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Anthony Branker: Jazz Dialogics

By Published: June 13, 2011

Branker as Composer

AAJ: There's an inner coherence with your groupsd that is uncommon for small jazz ensembles. Many just play the tune with choruses and variations without attention to the totality. By the way, do you use the standard AABA form?

Anthony Branker conducting trumpeter Terence Blanchard and His Quintet
Performing A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)

AB: I use a lot of different formal structures, and it's usually based on how the melody is naturally unfolding. In the [Paul Robeson Center] concert, there were some things in the AABA format; however, the lengths of the sections may not be a traditional 32-bar pop song form. Sometimes it's through-composed, with a sense that everything is sort of evolving, and I may not make reference to what came before, so it does have a sense of a free improvisation. The structures I use vary based on the tune. I don't create the structure first. I write and see where things go and then figure out the best way to add structure that is coherent for the listener and for the musician.

AAJ: There's a poster. in the lobby of the Music Department Building here, for a concert dedicated to Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
. Mingus did some quite intricate composing that might have represented a similar approach to yours, although of course his style was very different. Do you think there's a parallel there?

AB: Mingus is another influence on me as a writer in terms of the different kinds of resources that found their way into his music, whether of the church, the blues, bop, swing; and he also created structures that gave the musicians freedom to be themselves. And sometimes he taught the musicians the parts by first playing them himself as opposed to notation as such.

AAJ: When I listen to your music, varied ethnic associations come up for me: European, Caribbean, African, and so on. I know you recently spent time working in Estonia. Do you draw on diverse ethnic roots?

AB: I think it's all a part of who I am. It's all music, and one thing I tell my composition students is "Never apologize for or deny any of those influences that have shaped you in any way. If they are strong enough, and they are coming out in your playing and your writing, that's OK. That's what's gonna give you a chance to be unique and really share your voice." I've listened to and played Latin music, music of the Caribbean, calypso, and Soca music from Trinidad, which is a modernized combination of soul and calypso. It's all music that I've come to love, and, as I said earlier, it's rhythm that really drives me, and a lot of the music that I've embraced are styles that have very strong rhythmic identities. They're in there explicitly, or if the musicians are really listening, it may conjure up those influences for them as well. For example, my composition "Y Not" starts out with an African relationship between bass and drums, but there are parts where you hear our drummer, Adam Cruz, go into a New Orleans street beat. It's natural for that sort of thing to manifest itself, a logical extension of what's taking place.

AAJ: So much of music is based on the star system. We think in terms of the leader, the famous composer, the star, the personality, and the collective aspect of music making can get lost in the shuffle. The roots of jazz are in the collective, such as African tribal dance and New Orleans street bands. The music, however, comes from a group-as-a-whole place that's been influenced by other ensembles and traditions.

AB: I think the collective has always been there, but I think you're right. When you think of jazz, you think of the soloists who have helped create and shape the vocabulary of the music in different periods. When you listen to a soloist, it's possible to get drawn into that one person because he or she is telling a story. It almost seems like a monologue: here's someone saying what he has to say. But there's such a conversational dynamic that's taking place, even when the stars are improvising. And those conversations are being shaped by the interactions that are taking place in the group at any given moment. So, as you well know, the pianist may be playing something harmonically, and the soloist reacts to it at that moment. It may take them in a whole different direction. Rhythmically, there are things that are constantly inspiring the soloist, who in turn inspires the ensemble. So jazz has always been collaborative, collective, dialogic. Jazz musicians develop their identities as a result of the group, not in isolation. So, though it's easy to think, "yeah Dizzy was killin' and Monk was this," but they were also part of collectives that allowed them to play on the level that they played.

AAJ: The collective has always been there, but you're making it explicit.

AB: When you have a group of musicians who really understand it as a collective effort—not about "me"—and everyone listening to one another and shaping it, that's the ideal. There's always a collective conversation that's taking place.

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