Musician and composer Nathaniel Braddock tours internationally and performs an array of different musical styles in venues as disparate as underground arts spaces and Lincoln Center. Based for years in Chicago, Braddock relocated to Sydney, Australia, in 2014, and to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2016.
Nathaniel leads the acclaimed Central African soukous ...
Solitude re-created Nathaniel Braddock’s music. Braddock had spent years playing dance floor-packing West African music as part of the Occidental Brothers Dance Band Int’l. At the same time, he taught fingerstyle genres to guitar players at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, diving deep into the work of players like John Fahey, Ali Farka Toure, Bert Jansch, and Boubacar Traore.
Then he wound up in Australia, caring for his infant son. As he played solo gigs, he began braiding his complex, divergent influences together in new ways, returning to more exploratory approaches. The resulting album of solo guitar instrumentals, Quadrille & Collapse (release: April 7, 2017), recorded in Melbourne, balances the avant and the lyrical, the traditional and the modern, the groove and the adventurous meter.
The album deconstructs the age-old underpinnings of Americana, British folk, and African string music, building an organic whole with a subtle, searing edge: a rhythmic twist here, a challenging chord sequence there. It’s the music 20th-century classical mavericks might have made, if they tackled fingerpicking, palm wine music, and American parlor tunes.
“I came to a reckoning point. I was spending so much time transcribing and learning to play other musicians’ tunes, that I really wanted to write my own music again,” Braddock recounts. “I was spending time alone with our newborn son--I wasn’t in rehearsal with my 6-piece African dance band. I started dealing emotionally with how my playing had changed after years of teaching folk music, in both positive and negative ways. But I was also then thinking analytically about my influences, and how to create something beautiful that honored these new influences, yet got me back into exploratory, experimental material.”
To do this, Braddock unites early American open tunings and post-bop harmonies, palmwine rhythms and classical composition techniques. He finds new voicings and robust arrangements that make full use of the instrument. “I’m trying to play within expected traditional music idioms, but also make them unsettling and different,” notes Braddock. “Not to disrespect the tradition, but to disregard what is proper or improper.”
Braddock won his reputation as an innovative, skilled player in the Chicago indie rock (Ancientgreeks, the Zincs) and improvised music scenes (Butcher Shop Quartet), yet he had a long-standing fascination with African music that began in his teens. Not content to merely listen or dabble, he spent years studying, playing, and traveling to deepen his understanding of West African popular music, collaborating with musicians from Mali, Ghana, Congo, and Zambia.
He eventually taught an African guitar class at the Old Town School, and his students were so into it, they insisted he needed to start a band. He did, the Occidental Brothers. Fronted by a respected Ghanaian vocalist, Kofi Cromwell, the group took the world and eclectic scene by storm, playing Pitchfork and numerous major jazz festivals.
Ghanaian and Northern Malian elements persist in Braddock’s compositions. “Kodjo Odo Fowaa” takes palmwine rhythms and sikyi harmonies, but then departs from them harmonically, in an intimate tribute to his son. “Tiger Bucket” draws firmly on folk, but also takes cues from Hamza el Din, an early influence on Braddock. “The Desert Within” posits what John Fahey might have played after a long sojourn in the Sahara.
At the same time Braddock was teaching and playing African music intensively, he developed classes on fingerpicking styles. He used the work of British Folk Revival players like Jansch and Nick Drake, as well as early American styles and techniques, as models. He became fluent in this guitar dialect, though Braddock was slightly ambivalent about the rhythmic impact of this style, a notion he explored in “Regression to the Mean.”
“After teaching this style of playing, it changed the rhythm of how I played,” Braddock reflects. “I was at this moment, when I said, ‘God, what happened to me?’ Truthfully, I’ve become a better player, but my voice had moved toward the middle of the road. I embraced that rhythm, that right hand pattern, but played blazingly fast and changed the harmony.”
In counterpoint to the folk influence, Braddock weaves contemporary classical ideas and sounds into his compositions. “New Prague, Spring” hints at Copeland’s anthemic, modern tonalities. “Silvering Ghosts” interlocking rhythmic patterns suggest the building, shifting cycles of minimalists like Steve Reich.
Whether lyrical or more challenging, Braddock’s playing has a sparkling crispness, an evocative precision. Braddock sees technique and emotion as entwined, and compositional concepts, memory, and personal experience find equal footing in his pieces. “When people write music, there’s a lot of autobiography. They don’t pull it out of the air. It comes from their personal history, from their context,” Braddock reflects. “Context and story are part of what makes things like African music so amazing. The music theory is also a part of that cultural context.”
Braddock is building context for the project, creating a video and commissioning remixes of the tracks, to bring out other elements and sides of the pieces. Yet the tracks on Quadrille & Collapse speak boldly for themselves, in the unique dialect Braddock has developed. “As a more mature musician, I have a bit more perspective than just letting things burble out,” he muses. “That’s part of what happens when you develop a personal vocabulary. It’s influenced by all the music in your practice, that you play regularly.”