The musicians who have the greatest longer-term impact are the ones who have something new to say. But they are also usually harder to appreciate at first, because they're playing something we're not used to hearing. And so it will be for many who audition the compositions of Anthony Branker performed by Ascent, a jazz collective established to play his music.
The songs and arrangements not so much. They struck me as overly simple vehicles for some fine soloists. And what a collection of the relatively unheralded. Branker himself is a Senior Lecturer and conductor of University Jazz Ensembles at Princeton. He also plays trumpet, though not on this album. Bryan Carrott has played with dozens of well-known jazz and pop artists. Clifford Adams, Jr. is best known for a solo he took on a Kool & the Gang hit, "Joanna," but once toured with Ellington's band; Jonny King has gigged with Joshua Redman; Roy Hargrove and Joe Lovano. And Steve Wilson...
Carrott's vibraphone kicks things off as the first original, "Ascent," sets the stage for the entire album. All alone, he repeats a whole-tone interval with varied rhythm. The phrase reappears, sometimes altered, throughout the track giving it a unified feel. It's a perfect example of what I first heard as "overly simple," but then gradually realized was instead pretty clever, as are all of these tunes and arrangements. The soloists are outstanding partly because of the framework Branker has provided mildly exotic and with scales and changes that inspire. Maybe I had the same misguided initial reaction the first time I heard the few chord changes on the Kind of Blue album by Miles Davis.
The saxes here seem especially at home and fluent. The under-rated tenor of New Yorker Ralph Bowen flows smoothly on the first track. His soprano takes over on 'The Holy Innocent," a waltz, and then it's Steve Wilson's alto on the Afro-Cuban sounding "Crystal Angel."
Afro-Cuban rhythms and insistent, unusual melodies reappear on "Arise." Solos go to Bowen's medium-hard tenor, King's Latin-tinged piano, and Carrott's rapidly moving vibes. Renate Thoms gets to show conga prowess on this cut. Wilby Fletcher on a standard drum-set and bassist Belden Bullock solidly anchor most other tracks. Unfortunately, this was one of Fletcher's last recordings. The fine one-time McCoy Tyner drummer died in late 2009, about two years after it was made.
"Sacred Song" starts with an odd, quiet, slow string of piano chords that might be invoking Egyptian gods. The soloists keep the same mysterious vibe. "Blessings," on the other hand, has the closest to a conventional story. It's relaxed and breezy.