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Braxton Cook Creates Beyond The Confines Of Genre

Written by on June 27, 2023

Braxton Cook is a composer, multi-instrumentalist and a recording artist changing the definition of R&B with his genre-bending sound. Many have a hard time describing Cook’s music; in an interview with Vocalo’s Nudia Hernandez, he expressed that the people who get it, get it.

Braxton Cook is deeply influenced by the culture and sound of Black artists and musicians. Though he finds inspiration from a wide range of sources — from John Coltrane to Anderson .Paak — Cook notes his music is rooted in history and tradition, and expresses himself through a changing and representative sound. When performing and recording, his bandmates also bring their varied interests to the table, fusing their favorite styles together for an organic and whole sound. It can be difficult to put into words.

“That [musical sound] has been a difficult thing to try and explain to musicians and artists, but the people that just get it have just naturally kind of gravitated towards me and towards the mission,” he told Nudia Hernandez. 

Braxton Cook has been working on his 2023 album Who Are You When No One Is Watching? for the past three years — and got the chance to perform on Good Morning America this summer. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

In addition to his wide array of artistic influences, Cook plays many instruments, including piano, horn, flute and saxophone. He brought his newest instrument, a 1949 Selmer Super Balanced Action saxophone, to the Vocalo studio just a few hours before performing with it on June 22 at Schubas Tavern, on tour in support of his February album Who Are You When No One Is Watching? 

A lot of Cook’s inspiration behind the album comes from his extended and nuclear family. His familial support attributes to his success, and the album serves as a way of sharing that with the world — starting with its cover, which features a portrait of himself, his wife and their son. He recalled his June 12 performance on Good Morning America, surrounded by the portrait as his family watched and supported him from the crowd. 

“It was one of those moments that felt like my family was really highlighted in the whole story,” he reflected. “It was just really nice to have that moment. For me, and my family. It felt great.”

His song “90s” directly references his familial influences, covering his upbringing and his parents’ relationship, as well as ‘90s music and art. Many different Black love films helped inspire his musical process, as well as the track’s featured artist, Masego. The song ultimately stemmed from a long conversation between the two about love and relationships. Coincidentally, Cook met his now wife at a ‘90s themed college party in 2012. 

Before his Chicago show in support of the album, Braxton Cook sat down with Nudia Hernandez to discuss his artistic identity and finding inspiration from being able to release music after COVID-19.  The two also delved deeper into the importance of playing instruments and the making of “90s.”

Nudia Hernandez: Hey it’s Vocalo Radio Chicago’s only urban alternative. Nudia here with you. I’m excited to have another artist in the studio. I’m not gonna lie, every time we play his song, I get a text. I get a DM. “What song is this?” I have people calling me and asking me, “Who is this?” They want to know more, and I’m excited to bring you an interview with him.

He’s an Emmy award winning artist. He blends jazz, soul, alternative R&B into a fresh sound of his own. He’s a vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrument[alist]. I mean, that’s not fair that you can play multiple instruments. Also a composer, and he’s gonna be at Schubas tonight. We have Braxton Cook in the building. Hello, how are you?

Braxton Cook: I’m good! It’s good to be here.

NH: I’m happy you’re stopping in! Because I’m not even lying, even our old intern DM’d me being like, “Who is this?” When we’re playing your song, “90s.”

BC: Wow. That’s love. That’s amazing. I mean, that means a lot. I’m glad that the fans enjoy the music and are spreading the gospel, you know what I mean? So to speak. So that’s beautiful.

“When you really start to understand that, you see that all of this music is really connected, and there’s a humanity in it.”

– Braxton Cook

NH: I mean, it’s a unique sound. And I, of course, researching into you, so many people have put it into so many different categories or different ways, or mixed words about what your sound is. Because it is hard to explain. 

BC: It is. That has been a difficult thing to try and explain to musicians and artists, but the people that just get it have just naturally kind of gravitated towards me and towards the mission. A lot of musicians and people in the band, for example, so many things, I don’t have to tangibly explain, they just get it. They get the influences and all the different styles that I like, because we share that in common. For example, let’s say, the bassist or guitarist loves John Coltrane, but then may also love hip-hop and things like that.

Those, in some ways, would be difficult to explain, musically, how I want to blend that. But when someone just genuinely loves those two musicians and artists and those styles, it just kind of comes out musically, organically. And the sound just kind of feels just true and honest, and whole. So it’s been that way, musically. And then also fans, as well, on the other end of it, the audience. I’ve found some people and found audience members that just get where I’m coming from. But yeah, I’m not gonna lie, it’s difficult to put into words.

Braxton added CD copies of the album to the Vocalo music library on June 22. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: I was gonna say, have you found a sound? Or you’re just like, whatever you want to call it, as long as you listen!

BC: I think it, ultimately … all my choices stem from the Black tradition, for sure. If I had to kind of explain, I guess, the history of it, it’s … jazz music is originally a Black art form. A lot of the pioneers and legends of this music look like me, and a lot of different styles that were birthed from that. There’s R&B and blues and gospel … rock and roll, all of these art forms. Hip-hop, also being a very important one, as well, that have all kind of stemmed from that tradition and that experience. So I certainly think that’s the root of it.

And when you really start to understand that, you see that all of this music is really connected, and there’s a humanity in it. And then when you want to break it up and study all these different genres and stuff, it starts to become a whole different conversation on just music commercialism and capitalism and all that. But at the end of the day, I think, yeah, it’s rooted in those kinds of experiences. In the Black experience and the Black history and tradition.

NH: I love that, because mainstream-wise … when you look at jazz, disco, and genres like that, mainstream-wise … there isn’t really that much representation. So the question is, has that music peaked? Has it peaked already in the mainstream media? We see a lot of artists, like you and like others, that are bringing the inspiration.

And I kind of love to see more genres on the top 40 chart. I really love that, because, I mean, with pop and hip-hop, those things are fun to listen to. But really, what is it if we don’t have a mixture of different sounds? Especially real music, with instruments, you actually play instruments. I mean, we kind of miss that sound, we miss that feeling. 

BC: It’s important. It’s just the days of everyone having a piano in the house, or just knowing how to play a basic song is so important for just your development, and your ability to hear and  analyze music and speak about it. Even if you don’t want to pursue music, I think, culturally, it’s important to maintain that and to keep that tradition.

NH: So how many instruments do you play? To set the record. You actually walked in here with one! What is that? What is in there? A clarinet?

BC: It’s a saxophone. Everybody be like, “Is that a violin?” No, it’s a super compact case. 

Braxton brought to the Vocalo studios his newest instrument, a 1949 Selmer Super Balanced Action saxophone. “I like the older instruments … they were made better,” he says. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: Okay, I was gonna say, it looks pretty small.

BC: It’s an alto saxophone. Smooth. It’s cool. I played this old 1949 Selmer Super Balanced Action, it’s nice. I just got this a couple years ago.

NH: Oh, wow. Okay,

BC: It’s beautiful. It’s silver, but it’s tarnishing a bit so it’s got a really interesting look.

NH: So do you have a favorite? Is it like children, do you have a favorite, or are they all…

BC: Dang! Why they gotta be like children? Nah, I don’t have a favorite. No, I love them all! I do have several saxophones. But this is, I guess, the newest purchase. I got this maybe a couple years ago. So this is what I’m practicing and playing and performing with right now. But there’s several other horns that I still like to play. And they’re mostly vintage, though. I like the older instruments. One, they appreciate, that’s nice, in value. So that’s cool.

Another thing is, they were made better. Yeah, back in the day, the metals, the materials, everything, they last longer, they’re more durable. You know what I mean? There’s more weight to it. I’m sure it’s similar to cars and stuff, where it’s just like, there’s this beautiful kind of one-of-one thick quality to it, as well. But then also just the construction, there’s more weight and care put into some of those horns.

NH: I can appreciate the true artistry. And you’re gonna see these pictures up on our website Vocalo.org and on Instagram @Vocalo, because our digital producer in here is clicking pictures of your beautiful instrument. And I really appreciate a true artist, because I did play some piano when I was younger. And I was like, you know what, let me get a little studio …

BC: That was my first instrument! 

NH: Really? I was like, let me get a little studio piano in here. And you know what? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m a true artist, because the first thing I looked up was, “Can you play a piano with acrylic nails?” And they said no. 

BC: You can still do it!

NH: Really? Can I? Okay.

BC: I mean, the proper technique is probably this way. You know what I mean, with the fingertips, but you can still learn, you can probably play flat-finger. I think Thelonious Monk kind of played that way, with his fingers kind of out like this. 

NH: Okay, you know what, you’re giving me a little hope here. 

BC: Oh yeah, he’s fire. He’s one of the best pianists of all time. So yeah, you can do it. 

NH: You know what I love about you, because it kind of reminds me a little bit — I was reading and listening to some interviews you’ve done. It reminds me a little bit of Bruno Mars, because you and your band, some of them you’ve known since high school, right?

BC: Yeah, Josh Crumbly who’s playing with me tonight, he’s also opening at Schubas. He’s great. We go back to high school. I think we met 17, 18 years old … We started doing national competitions and stuff like that. So we got in this … what’s it called? “YoungArts,” I believe, is this national organization that awarded high schoolers to compete for a gold medal, silver medal in their instrument, in their discipline. And we were both in the jazz group back in high school. And ever since then, we’ve just been boys.

NH: No rivalry? 

BC: We don’t play the same instrument! So that helps. He plays bass and I’m like, “Wow, you do your thing!”

Sitting in the studio with Nudia Hernandez, Braxton Cook discusses his album, influences and his Juilliard background, among other things. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: Wow, I’d feel like, “I’m nicer at bass, okay!”

BC: I mean, a little bit. No, I’m not gonna lie. Me and Josh, particularly, when we play basketball, we will just start, just kind of going at each other. But no, that’s my brother. That’s my brother. Yeah, most of us go way back. And then the majority of us met in New York, when we all went to school. I went to Juilliard, my guitarist went to Juilliard, my keyboardist. Most of us kind of went to school in New York. And that’s where we all really started to hang out, go to each other’s houses and, and forge our musical kinship. And then start writing music together.

NH: I love that because it’s a testament to people saying, your circle says a lot about you. 

BC: That part!

NH: So, look, if the whole circle’s talented and working hard…

BC: Oh yeah, they play way better than me. I promise.

NH: Everyone can go up! So you were just on Good Morning America, right? And how did that feel? I feel like that, for every artist, that’s the pinnacle, right? You’re like, “We’re here.”

BC: It was pretty amazing, for sure. That was one of those “We’re here” moments, for sure. It was awesome. It was really, really awesome. Especially to be there, again, with my friends and family. My wife flew out for that performance, and you saw the artwork and everything surrounding us, it was one of those moments that felt like my family was really highlighted in the whole story. It was just really nice to have that moment. For me, and my family. It felt great.

NH: I love listening to your music. But I’ve seen and heard that you draw a lot of inspiration from the family, from your parents, and now that you have a family of your own with your wife and your son and things like that. But also, if you listen to a song like “90s,” it can still apply to someone who’s in a relationship or like someone who’s very, very single.

BC: Oh, for sure, I think that’s certainly something in … the songwriting that I try and be cognizant of. I leave it open-ended enough for interpretation. Because I want to tell my story, obviously, as an artist, but there’s multiple ways to kind of connect with the art and connect with the music, both on the instrumental songs and the vocal tunes. And “90s” is very much one of those songs; it’s about several things at once.

To some degree, it’s about my upbringing in the ‘90s. And my parents’ relationship during that time, which I felt was kind of the highlight of my childhood. If I were to pick an era where everything just felt the best, it was around that time. And then also with the ‘90s music and art and everything represented. Spike Lee was dropping all these incredible films, and jazz was starting to have a bit of a cultural kind of resurgence, as far as being the underbed of a lot of those films that were popular, like Do The Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues and all those films. Just a lot of great actors of the time. Eddie Murphy and all of his films and then all these Black love kind of cultural behemoths. These films like Love Jones and stuff like that. It was just, culturally, just an incredible time, I felt, for Black culture and for love and all of these beautiful kinds of things. So yeah, I wanted to write a song about that and trying to capture that.

NH: I think a lot of people miss that era. They miss the love songs. And, of course, Masego who’s featured on the track. You said that when you were writing with him — right? Because he’s single … What is that dynamic like? Do maybe your friends or colleagues, do ever come to you with advice? Because you look like you have it together!

BC: That’s kind of what happened. We sat there and talked for two hours, yo! We sat there and talked, just chopping it up, and he was just like, “Wow, man, maybe one day, one day …” I’m like, “Nah, man! There’s no rush. It’s just, that’s my journey.” 

NH: You’re like, “Yeah, when you stop playing!”

BC: Right! I was like, “Nah, you do your thing, bro. I do my thing.” But that song did stem from just a long conversation about relationships, and me being super nosy. And I’m just like, “So wait, so what do you do? Where do you meet these [women]?” And then … I shared, kind of, just how I met my wife. And, I don’t know, [Masego and I] just kind of forged a relationship over the past couple of years. 

NH: How did you guys meet? 

BC: So, funny enough, we met at a ‘90s party! 

NH: Really?! [Laughs]

BC: Yeah, she went to Columbia University at the time…

NH: That’s full-circle!

BC: I’m dead serious! And there was like a ‘90s party they were throwing this night, and I was like, “Oh, you know what? Yeah, I’m trying to go to that!” So, I didn’t go to Columbia. Like I said, I went to Juilliard downtown, but…

NH: Light flex.

BC: We had to sneak in! Because you need your school ID to get into the school parties, the school themed ones.

NH: Oh, really? 

BC: Yeah. So we just, I don’t know, we finessed it somehow, walked under the turnstile, my boys…

NH: Brought your saxophone, like, “I’m here to play!”

The vintage saxophone made a cameo in Braxton’s recorded station ID, to begin running on Vocalo soon. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo

BC: My boys finessed it. I don’t know quite how but we got in. And yeah, I met her that night in like 2012, I think. 2012. Yeah. 

NH: Wow. 

BC: It was like boom, instant.

NH: I love that. I love that … I think a lot of like R&B artists, even rappers, they’re like, “Yeah, one day, we can’t wait to, like, have a family, have a wife, when I chill out and settle down.”

BC: That part. Or they’ll have it and just hide it because, for some reason, it’s not a commercially viable option, which is unfortunate. 

NH: Yeah.

BC: That narrative. But no, I think it’s just living your truth. That’s what you should be doing.

NH: I love that. And, of course, your family is on the cover of your album, Who Are You When No One Is Watching?

BC: I have enough albums with just my face on it. I have like six of them, and it’s just me. I’m like, no.

NH: I feel like this is probably everything you care about, right? You got your musical instrument, your family on here. It’s like, this is you.

BC: That’s it! Low-key I got the saxophone out front, it’s hilarious.

Artwork for Braxton Cook’s ‘Who Are You When No One Is Watching?,’ by LPÆkili.

NH: And so the album, how long did it take to put something together like this? Because, of course … do you really compose — because you’re a composer, songwriter. Do you do everything on your album?

BC: In the beginning. I always … on the last end of it, I have to collaborate with producers, engineers, these technicians that can get the music to that polished level. But yeah, to answer your question, I guess it took like three years. I started a lot of this during the pandemic, just kind of writing, journaling, just dealing with all of what was going on.

NH: I feel like we’re getting a lot of post-pandemic albums that are coming out now.

BC: Yeah, exactly! That’s a lot of it. And then I’ve got songs on there, because this multiple sessions, I got songs on there that I probably wrote months before it came out. So yeah, it was just kind of a three-year process of writing, working on music remotely, sending people … and that slows the process down for sure. Stems, all that. I’m glad that’s over, for now. Thank God. Because, yeah … to be honest, we’ve already started working on the next record. Like right after Good Morning America, yeah, we went right to the studio and started working on some new stuff.

NH: I mean, if that’s not some inspiration! 

BC: Always, you got to. 

NH: And you’ve also done a NPR Tiny Desk Concert. 

BC: A few, yeah.

NH: We are an NPR Music station. So we love seeing all the Tiny Desks! We’re getting ready for the Tiny Desk tour.

BC: I think one just dropped today I’m on, Amaarae.

NH: Oh, really?

BC: That’s a Ghanaian artist, she’s amazing.

NH: We’re gonna link that in our recap bio at Vocalo.org. And so you said you’ve been in a couple of them? 

BC: Yeah, so I did the first one with Christian Scott back in 2015. He was like the artist that essentially kind of picked me up when I was in school. I met him and he just started throwing me tour dates. And that was the beginning, I think, of my kind of touring career, while I was in school. And then after Christian — I might jack up this order, but then I think it was Tom Misch. I ended up meeting him through his manager and agent and stuff and we did a nice tour, Coachella, all this stuff and then ended with Tiny Desk, that was sick. And then Phony Ppl was another one. Those are my guys. I’ve played on a couple of their records. Those are my guys, they’re great, in Bed-Stuy, just Brooklyn all day. They’re awesome, super talented. And all these artists have this genre-bending kind of just progressive forward-thinking minds and musicians, and they’re all really great. And then I did an at-home Tiny Desk in the pandemic.

NH: I love seeing the home ones, too.

BC: Those were cool!

NH: Some people, I’m like, “This is not your home. Do not lie. This place looks really nice!”

BC: Yeah, by 2021, they started just giving people a budget to go shoot. Or people just started renting out spaces. At first, it was really people’s bedrooms.

NH: I did like it when it was like that, because when it started getting too Soundstage-y, I’m like, “Look, I’m trying to see someone’s cat in the background messing up the shot. That’s what I’m trying to see.

BC: That part. 

NH: So again, if you’re just joining us, we have Braxton Cook in the studio. We were talking about his new, latest album, Who Are You When No One Is Watching? I would ask you about the title, but I feel like it’s pretty self-explanatory. 

BC: Thank you. Yeah.

NH: He is going to be playing Schubas tonight. And so, you’re kind of doing these dates, right? You’re going around the country…

BC: Touring, traveling, doing the thing. 

NH: New state every day type, right?

BC: Kinda, kinda … The way I break up the tour now, with the family, is I try and do like two weeks and then go home and then two weeks and then go home and break it up that way. 

NH: Okay.

BC: So we’ve been kind of on and off since March.

Braxton Cook with host Nudia Hernandez, in front of the Sentrock-painted mural outside Vocalo’s studio. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: That’s great. And so if people are coming through, what could they expect at the show tonight?

BC: First off, they’re going to get a lot of — I mean, you’re gonna get saxophone, okay. So just be ready. You’re gonna get some saxophone, some vocals, it’s gonna be a good time. And a good message just about loving each other, about supporting each other, about finding yourself, your true self, and leaning into that. And hopefully people leave inspired. And enjoy the music and have a good time, I hope.

NH: I love that! And so, again, tonight, I believe doors open at 8:00? Doors open at 8:00.

BC: 8:30. That’s what Jerry’s saying. That’s what TM is saying … We got a couple openers, so we’ll be on a little later after that. I’m not sure exactly what time … Ooh, about 10:45 is what Jerry is talking about.

NH: So grab yourself a drink or two!

BC: Yeah, exactly! That part … sit down, rest your legs, rest your feet.

NH: I love a Thursday night show. I don’t know, there’s something about Thursday night I really love, listening to music and stuff.

BC: Me too! I always feel like Thursday was the most lit. It was the most lit night, like when we went out in college and stuff. 

NH: Because Friday is overrated. 

BC: That part.

NH: Yeah, Friday’s definitely overrated. So you’ve worked with so many — this is kind of a, as we’re getting ready to play some of your music and I know you gotta get going. You’ve worked with so many great artists. I mean, Mac Miller, Rihanna. And do you ever pull the Taylor Swift card on anyone? 

BC: [Laughs] No! Unless someone asks, I guess.

NH: I mean, I would totally!

BC: I never met her, that was like through a person, through all these people. I never met her.

NH: But technically, you were a vocal sample, right? For “Lavender Haze,” which is, I mean, I’m gonna tell my girlfriends this, because literally in the group chat that’s everyone’s favorite. 

BC: Really? Wow.

NH: Yeah, like three of my girlfriends, they said that was their favorite track off the album.

BC: It’s something like that. I sent it to my boy Jahan [Sweet]. Just like just an idea. He flipped it and it made it to Soundwave, I think, and then Jack Antonoff, and then that was it. And then I think when it came time for the record to come out, they were like, “What a second, wait a second. Whose voice is this?” I think that’s what happened, and here we are. But it’s, nah, it’s really, really cool.

NH: I mean, I love that. That’s, I mean, I would just kind of flex with that, just a little bit.

BC: It did seem meant to be. Even the lyrics, you can hardly hear it, but even the lyrics were like, somewhat related to a lavender dream. It was, yeah, “I don’t want to see you in my dreams,” I think was what I was saying. And I’m like, wow, that’s so wild … even that was related to the song somehow, maybe it’s just a feeling. You just can’t hear it, you can’t really hear the words, but it’s in there.

Braxton Cook’s influences vary from John Coltrane (depicted on his t-shirt) to modern hip-hop and R&B. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: If you could work with your dream artists, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but who would you really love to work with next?

BC: I mean, there are a few but, ooh, man! D’Angelo was on that list. I don’t know if he’s even trying to do stuff like that, but that would be incredible.

NH: I don’t know, they’re all coming back out!

BC: Pharell’s on that list. Anderson .Paak’s on that list.

NH: Oh, I would love to see an Anderson .Paak collab with you. 

BC: That’d be crazy.

NH: There’d be a lot of instruments. He’s got the drums …

BC: I’m saying. We gotta make that happen. And then am I gonna straight ahead space, I mean, still Marcus Gilmore, I’d love to record with. I played with him, but I’d love to actually record with Marcus. And then Herbie, would be incredible to do something with Herbie. Um, shoot, Kenny Garrett is one of my favorite artists. I know we play the same instruments, so that’s difficult. I don’t know how that will work out. Yeah, it’s like, he’s like, “Nah, I got it. I got the saxophone covered, my guy.”

NH: You’re like, “Alright, sounds cool.” 

BC: Yeah, just like, let me play triangle on the record, something. I don’t know.

NH: [Laughs] Triangle. Hey! That’s a hard, important, high-pressure instrument, the triangle.

BC: It is, because you can hear it! I will tell you, that’s the truth. Same with flute. It’s all the high-pitch stuff. I did this one concert one time, I had to play like the flute high, just exposed. It’s a lot of pressure. You can’t really hide.

NH: I love this. Thank you so much, Braxton, for coming in.

Keep up with Braxton Cook on Twitter and Instagram

Interview and audio production by Nudia Hernandez

Audio editing by Nudia Hernandez and Imani Warren; music by Braxton Cook

Written introduction, transcription and editing for length and clarity by Imani Warren and Morgan Ciocca

Photography by Morgan Ciocca

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