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Don Braden and Karl Latham
Big Fun(k) Live
Creative Perspective

Big Fun(k) is a synchronized rhythm machine. Not that it sounds mechanical; rather, each player primarily emphasizes rhythm, and all the parts interconnect—drum backbeats, bass grooves, keyboard riffs and colors and (mostly) pentatonic tenor saxophone figures. Joining leaders Don Braden (tenor sax and alto flute) and Karl Latham (drums) on this live session are Nick Rolfe (keyboards) and Gary Foote (bass). Except for the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and Beyonce’s “Déjà Vu,” the compositions are originals.

The tunes invite macho tenor playing. Braden’s “The Funky View,” on which he solos with blitz-like swirling runs, is a technically dazzling example, as is his “Grover Miles,” which—you guessed it—mixes elements from Grover Washington Jr. and Miles Davis. There’s more Braden brilliance on “Having a Ball,” a solo tenor prelude to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and the quartet gives the Lennon/McCartney classic a soulful treatment, with shimmering keyboard support. Rolfe’s “A Foote in the Door” features bassist Foote soloing with Jaco-like flamboyance. Throughout the album, Rolfe sparks the ensemble with a variety of keyboard effects and in-the-pocket jabs. Latham is an unshakable catalyst.

In the end, the album title is spot-on: This band is nothing if not fun—and genuinely cooperative. You get the picture that each player is listening to the others and responding for the benefit of the whole.

Don Braden and Karl Latham’s new album, “Big Fun(k) Live” explores new territories in jazz and funk with hard-hitting grooves, clever riffs and sophisticated harmonies. The project was recorded over three nights at Cecil’s Jazz Club in West Orange, New Jersey. Saxophonist Braden cut his teeth early on playing instrumental funk and jazz of the 1970s and then became one of the “young lions” of the 1980’s touring with Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard and Roy Haynes. Drummer Latham broke out on the New York jazz scene in the late 1980s, and since 1993 has gravitated to the European jazz scene sharing the stage with Joe Lovano, John Lee, and Boris Kozlov. Keyboardist Nick Rolfe shines on every track with synthesizer grooves, neo-soul and world beat chops. But it is bassist Gary Foote’s pure funk solos and perfectly pocketed grooves with Latham that fuels the excitement of the band. The master bassist is best known for his 20-year plus association with Blood, Sweat and Tears as well as with Billy Cobham. “The main difference with our music now is that we probably use more non-diatonic harmony than our predecessors,” said Braden. “That's not an innovation per se; we're just using material from our experience with today's modern jazz, so naturally it will sound different than the 1970s. I'm not as concerned about moving the style forward as I am interested in the potential for creating expressive music and magical moments in real time.”

The first track, “High Rise” sets the mood and groove one would expect from this high caliber group. Foote’s solo eight bar intro reminds us of all the things we love about funk like strong riffs and lines with “popped” high notes and thumb-slapped bass.The drums and Fender Rhodes piano join in the next eight bars, leading to the sultry melodic line carried by the saxophone. There is a seamless mix of funk and jazz textures that work exquisitely together. According to Braden, the unison ensemble section was inspired by Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke". The band reaches into the pop world as they re-create the Beyoncé tune, “Déjà vu”. Braden adds his own flair by changing the key from the original recording and including jazz harmonies in the melody sections, which contrast with the solo sections (there is a vamp in E-flat minor that modulates to e minor on a smoking bass solo and back to E-flat minor on the return to the vamp). On “Having A Ball,” the only song on this set that features just the saxophone, Braden’s technical prowess assists in telling his soulful story. Braden’s sax solos are always on target throughout this project because he understands the importance of conveying the message of each phrase. “Having a Ball” is actually the intro to a gospel tinged funk interpretation of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Braden remarks “I was looking to combine the two songs and I thought of Lucille Ball which made the perfect connection.”

One of my favorite tracks is “A Foote in the Door” because it is reminiscent of the great jazz-fusion from early groups such as Weather Report
This piece clearly demonstrates the interrelation between complex harmonic melodies and solid syncopations. The solo section has minor chords moving down in minor thirds (G minor, E minor, C# minor), which makes for an interesting sound yet a definite improvisational challenge. However, with this group of exemplary musicians, each one brings a visceral level of spontaneity that demonstrates their effortless musicality and skill. Although “The Funky View” is one of the most harmonically and melodically simple tunes on the disc, it is still hard-grooving and danceable. Originally conceived as a “smooth jazz” piece, “Heads Up” contains a fairly intricate melodic and harmonic feel, losing itself in a trance-like improvised section. “Confusion,” contains a minor-tinged main melody with a solo section similar to the Jaco Pastorius tune, “The Chicken,” and a challenging time signature of 13/8. “Song for Mother” is a dedication to Braden’s mother and one of the most beautiful songs on the recording. It begins in a slow tempo with the alto flute playing the melody accompanied by ostinato bass. The alto flute creates an ethereal quality supported by Rolfe’s complimentary string sounds and synth solo. The ability to switch from the hard-hitting grooves of the previous tracks to the sublime treatment of this sensitive song is another reason to appreciate the talents of these fine musicians. The rousing finale to this set is a tune called “Grover Miles,” in tribute to the bands all-time favorite musicians, Grover Washington, Jr. and Miles Davis. The bass line is related to the Davis composition “Tutu” and the melody has elements of classic Washington tunes from recordings of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The more I listen to this infectious recording, the more I love it. It’s questionable that anyone could sit still listening to the killer grooves on this project, which is why this is a funk lover’s dream! This tasty recording belongs in any serious funk, jazz-fusion, and soul collection.
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Don Braden and Karl Latham, Big Funk Live

Posted by Cassandra Medcalf (@DJMamaCass)

As you know, I’m always looking for new music to play on Fusion Friday. Luckily, this little piece of gold arrived in the mail last week.

This album is just plain fun. Braden and Latham work extremely well together- the charts are well written and performed, but maintain the energetic feel of a late night jam session. I found myself dancing along and picturing myself at what must have been one incredible concert.

Though not at the forefront of the jazz scene, Don Braden is an accomplished saxophonist, composer, and arranger. He’s worked with Tony Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, and a bunch of the jazz greats- he’s even worked as a composer for Bill Cosby. Percussionist Karl Latham has also played with some fantastic musicians, such as Mark Egan and Clark Terry.

The two musicians work beautifully together on this album- seamlessly shifting between solos and never missing a beat. The production of this CD is great, too, considering it was recorded live. Listening to Braden’s sax solo “Having a Ball” (track 4), you can practically hear the hall around you- his tone is both piercing and resonant, transporting you to that jazz-club atmosphere. Similarly, Latham’s drum work really fills the space, complimenting the bass and keys with just enough rhythmic variety to toe the line between groovy and exciting. The Big Funk has that true, all-encompassing jazz feel that a lot of studio albums lack. 

And I can’t talk about the musicianship without mentioning Gary Foote of Blood, Sweat, and Tears on bass and Nick Rolfe on keyboards. Both rhythm players are truly phenomenal, especially in track 1, “High Rise” and track 8, “Confusion,” which both feature a remarkable organ solo and a sick funk bass line, reminiscent of Marcus Miller.

Trust me, this performance is worth a listen. You can hear previews of all the tracks here:

Or, of course, you can always listen for it on Jazz Impressions on 92 WICB!

Review Don Braden and Karl Latham's Big Fun(K)

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Don Braden​ And Karl Latham - Big Fun(k) Live The duo Don Braden and Karl Latham, as band Big Fun(K), recently released their same titled Live album Big Fun(k). The album has been recorded at Cecil's Jazz Club and Restaurant on May 13-14 2009. The album includes ten instrumental jazz funk tracks. Don: The tunes on this album will be played different during other live sessions because our repertoire is still evolving.

Track #1 'High Rise' starts with a slappin' bass guitar followed by the Hammond and Sax. This tune is written on a flight home from the Netherlands where Don often performs. Don, when you are in the Netherlands give me call. The slappin' bass is also starting on the second track 'Deja Vu'. This 8:45 minutes long track which is based on Beyonce's 'Deja Vu' from 2005 is very funky and energetic. Great Hammond and a bass solo at six minutes. Track number three 'A Foote in the door' starts with, i think, a well known melody line. Can't figure it out what/who it is. It's probably Don Braden and Karl Latham. 'Having A Ball' is a sax solo. 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' is a down-tempo instrumental jazz tune from The Beatles with the sax in the lead. At 4 minutes the style changed to a very funky groove with great reeds solo. Don't need to write anything about the track 'The Funky View' because it's in the name. Slammin' funky Hammond cords, sax, bass play. Don wrote this track during his days as composer for Bill Cosby and CBS from 1995-2000. 'Heads Up' is an example of evolving music. This tune was written as a 'Smooth Jazz' piece. My colleague listened to track #8 'Confusion' and recognised some fragments from 'Chick Corea' and from Miles Davis his song 'Jean Pierre'. 'Song For Mother' is a slow tempo jazz tune that Don dedicate to his mother. My favourite tune is the last track on this album 'Grover Miles' is very funky with fabulous synth sounds/cords, superb bass play and luckily last nine minutes. This tune is dedicated to the late Grover Washington Jr. and Miles Davis. The bass line is related to Miles' Tutu, and the melody has elements of classic tunes from Grover's recordings of the late 1970's, early 1980's.

Don Braden grew up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1970's. He has toured the world and recorded with many Jazz giants, including Wynton Marsalis, Tony Williams, and Freddie Hubbard among others. Karl Latham grew up in Northwest New Jersey. He broke on the NYC jazz market with an RCA/Novus artist in the late 80's, played in many groups including the Fantasy Band. Since 1993 his career makes a move in the European Jazz scene.
O's Place Jazz Newsletter Review  
O's Notes: Big Funk is exactly that featuring drummer Karl Latham leading a pumping rhythm section. They provide a solid landscape for Don Braden (sax, fl) to build upon. The program is mostly originals with a couple of complementary covers thrown in. Keyboardist Nick Rolfe shares the lead lines with Braden and bassist Gary Foote is right there with them as on "Deja Vu" and the explosive "A Foote In The Door". Don shows his stuff on "Having A Ball" a solo prelude to "Lucy In the Sky". Energy packed to get your head nodding and definitely funky!