Founder and Director of the Program in Jazz Studies, and Associate Director of the Program in Musical Performance at Princeton University, Anthony Branker also directs ensembles and teaches courses in jazz theory, improvisation and composition, jazz performance practice in historical and cultural context, jazz composition, and jazz history. A U.S. Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre in Tallinn, Estonia, Branker has previously been a member of the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, Rutgers University, Hunter College, Ursinus College, and the New Jersey Summer Arts Institute.
Branker, who serves as the composer and arranger for the music on this release in the same way Quincy Jones is responsible for the music on his recordings, utilizes a quartet of veteran New York based jazz musicians including Ralph Bowen on saxophones, keyboardist Jim Ridl, Kenny Davis on acoustic bass and Adam Cruz on drums.
All of the nine Branker originals on this recording remind one most of the some of the more complex charts Art Blakey’s band performed over the years. In general they explore the traditional jazz harmonic language that is colored by metrical shifts, integrated pre-composed ensemble patterns, and swing.
The opening track, for example, “Ancestral Tales” opens with changing irregular metric patterns that give way to a jazz waltz before the off-kilter metric colors seamlessly reappear. During the solo section Bowen treats his run over the patterns in the traditionally accepted manner. Ridl’s solo, on the other hand, is full of extended upper harmonic voicings that almost totally leave the function harmony Branker composed. The end result is a delightful contrast of two very different ways of treating jazz harmonies at the beginning of the 21st century.
Throughout the recording Davis’ bass and Cruz’s percussion work are in perfect tandem. Dipping and darting together in just the most perfect manner as each of the different charts calls for, and they provide a solid foundational seat upon which Bowen and Ridl are able to lay out any ideas they care to present to the musical firmament.
Another of the highlights on this exceptionally eloquent disc include the questioning and open endedly crafty “Iggery-Poncheek” where Bowen slips in and out of the harmonic proceedings to great effect. Ridl’s solo, on the other hand, works its own magic in terms of rhythmic displacement. The contrasting styles of these two soloists open up so many other avenues of thought one can easily imagine ten subsequent readings of the chart yielding ten different interpretations. Cruz’s solo, ala Varese in terms of tone colors called upon, demonstrates yet another way the composition could be interpreted.
All four of the musicians on this recording are true road veterans who can easily walk their way through any musical challenge. That they give their best for a session where they could have easily slept-walked through the tunes exemplifies just how dedicated each of them was to this studio date. This is not really jazz for driving or grooving to at a party; this is serious music that takes time to comprehend and adjust to. For those willing to take the time, however, this most highly recommended recording will yield many moments of delight and intellectual enchantment.