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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


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