Smooth jazz saxophonist Tom Braxton would be the last person on earth to describe himself as a beacon of light, but anyone who listened to his latest CD, Endless Highway would give him the title without debate. The making of Endless Highway was ironically spurred on by a series of losses that have recently entered Braxton’s life, especially the passing of his dear friend and buoyant bass guitarist Wayman Tisdale who succumbed to cancer. The man was Braxton’s inspiration for writing the song "Wayman’s Smile" from his album.
Braxton explains that the title of the album is a reflection of his faith. "As a Christian, the Endless Highway represents the journey of life. I wanted to produce a record that depicted the ups and downs, detours, and joys that we all experience during our lifetime. Life doesn't end at the grave, and that is a great source of hope and healing for me when you lose a close friend like Wayman. This year was particularly trying for me because of Wayman's loss, a school closing where I was employed for 10 years, and other challenges. The title is timely, and it reminds me of what is truly important in this phase of my life and to keep my priorities in order."
Setting priorities enabled Braxton to play two roles on the recording, first as a musician, and second as the project’s producer. He classifies, "A producer manages the project and conceptualizes and executes it from start to finish. The musician performs on the record to communicate and enhance the project. Both roles are stimulating and challenging. As the producer," he observes, "I have to be concerned with the overall concept of what I am creating. Important decisions have to be made during the creation process such as what sounds to use on the keyboards, what guitar textures to use, what balance of instruments to achieve the sound that you hear in your head. Also, what musicians should you utilize to produce the track, how much do you let them create on their own, and how much should be exactly as you want it, etc."
Alternately, he interprets, "As the musician, I am concerned with how I am performing personally. For instance, did I get the emotion that I wanted on that particular take, was that the tone I was after, and did I adequately communicate the melody of the song?"
He recruited a long list of talented musicians and singers for the recording which required him be very efficient at organizing the recording sessions. "When scheduling," he correlates. "I tried to pay attention to the evolution of the song. When a musician is brought in, is there enough on the track for him to add his part? Plus, availability is a challenge. Everyone isn't available all the time because of performances, etc. Sometimes the scheduling order wasn't perfect but we made it work. As far as my parts, I had to put on the producer hat, and hear the overall concept to make sure I left room for my voice, but also add adequate background support for the track. It is a delicate balance."
He provides that he was familiar with the work of the musicians whom he invited to record on Endless Highway. "Most of the musicians I have worked with in the past on other projects," he admits, "but I always end up working with some new people. On this project, I used newcomers: John Carruth on drums, Joseph Toliver on bass, and I actually used a cellist, Jennifer Ritter, on one slow piece. I didn't hold auditions, most of the players are friends or I know them through friends. I also use people based on what I need to create in the song."
He supplies, "Selinza Mitchell, for instance, has this wonderful airy quality to her voice that I have used for several recordings. She mirrors my sax sound very well. The studio can be stressful enough, so I love to work with people who are easy to work with and have a passion for music. Plus, they are fantastic musicians!"
Some of the tracks which are the most stunning are sung by Arthur Dyer who performs on "Ventura Highway" and "Soul Purpose." Braxton chronicles, "I met Arthur while I was playing at a friend's wedding reception. Later, he became the choir director at my church. I also knew him as the Grammy award winning producer of Kirk Franklin's first project. Arthur is an amazing vocalist that usually sings everything beautifully on the first take. He stacks his own background vocals very quickly and effectively, and when he finishes, it's always better than when you heard it in your head originally. When I started arranging ‘Ventura’ and ‘Soul Purpose‘, I knew I wanted his voice on those songs. His timbre was perfect."
Unlike Braxton’s previous solo albums, he had a cellist play on this recording for the song "Distant Skies," which he reveals, "Part of it was my wife, Sharon's idea. We both love the warm sound of the cello. I was also inspired by the James Taylor song 'Fire and Rain' which has a bass violin in a similar role. The song was inspired by a beautiful autumn sunset. I set about to communicate those colors and hues and the cello helped me to do that. It was the glue that I think held the composition together."
Endless Highway closes with the soul-inspired spiritual "Home Sweet Home," which Braxton cites, "Eric Willis wrote this song and when I heard it, I told him it sounded like the end of a long journey. The end of the song sounds like a person walking toward a destination with expectation and persistence. To me, it has a duel meaning: 'home' can be your abode after a long journey, it can also be your ‘eternal home’ after this life is over."
Braxton’s optimistic outlook in the face of adversity remained steady throughout the recording, and motivated the mellifluous esthetics that pervaded a positive mood in the songs. He reflects, "I was able to remain positive by taking the time to grieve. Creating the music was a release for me. I could pour myself into it and release my sorrow. I drew strength and energy from my faith. I knew God was still in charge no matter the circumstances and I had to rely on Him to pull me through!"
He muses, "I am attracted to music that feels good, that people can understand. It isn't always to write it, because I came from a fusion background. My interest lies in reaching listeners so they will have an enjoyable experience with the music. Right now, that medium for reaching them leans toward soul and R&B. I do enjoy other forms of expression in this genre."
He describes about himself, "I enjoy creating new music, but I also like to see how it affects my audience. I am motivated to affect people in a positive way. Life can be very challenging, and if someone can pop in my CD and read an encouraging word from my liner notes. The hard work of recording is all worth it."
On that note, Tom Braxton shares about his aspirations for an upcoming tour to support Endless Highway, "I want to travel as much as possible, because I believe that you have to get out and perform the music live for people. I have done that all of my professional life. I have played live much more than in the studio. Of course, I would love to have the radio support because it helps us to reach more listeners and potential buyers. The touring band hasn't been determined just yet, but dates are coming in."
In a way, proceeding with his music has enabled Tom Braxton to remember the positive effect that Wayman Tisdale had on him. He examines how he would like people to see his friend, "I would like people to remember him as a warm, kind, gifted individual that loved God, people, and his music. He loved to laugh and have a good time. Even now, I will think of some of the funny things he used to do on the road, and a smile will cross my face. He was a very talented man with great character, a real role model."
Recording Endless Highway was a form of therapy for Braxton, and in return, the songs have a therapeutic effect on listeners. Braxton may not view himself as a beacon of light, but by anyone’s standards he has most assuredly become one. Endless Highway is a product of his faith and enables him to light the way to finding optimism when blinded by adversity. Anyone who has felt lost can find their way back to the flock by listening to Endless Highway. It is that moving.