Anthony Branker: Jazz Dialogics
AAJ: Ivy League schools are certainly not known for their jazz programs, yet you were a student in one, and now you are a faculty member. And you seem to have played a major role in bringing the jazz component of the Music Department, at Princeton, from a dot on the map to a very significant enterprise, where people are coming to study and perform. And we hear about you guys more and more. How did all that happen?
From left: Anthony Branker, Maria Schneider
AB: When I came onboard to teach in 1989, we were not part of the Music Department, but under the Office of Student Life, and were literally improvising our studies. So when I got here as an instructor, I wanted to change the culture, and the way of thinking about jazz. I wanted both faculty and students to realize how important this tradition really was and to try to expose them to as great a variety of music as possible. So I started to reflect that in concert programming, in the guest artists that we would bring in, changing the rehearsal formats for the ensembles, creating small groups in addition to the ongoing big bands. So there were things I had in mind coming in, and I was fortunate to have several department chairs that were very supportive of our work.
It's been a slow progression, but we've finally hit our stride. A couple of years ago, we received a $4,000,000 gift from an alum, Anthony H.P. Lee [a 1979 Princeton graduate and mathematics major who is an investment banker in Australia], who actually graduated one year before me, and we were in the same "Introduction to Jazz" class taught by a graduate student. But we didn't know each other at all at the time. His support firmly institutionalized the jazz program here. So now I have help. I was able to share some of the small group load with saxophonist Ralph Bowen. Kenny Davis taught a jazz performance seminar. Laura Pelligrinelli, a jazz scholar who works for NPR, came in and taught the Evolution of Jazz Styles course this semester. We're getting students who really are interested in coming here, because there is a community. The students are really supportive of each other. There's a lot of talent. We're really blessed with the kind of students we're attracting.
But a propos of Ivy League schools falling short on jazz, that's not entirely true. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Columbia University also has a wonderful program in place. Trombonist Chris Washburne, who is a professor there and Director of the Center for Ethnomusicology, is also head of their Jazz Studies Program. He is a wonderful force and does some tremendous things with the students there. I've had a chance to hear some of their groups, and they're fantastic. As a matter of fact, in December, we're doing a joint program at Princeton, in Richardson Auditorium, where both of our groups will be playing. So, jazz in the Ivy League is probably not the first thing that comes to people's minds, but some exciting things are happening. Cornell, Harvard, and other campuses are doing their thing as well.
Jazz Collectives and a Critical Life Event
AAJ: Let's talk about what you call your "Collectives."
AB: The two working groups that I preside over, so to speak, would be Anthony Branker & Ascent; and the one that you recently reviewed in concert is called Anthony Branker & Word Play. Ascent put out its first release, Spirit Songs, in 2006 on Sons of Sound Records.
[But] I have to take a detour to tell you that around 1999, my life changed in a very profound way. At the end of a rehearsal on campus, I was sitting behind the drums, doing something with the bassist and pianist, and I somewhat lost consciousness. The students later told me that I stood up, muttered something, fell over on the drum set, and experienced a seizure. I was rushed to the hospital, where it was discovered that I had two brain aneurysms. Further testing showed that I had something called an AVM, or arteriovenous malformation. I had to take a leave from Princeton, where I was teaching part-time, and from Hunter College, where I was teaching fulltime.
AAJ: Guitarist Pat Martino also suffered an aneurysm and AVM, and the doctors told him the AVM had been there since his childhood. Did they tell you the same thing?
AB: Yes, the AVM is an entangled collection of blood vessels, which you could be born with and it would never manifest itself unless a precipitating event causes a seizure. So it was probably something I was born with, and through the years, despite playing music and sports, it never really manifested. And then I had this episode. So I took some time off, and had a number of surgeries, the last of which was a craniotomy, where they open the skull. My particular AVM was behind my left eye. After a period of recovery, I was back teaching in the spring semester.
AAJ: So, unlike Pat, you didn't suffer major memory loss.
AB: No, I was very fortunate and blessed that it caused less damage than I've heard about in others. But my trumpet playing went on the back burner. I decided my focus had to change, and a propos of what I was telling you about my groups, it became more towards composing, and I wanted to have some kind of group as a creative outlet for my writing. So I established the group Ascent, and the idea was to bring in musicians with diverse backgrounds and musical personalities, write for those musicians, and do various projects together. It would serve as a core group that would stay with me over time. Ascent has recorded three CDs.
AB: The newer group, Anthony Branker & Word Play, came about when I wanted to have a group of musicians that would allow me to explore another aspect of my composing, one that was grounded in free exploration and took more advantage of the notion of conversational interplay. All of that is part of the jazz tradition as well.
AAJ: The title, "Word Play," implies that you might include a vocalist.
AB: No, the title of our first album is Dialogic (Origin, 2011), and it really has to do with the notion of conversation and dialogue. The emphasis on dialogue comes from the Russian educator/philosopher/philologist Mikhail Bakhtin. It's about the fact that the "self" is always in relation to "other," and understanding that relationship, as it occurs in a one on one situation or group setting, and what happens when that becomes a main factor whether in a jazz group or in a classroom. So a lot of the research I've done recently has focused on this notion of dialogue. My composing is also exploring that notion of musical dialogue, the kind of dialogue and conversations the musicians have with each other in the group, the inner dialogues the musicians have within themselves, determining how their music will influence the soundscape, the dialogue they have with the tradition, always in contact with that tradition and the music that shaped who we are.
With Word Play, there are many influences. As you heard in the concert, the influences are eclectic in the styles I embrace in my composing. It's not just straight-ahead or coming out of Latin sensibilities, so the group had a chance to reflect on many different influences.
AAJ: Jazz is, in fact, a conversational form of music. Improvised music versus strictly composed music is like the difference between speech and writing in language. So with big bands, the charts are pretty much spelled out in detail, and a few solo improvs are built in. But in small groups, the guys do all kinds of fancy footwork on the spot, and you wonder how it gets in the mix. What is written in, what is discussed in advance, what is cued by the leader, what happens spontaneously in the moment? Now, I know that when you work with a group like Word Play, you're not just giving them some tunes to play. What are you composing on paper, and what are you leaving up to the musicians? If we looked at one of your charts, what would be there?
AB: You would see standard notation. I tend to move back and forth between things that are quite prescriptive and not so much so. For example, the composition "Ancestral Tales," that you heard at the concert, the lines the bassist had, the piano part, the melody, all of that was very well laid out to reflect changes in meters and keep shifting the listener's perception as to where is the grouping, where is the strong beat, what is the meter? So the musicians will play that exactly. But then in that piece, I will leave a space for improvisation based upon a specific bass line, but allowing the pianist to explore different kinds of harmonies, but listening to the bass line and listening to the soloists.
So it sometimes almost becomes an Ornette Coleman approach with his notion of "harmolodics," which has to do with the relationship between harmony, melody, and movement. Sometimes it's about letting what the soloist does with the melody dictate where the harmony is going. In some pieces, like "Skirting the Issue" and "Iggery-Poncheek," I'll have a very definite framework for the composition proper, but when we get into the improvisation, I may have a cell of a rhythmic idea or nothing at all. I may just say "NC," no chord and allow the musicians to really expand upon the resources they heard in the composition itself and use that as a starting off point. Let them take it wherever they want to, empowering them in that sort of way.
For the group Ascent, I've been more specific: these are the changes, these are the "feels," and so it's a different kind of ensemble and approach to composition. But now with Word Play, I'm trying to create a space that really values the notion of freedom and exploration, and just giving the musicians a chance, letting them know it's OK to take it where you think it should go. They may ask me questions, and I may say, "I don't know," which may make them wonder if I really know what I want, but I'm really backing off intentionally, as if to say "I don't want what I think to influence what you think. I want you to feel free to just try some things out, and let's see what happens." And in many cases, what they come up with is so much more hip and incredible than what I could have imagined.
And that's why I think it's important that composers really need to have a connection with the performers. Quite often depending on the genre of the music, the composer may think "This is the way I heard it, this is the way it needs to be played. End of discussion." The performer must respect the intentions of the composer, playing according to his or her intentions. So sometimes composers don't have that conversation with the player and say, "What do you think about this? Where do you hear this going?" Again, I think it's about dialogue, allowing the performers to contribute to the process.
AAJ: There's a sense in which every performance is unique, and that's what makes jazz a remarkable art form. On the other hand, there's the tradition and culture which provide guidelines and inspiration. What's interesting is that your way of composing sounds like it is for a specific group of musicians. Can your compositions then be used by another group, say in a another city or country? Can they take your written notations and use them for their own performances?
AB: Most definitely. And the same concept applies with whoever is playing. I want them to be able to infuse it with their own particular sensibility. It's comparable to Duke Ellington, who wrote with his musicians and their personalities in mind. He knew what Johnny Hodges, for example, was capable of doing. He knew the sound he was trying to get, and he wrote in such a way that he highlighted those aspects. He knew the capabilities of Cat Anderson, of Juan Tizol, of Paul Gonsalves. But Ellington's music is capable of performance by musicians all over the world, including those who may not have been the recipients of his compositional intention. And I see it the same way. I'm starting off with the musical personalities of musicians whom I know very well, know their work, have worked with them, but it's not so closed that other musicians won't be able to explore the same composition. They would, I hope, find different ways of interpreting and contributing to the flow of the composition.
AAJ: In contrast to Butch Morris and his idea of "conduction"where he will direct a jazz ensemble with specialized movements that signal the musicians to do specific things at every momentafter you count off the rhythm, you back off and let the group take over. Yet there somehow seems to be a relationship in that you are both sort of the creator or deus ex machina, who is guiding the group as it performs while not actually being in the group as such.
AB: Well, Butch has created through the concept of conduction a very specific vocabulary of hand signals or other gestures to get the musicians to do what he needs them to do based on what he may be hearing in the moment or based on his conception of being a "conducting composer." That might be one way of describing what conduction is. For example, when I have led student groups here at Princeton, especially when we had our avant-garde ensemble, I utilized some of those techniques. Some conductors use notational devices like shapes on the paper, and that's what the musicians look at and interpret with the freedom to create around those symbols. So you can use non-traditional notation, hand signals, and so on. So I see Morris' approach to be a bit more hands-on in terms of what's happening in that moment, having some say in molding and shaping the flow in the moment. Whereas, what I try to do is empower the musicians to do that themselves. I trust them to hear and create and take the music to pla ces that work for this collection of musicians in that particular moment. Part of it too is that I'm working with a smaller ensemble. A lot of what Butch does is with larger groups. If I were doing music with a big band with a similar sensibility, I would probably be conducting them too.