Anthony Branker & Ascent: Spirit Songs (2006)
This star of Spirit Song is Ralph Peterson, not on the trumpet he occasionally plays, but as a drummer who's as much in the front line as any hornman on the date, needing and finding as much inspiration and as many ideas as any horn soloist. Often he plays pretty well in duet with each of the soloists, but not intrusively. He knows what to do. Where a lesser percussionist would need to lay out, he can fit in beautifully and hold every performance together.
On "Sketches of Selim" the delicate interplay of the horns receive magical support, and the cross-rhythms on "Imani (Faith)" provide an impulse and rhythmic variety which keeps alive a number whose basic near-reggae rhythm always carries the risk of falling into a mechanical pattern. Nobody's countingeverybody's dancing. Antonio Hart's alto and Ralph Bowen's tenor blend in swinging against the impressive trombone of Clifford Adams.
The drummer is perhaps all the more important because of this set's religious inspiration. "In God's Hands" needs a healthy pulse to maintain the line and avoid the danger of sentimentality, whether in Bowen's solo on soprano or King's on piano. The very intricacy of Peterson's playing, full but quiet in this quartet number, is remarkable, liberating John Benitez's bass to enhance the rhythmic movement. On the pacier "Mentor" Hart plays with direct fluency, likewise Bowen on tenor, and Peterson times accents brilliantly to enable Adams' lovely, flowing trombone solo. With Benitez gently throbbing in the background, Peterson takes a drum solo with startling forward impulsion.
The empathy between Peterson and King surfaces again through King's opening solo on "J.C's Passion." Benitez provides a potent throb beneath the trombone solo, the drummer unpredictable, always reliable, and never anything near metronomic. There's more piano/bass/drums empathy in the building conclusion to "So What," which might as well have its studio fade, since any single stopping point would be arbitrary. There's no mistaking the musical reference to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue in the opening "Chant for Peace Eternal," although Peterson's power also brings to mind the classic quartet led by a one-time Davis tenorist, John Coltrane.
Like a few of the best recent sets by veterans (obviously Benny Golson) this one draws on compositions spanning several years. The presiding genius of melody here, Anthony Branker, comes highly praised in the notes as a trumpeter/flugelhornist, a teacher at Princeton, and a leader of several junior ensembles. He does not play on this vivid, inspiring and inspired set of devotional swinging hard bop, though it's all arranged and almost all composed by him. Probably he feels no need to blow his own metaphorical horn, either. Admirable.
Track Listing: Chant For Peace Eternal; Parris In April; Spirit Song; Sketches of Selim; Imani (Faith); In God's Hands; Mentor; J.C.'s Passion.
Personnel: Antonio Hart: alto and soprano saxophone; Ralph Bowen: tenor and soprano saxophone; Clifford Adams: trombone; Jonny King: piano; John Benitez: bass; Ralph Peterson: drums; Anthony Branker: arranger.