Anthony Branker: Jazz Dialogics

Victor L. Schermer By

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Never apologize for or deny any of those influences that have shaped you. 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.
Anthony Branker is a musician for all seasons. He began his career as a trumpeter, including a stint with the Spirit of Life Ensemble, which honored its African-American and Afro-Caribbean roots during a multi-year tenure as the Monday night band at the legendary Sweet Basil club in New York City. Over time, Branker developed an increasing interest in jazz education, which led him to teaching positions at Hunter College and Princeton University, where he organized and conducted memorable ensembles. Around 1999, medical problems stemming from a brain aneurysm led him to yield his trumpet playing in favor of an enduring interest in composing and conducting.

Among his many accomplishments, Branker played a major role in organizing an active jazz program at Princeton. He has also founded and leads two jazz collectives— Anthony Branker & Ascent, whose recordings have received praise throughout the industry; and Anthony Branker & Word Play, which recently recorded its initial CD. For these groups of top-flank musicians, Branker crafts extended compositions that allow ample room for musical dialogue amongst the players. He guides his groups with his intentions, then stepping back to hear the results of their creativity. What ensues are rhythmic, stirring, and complex expressions of ideas and feelings, with coherence, meaning, and implication. In a word, they are beautiful, in a deep, aesthetic sense that leaves a lasting impression.

In a In a recent All About Jazz review of an April, 2011 performance by Word Play at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts in Princeton, New Jersey, as much as the power of the music was clearly impressive—featuring saxophonist Ralph Bowen, bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Adam Cruz and special guest, pianist Jim Ridl—so, too, was it unusual to see Branker back off, after rehearsing the group and helping to establish the rhythm, rather than joining the ensemble as a player. While not uncommon with big bands, this strategy is rare in the quartet format.

All About Jazz: We'll start with the perennial desert island question: What are the recordings that you would bring to that desert island?

Anthony Branker: First of all, I love Woody Shaw. He was one of my big inspirations coming up as a trumpeter and composer. Mosaic Records came out with a box set a while ago that has the complete CBS recordings [ Complete CBS Studio Recordings of Woody Shaw, (1992)]. So that's definitely one.

AAJ: What is it about Shaw that appeals to you?

AB: There was something about his sound, the way that he created lines, his harmonic foundation. His use of wider intervals and the angularity of it. There was something so fresh and engaging about the way he played, coming out of the hard bop idiom, but influenced by freer approaches to improvisation and composition.

AAJ: Some more albums?

AB: Freddie Hubbard, The Body and the Soul (Blue Note, 1963). Wayne Shorter did a lot of the arranging on that, with a somewhat larger ensemble. Then there would have to be Art Blakey and the The Jazz Messengers' Ugetsu (Riverside, 1963). I discovered that record when I was about 19 or 20 years old. The Jazz Messengers were always an influence on me. Then there's a young vocalist, Gretchen Parlato, ho's done some work with Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter. On her debut recording, Gretchen Parlato (Self Produced, 2005), she has a wonderful sound, and sense of lyricism and musicality. Maybe not incredibly well known, but she's amazing. Pat Metheny's Still Life (Talking) (Nonesuch, 1987); there's so much about Pat's sound that I love, and the kinds of musical resources that he delves into, and that particular recording has a personal connection in that when my daughter Parris was born, back in 1994, that was one of the recordings that I always played around the house. And I remember just holding her in my arms and dancing, and singing some of the melody lines. She still remembers that recording, and at one point was able to sing some of the solos. Wayne Shorter—I love everything that Wayne has done. Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1965) is probably the one I'd pull out at this point. Wayne's approach to composition has been a big influence on me as well.

AAJ: Do you have any interests in classical music?

AB: Yes. Bartók String Quartets. Everything by Stravinsky. I have wonderful boxed sets with Firebird and Petrouchka and so on. Again, I tend to gravitate towards performers, composers, and arrangers who have a unique approach or really value rhythm and lyricism. Those are what I embrace and are really important in my own approach to writing music.

Chapter Index
  1. Early Life and Musical Influence
  2. Updating the Career
  3. Jazz Collectives and a Critical Life Event
  4. Branker as Composer
  5. Looking Into the Future
  6. Spirituality, Family, and Life

Early Life and Musical Influences

AAJ: Let's go now to your early background and influences. You grew up in Piscataway and Plainfield, NJ. I believe that pianist Bill Evans grew up in that area.

AB: Yes, in Plainfield.

Anthony Branker's Word Play, from left: Jim Ridl, Adam Cruz, Kenny Davis, Ralph Bowen

AAJ: Did you come from a musical family?

AB: Well, at first I didn't think so, I had no idea. But in my twenties and thirties I did learn that there were a couple of Brankers in the music business. My uncle Rupert Branker was the music director and pianist with the Platters. My other uncle, Roy, was with the Copasetics, a fraternity of male musicians in Harlem organized after the death of William "Bojangles" Robinson, primarily to support dance. Billy Strayhorn was a member of that group, and my uncle Roy wrote some music with Strayhorn. Roy Branker was also in a trio called the Three Peppers. Another cousin, Nicholas Brancker, who spells his name slightly differently from mine, is from Barbados. He's a music producer and bassist who worked with Roberta Flack and also was nominated for a Grammy in the calypso category.

AAJ: So you only later learned that you come from a truly musical extended family.

AB: I didn't learn about Rupert until I was playing classical trumpet with organ at an event in Pennsylvania. Someone came up to me afterwards, and said, "Are you related to Rupert Branker? He was with the Platters." So I started doing some research, and sure enough, it was my uncle. It was very cool to find out about him in that way. I think he passed in 1961. I was born in 1958, so I didn't have actual contact with him. But it's a source of pride to be part of that lineage.

AAJ: What were your early musical influences?

AB: Well, my whole family is from Trinidad. I'm first generation American. So growing up, there was a lot of calypso, a lot of music of the islands I heard in the house. Also, a lot of popular music of that time period. On AM radio, I'm checking out the music of the Motown sound, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye. Some funk things, Parliament Funkadelic, James Brown. I started playing trumpet when I was 10 years old. In elementary school, I took lessons in school and played in the band. Maybe in middle school, I had my first experience of jazz, but the moment that jazz took hold of me was when I went to my first live concert, and that was not until I was about 14 or 15 years old, around 1973-1974. It was Maynard Ferguson's Big Band, just after they released the MF Horn—Vols. 4-5: Live at Jimmy's (Columbia, 1974), so the band was swingin' really hard. The concert was at a hotel in Somerset, NJ. I just remember sitting really close, and the spirit and the passion with which the band played, swingin' so hard, great soloists, playin' bop and hard bop. It was before the band's more commercial ventures like [the theme from 1975 film] Rocky, that came in around 1976 or '77 [on Chameleon (Columbia, 1977)]. It just took hold of me. And as a trumpet player, my mouth dropped when I heard Maynard doing what he's doing and playing in that stratosphere. And his showmanship. So after that concert, I really wanted to learn more about jazz and how to play this music. I wanted it to be part of my life.

So that's when I really started to study and work hard on the instrument. I had a chance to study with Donald "Doc" Reinhardt in Philadelphia and his pivot system approach to brass. Reinhardt was a trombonist involved in jazz and classical music and had a connection with the Curtis Institute. He looked at each brass player as unique, and would consider the specific physical features that you brought to the table. For example, if you had more of an overbite, there was a certain way he approached the exercises he created for you and how your air stream flowed. He had it broken down into types, and everything was individualized for that student. So it served me very well. I became really aware of my embouchure. My sound and range improved. My embouchure improved. I was playing lead a lot during that time period. A lot of the lead players in the industry went to Reinhardt, and it so happened the same friend who took me to hear Maynard took me to Philly, and we both studied with Doc Reinhardt for a couple of years.

This was when I really began to get into the music of some of those who really became idols: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw, all around that same time period. I saw Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers when I was in high school, and that was another one of those incredible experiences.

AAJ: I'm surprised you didn't mention Clifford Brown.

AB: Clifford was another one whose solos I tried to transcribe, and get into his sense of line development and articulation. In fact, when I was an undergraduate here at Princeton, he was one trumpeter I was focusing on, his beautiful lush sound.

AAJ: So it was in your late teens, and set on becoming a jazz trumpet player?

AB: At that point, I don't think I yet had professional aspirations. I was thinking about teaching math. I came to Princeton as a math major. But soon I was able to convince my parents that I loved math, but that music was taking a central part in my life. Music was always a passion, but there was a pragmatic part of me and my parents didn't see music as a very secure life. But at Princeton, I saw that there were many aspects of music that interested me: playing, teaching, composing, conducting, and doing research. And that was the path I decided to take and when I started taking jazz seriously as a player. I was around 20, going into my junior year.

AAJ: Did you play with any hot groups at that time?

AB: Mostly with other students, but some were rising stars. Guitarist Stanley Jordan was an undergraduate here. We played in a fusion band on campus called Timepiece. I also had to do a senior thesis project and mine was to produce a jazz recording. It was all my original compositions, and Stanley Jordan was on that.

AAJ: Did you perform with any working groups?

AB: Not until a bit later. For a number of years, I performed with a group called The Spirit of Life Ensemble, and we were the Monday night ensemble in residence at Sweet Basil in New York. It was great. We had Mark Gross and Talib Kibwe [T.K. Blue] on alto saxophones, Clifford Adams on trombone, Michael Cochrane on piano, Belden Bullock on bass, and Bryan Carrott who is a great vibraphonist. It was a wonderful ensemble. It was a great group. We were playing a lot of original music with an Afro-centric vibe. Caribbean, Latin, African foundation, but still some stuff that was swingin.' We did a lot of tours, and played the Pori Festival in Finland a number of times. We were in Paris, in Lithuania, Estonia (where I recently returned). It was a great experience to play with that ensemble.



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