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The New Cool: BrandonLee Cierley takes on a new jazz challenge

Young saxophonist BrandonLee Cierley steps up his game in jazz and hip-hop.
Photograph by Kyana Harris.
Young saxophonist BrandonLee Cierley steps up his game in jazz and hip-hop.

His Tacoma-based modern jazz band 322 became a favorite of New Cool fans since their beginnings as college kids at PLU. Five years later, the band's leader, saxophonist BrandonLee Cierley, moves in a new direction with his new release of jazz-meets-hip-hop, Here Comes a New Challenger.

In a School of Jazz studio session from 2016, Cierley talked about debuting his own big band. Those academic roots show in smart arrangements for Here Comes a New Challenger. But, that might be where the classic jazz similarities end.

The soulful, 90s-era hip-hop Cierley grew up with — Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Dr Dre — informs the heart of this new album. The songs also use similar hip-hop production moods in a jazz direction. The album is certainly modern, but conceived from a rich foundation in jazz education.

Much of modern jazz is formed from this combination of styles. BrandonLee Cierley has talked about his appreciation for Robert Glasper's modern jazz, and frequently mentions his studies with modern saxophonist and singer Braxton Cook. I spoke with Cierley this week about this deep dive into words and beats.

The use of jazz elements by modern hip-hop stars like Kendrick Lamar and Logic has been a big influence, he says. "I feel like that's where the evolution of hip-hop is going," Cierley told me.

Production-wise, Cierley also points to a number of musically simatico partners. He credits friends around the Northwest, Portlander Machado Mijiga; Jonny Tobin, he's a keyboard player and producer from Vancouver, Canada; and Seattle guitarist and producer Winks along with Floridian EyeLoveBrandon. "They all have a different approach, but it all came out great," he told me.

Live drums from Mijiga and Tacoma's Brian Smith (of Velocity) blend with produced beats for a gritty, but mature, sound that stays consistent in spite of the many helping hands on this project.

The rap elements were collaborations in a jazz sense — choose a partner you trust and let them do their best. Cierley says, "I told them, 'Here's the idea, I want you to have artistic freedom. I'm not gonna tell you what to do.' I hate when people tell me what to do. It all fit perfectly!"

Credit Parker Miles Blohm
Tacoma's BrandonLee Cierley takes his sax and style to Portland soon, but not before releasing a new jazz-hip-hop hybrid album.

The vocals from rappers Boooka and The Rhetorician do fit the sound of the album, and they're effortlessly cool, but leave me wanting to hear more from Cierley's jazz side.

The instrumentals on Here Comes a New Challenger will likely be of more interest to New Cool listeners. Cierley's fondness for r&b coolness and, most importantly, his skill at giving that sound a sharper edge results in a pair of fresh tunes.

Not a Lionel Richie cover, "Hello?" is coated with a wash of digitally enhanced acoustic drums. Woozy keyboards set the scene for a horn theme that reminds me of trumpeter Christian Scott's band, that — not coincidentally — includes Cierley's mentor, Braxton Cook.

My favorite, which you'll hear on The New Cool this Saturday afternoon, is "Falling Sky." The album closer runs an effecient three minutes, but carries an irresistable positivity inside a captivating hook.

The song's head is reminiscent of 322's best melodies, and provides abundant opportunities for improvisation. Keyboardist Peter Adams (again, of Tacoma's Velocity) and trumpeter Cameron Formanczyk take advantage, as does Cierley with his own brief, relaxed solo.

Cierley's developing saxophone sound hints at the lean tones of his teacher, Cook, and on tenor sax, a touch of John Coltrane if he'd been a soul musician. Cierley is clearly finding confidence in his own sound, and making bold choices with his music.

A big move to Portland is next for BrandonLee Cierley. He's looking forward to working with that city's talented trumpeter and band leader Farnell Newton and his label, Lofijazzsoul.

The album cover for Here Comes a New Challenger features video game (Tekken!) versions of Cierley battling each other. "The only person getting in the way of my success is myself," he says. The cover is also a nod to Cierley's continuing transition from eager kid to earnest young professional. The future, in Portland and beyond, is bright for this young musician.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.