As they establish themselves as a funk-based Smooth Jazz duo to be reckoned with, twin brothers Nelson and Wayne Braxton will no doubt continue to face the inevitable question, "Any relation to (R&B diva) Toni?" But with their Windham Hill Jazz debut Steppin' Out, following their #1 radio hit "When Love Comes Around," the question may soon be posed in reverse to Toni: "Are you related to the hippest musical brothers in San Francisco?"
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"When Love Comes Around" hit the top of the New Adult Contemporary track charts in both The Gavin Report and Radio & Records last year. The single came from the original release of Steppin' Out, on the independent Kokopelli Records. The album itself topped the R&R chart for three weeks. Two new Braxton Brothers tunes, "In the Spring" and "Happy Again" (which is included on the hit Melrose Place Jazz Soundtrack collection), are featured on the updated Windham Hill Jazz version.
A self-contained unit featuring the sparkling interaction of 6-string bass and saxophone, The Braxton Brothers wrote, arranged and produced all the material on Steppin' Out (with the exception of a cover of Babyface's Boyz II Men hit "I'll Make Love To You"), and play nearly all the instruments. Wayne Braxton plays tenor and alto sax, flute, as well as keyboards; Nelson focuses on 6-string bass, but also plays fretless and wah-wah bass, as well as keyboards. They alternate on drum and percussion programming.
"Sure, it's a well-worn phrase, but the whole sound we create together is truly greater than the sum of the parts," says Wayne. "Both of us could easily make records individually, but they wouldn't have the strength and variety that we have as a unit. Same goes for live performances. We're twins, but also best pals. We're individuals, but we also have so much in common musically, despite our different instruments."
Picking up where his brother left off, Nelson adds, "We were both brought up with the same influences, from classical to funk to country to Muddy Waters to Coltrane-type jazz. The combination of our writing styles brings all those influences to the forefront, but with two different interpretations, one playing off the other. A perfect example is Grover Washington's Winelight, which features one my favorite bass players Marcus Miller and one of Wayne's big sax influences, Grover Washington, Jr. The interesting part of this is that when we compose individually, we are usually more conscious of creating strong melody lines for the other's instrument." Like all brothers who share the same DNA and musical makeup, spats will arise, but at the core of The Braxtons' relationship is a mutual respect for each other. As Wayne explains, "Two unrelated musicians can come together and form a special chemistry, but Nelson and I, having the same parents, having gone to the same school, sharing life as we have since day one, have that unspoken vibe where we can both catch each other's mistakes and help each other out." "We started doing Steppin' Out as a demo, and then, when we got more serious about doing a whole album, we really learned the dynamics of working together," Wayne adds. "With two people there is no majority. It's all 50/50."
Nelson: "We respect each other's opinions and unique talents so much that when there is a disagreement, each of us has no choice but to be open to the other's criticism or input. It's like a check and balance system. It's easy to just put ego aside and get some good musical work done."
Steppin' Out opens with the dreamy, mid-tempo "Sunset Bay," a picture perfect smooth jazz tune which features the kind of melodic bass-sax tradeoff The Braxton Brothers are noted for. The title track hits on a mood swing from lilting hip-hop with snappy basslines to more aggressive funk, while the thick, bouncy urban grooves of "Eventide" provide a solid backdrop for some creative duality between Wayne's flute and Nelson's wah-wah bass. The orchestral-flavored, warmhearted romance "Someday" leads into a more exotic love affair on the hit "When Love Comes Around," which features a folksy melody and Brazilian rhythms.
Soulful vocalist Keith Johnson takes the reins on both the powerful hip-hop ballad "Givin' My Love To You and the gentle "I'm in Love," which trades off the melodic lead between Johnson's voice and Wayne's tenor sax. The mid-tempo, percussive "Didn't I Tell Ya?" seamlessly blends the low register of the bass with the higher pitched sax, while a dramatic, thoughtful reading of "I'll Make Love To You" finds the Braxton's trading from verse to chorus to verse. Rounding out the set are the two new instantly infectious tunes, the snappy, retro-soul minded "In The Spring" and the uplifting funk gem "Happy Again," already in the Top 5 of R&R's NAC track chart.
Only 26 years old, The Braxton Brothers started their musical journeys in 4th grade in the school band and by high school, were well versed multi- instrumentalists. Both were selected to the California All State Honor Bands several times, before their paths split in college. Nelson, majoring in tuba performance at San Francisco State University, toured Europe with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Meanwhile, at Cal State Northridge, Wayne was a member of the Jazz A Band, one of the premier collegiate jazz ensembles in the country.
After leaving CSUN, Wayne joined his brother at SFSU, where they performed together in various groups, including an award winning jazz quartet; Wayne's involvement in this quartet earned him an award as outstanding soloist from radio station KJAZ. Spreading the joy further, both twins were also chosen to the Disney All American collegiate band.
Both have been active on the San Francisco club and studio scene since their college years, playing in every type of musical situation from big band and flamenco to funk and acid jazz, and writing original material in genres as diverse as country and classical. Wayne has toured with Sheila E. and 13 Cats, and has recorded with Special Generation and the gospel group Crusade. Nelson's resume includes dates with Najee, J. Spencer and Bay Area musicians Pete Escovedo, Ray Obiedo, Andy Narell and saxophonist John Handy.
The songwriting bug hit The Braxton Brothers around age seven, when they "got a hold of a couple of pots and pans, mom's old tape recorder and well...the rest is history. Their father's work as a mobile DJ ensured that there would always be recording equipment in the house. As Wayne says, "All of this led us to a place where we can write and play melodies that people can enjoy. We don't sing, but listeners tell us they hear words in our tunes and put their own images to them. The key to making good music is creating memorable songs and learning by playing anywhere and everywhere with other musicians. It's all a growing process."
Currently, The Braxton Brothers are in the studio, preparing for their Windham Hill Jazz follow-up this fall. In the meantime, we have the chance to become better acquainted with one of 1997's biggest Smooth Jazz hits, Steppin'Out, along with a few new tracks which likewise capture the twins' exciting, single minded vision. The Braxton Brothers may be from San Francisco, not Philadelphia, but they beautifully capture the spirit of musical brotherly love.
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