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Music Review: Tom Braxton – Endless Highway

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Smooth jazz saxophonist Tom Braxton is in a traveling mood on his latest album, Endless Highway—most of the songs' titles have to do with journeys. In addition to traveling, the tracks' titles also refer to life's full-circle journeys; Braxton dedicated Endless Highway to the late Wayman Tisdale, former professional basketball player turned jazz bassist (who recently died of cancer). Tisdale served as friend, collaborator, and mentor to Braxton; he even produced Braxton's fifth album Bounce. While Braxton's intentions are admirable, he fails to diversify his sound on Endless Highway, with its tracks sounding too similar in tone and tempo.

Tom Braxton

Braxton has forged a reputation as a superior saxophonist, playing with contemporary jazz artists such as Dave Koz, Rick Braun, George Duke, Kirk Whalum, Jonathan Butler, Jeff Golub, Marcus Miller and Luther Vandross. In addition to playing sax, he also plays keyboards, piano, and flute; these skills are on display on his latest album. Interestingly Braxton has cited Steely Dan as one of his main influences, going so far as to cover "Peg" on his last album, 2007's Imagine This.

Most of his latest album's tracks are originals, excluding a cover of America's "Ventura Highway." This tune contains the only singing on the album; while Braxton largely stays true to the melody, guest singer Arthur Dyer cannot match the original vocals. The rest of the cuts are instrumentals written and arranged by Braxton, sporting titles related to the journey theme: the title track, "The Journey," "Detour Ahead," "Open Road," and "Distant Skies," just to name a few.

The most noteworthy track off Endless Highway is "That Wayman Smile!" a tribute to the late jazzman. Instead of taking on a melancholy tone, the song maintains an upbeat mood. Bassist Braylon Lacy is featured on the song, channeling Tisdale's optimistic spirit. Braxton's joyful sax solo embodies the musican's positive attitude. This track will surely receive airplay on smooth jazz stations—in fact, the album includes a radio edit of the song as well as the album cut. Another standout track is "Home Sweet Home," a pretty slow song that includes interesting chord changes and a sensual solo by Braxton. Otherwise, the remaining tracks sound like virtually any song currently aired on smooth jazz radio stations across the country. Put another way, Endless Highway is intended for background accompaniment rather than serious listening.

The bottom line: if you enjoy smooth jazz a la the Yellowjackets or Spyro Gyra, you may appreciate the mellow sounds of Braxton's Endless Highway. But if you prefer traditional jazz, you may find the album lacking in variety and real swing. Braxton is obviously a talented player, and his great esteem for his mentor is commendable. However, Braxton should better demonstrate the breadth of his sax skills and show how hard he can swing. At the very least, he needs to diversify his sound by recruiting more vocalists, adding different percussion, and alternating among many tempos. He has performed with many artists and cites influences that extend to rock and jazz; hopefully he will reveal his vast experience on future albums.

For more information on Tom Braxton, visit his official website.

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