooth jazz listings, Braun was on the road to promote his latest CD release Esperanto and to the crowd who packed out Scullers he was quite simply sensational. While the genre groans with saxophone overload top notch trumpet players remain uncommon and that perhaps is one of the reasons why Braun has created his own exclusive niche on the smooth jazz scene. Another reason is that Braun is one of those live performers who possess real star quality and this asset was evident in spade fulls that night in Boston.

With a tight band that included the excellent Mitch Forman on keyboards Braun showcased Esperanto his long-anticipated follow-up to the 2001 Warner Bros. Records debut Kisses In The Rain. The album is a wistful reference to a language created in the late 19th century by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, who used the pseudonym ‘Dr. Esperanto’ to facilitate communication between people of different lands and cultures. Braun is on hand here with the message that music is truly the transcendent universal language.

A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, trumpeter Rick Braun first surfaced as a member of the jazz-fusion outfit Auracle, formed while he was a student at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. After two LPs the group disbanded and Braun turned to songwriting. He scored a hit for REO Speedwagon with ‘Here with Me’; but in time directed his focus to contemporary jazz, releasing his solo debut Intimate Secrets in 1993.

Yet Rick's initial move to contemporary jazz came about by accident. He travelled to Toronto to try and get an audience for several of his demo tapes. One music publisher who listened to Rick's instrumentals suggested that he contact Mesa - Bluemoon, whose main offices were only two miles from his home in Studio City.

coverAfter touring with Sade on her Love Deluxe tour, he was back in the studio in 1994 with Night Walks as well as the seasonal release Christmas Present. The Sade influence hangs heavy on Night Walks that has been likened to listening to Sade instrumentally.

His popularity was on the up curve with his 1995 Beat Street the influence for which Braun attributes to his days in the 80’s touring with the band War. A year later came Body and Soul, that launched the NAC chart-topper ‘Notorious’ and topped the contemporary jazz charts for no less than 13 consecutive weeks. His next release Full Stride, topped the charts for 20 weeks, and his numerous collaborations with artists Richard Elliot, Brian Bromberg, Chris Standring, Jeff Golub, Peter White and 3rd Force led to multiple No. 1 records.

Already a two-time winner of the Gavin Report's smooth jazz artist of the year award, he returned in 1998 with South Of Midnight. A more recent highpoint was his collaboration with Boney James on the 2000 release Shake It Up that helped the two of them perform to audiences in the United Kingdom. Kisses in the Rain followed a year later.

Braun’s pedigree is impeccable having worked as a side man on tour with such rock and pop stars as Rickie Lee Jones, Sade, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Glenn Frey, Natalie Cole, Tom Petty, Crowded House, Phoebe Snow and of course, War.

coverIn his colourful liner notes for Esperanto, Braun conveys the album's distinctive Euro-vibe influences with images of folks from various European countries sitting on an Italian portico, speaking different languages amongst themselves. Wafting over the conversations from inside the house is the music of Miles Davis, one of Braun's idols. ‘The idea is that music is a link between these people of varied backgrounds, a healing force that brings them together’. It creates an atmosphere of mutual understanding’.

Braun's finely cultivated eye for fruitful musical collaborations continues on Esperanto. It features two tracks co-written and co-produced with keyboard legend Jeff Lorber In addition the likes of Gerald Albright, keyboardist Gregg Karukas and long-time Braun keyboard player Mitch Forman all guest as part of this eclectic mix of smooth jazz flavours.

The album also includes cuts created with Rhodes player Johnny Britt, the moody chill tune ‘To Manhattan with Love’, keyboard player Tim Gant, from the band Chicago, drummer Tony Moore and long-time Dave Koz bassist Bill Sharp.

Esperanto's first single is ‘Green Tomatoes’, an old school, Les McCann flavoured retro-funk explosion written by Braun over a groove originally composed by the popular London based acid jazz outfit 45DIP. In Boston Braun had some fun with this one having been approached before the show by a member of the audience who told Rick he didn’t think much of the track as the choice for the single. Before playing the tune he retold the story and then at its completion asked the self appointed critic if he had had a change of mind. The feedback was thankfully in the affirmative. Included on this track on the album are Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown who kick it up to tremendous effect.

coverOn explaining his motivation for the Esperanto project Braun recalls the risk taking approach he took to his 1995 breakthrough recording Beat Street. ’The trumpet wasn't an accepted smooth jazz instrument at the time’, he explains, ‘but I was making some strong inroads. I just did what felt right for me and enjoyed the process, and it became a very successful record. I had just got back from a visit to the Northern region of Italy when I began to write for Esperanto, and the romantic Euro vibes were just running through me. It was all about how I felt at the time, and the music evolved organically. One cultural difference I notice about Europeans is that they move at a more leisurely pace than we do. The slower unfolding pace permeates the album, and in a few cases I forgo traditional song form, create longer intros and wait longer to get to the hook. Trance and lounge music played a big part in the inspiration.’

Those who were there on September 22 can certainly testify to that.

Posted by Denis Poole at October 23, 2003 11:14 PM