Anthony Branker: Jazz Dialogics

Victor L. Schermer By

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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. 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.

Looking into the Future

AAJ: What are your thoughts about the future for yourself and the music? What do you have in mind down the pike?

AB: I'm definitely going to continue with my collectives. I already have something in mind for a followup recording next year with Word Play, with the same players—Ralph Bowen, Jim Ridl, Kenny Davis, and Adam Cruz. I also want to continue to write for Ascent, which is a bit of a different vibe. In the Dance Music CD, there's a wonderful vocalist from Estonia, When I went there as a Fulbright Scholar, she was just entering the jazz program. Her name is Kadri Voorand, a great lyricist and composer, doing wonderful things and making a great presence in Europe. Her voice is central to the ensemble as well as the three horn voices that I use. So that's Ascent. I really want to explore that group.

I'm also working on some other compositional things. I have a short work for string quartet and am looking for a reading session for that work. I'm working on an octet that brings together classical and jazz influences. I wrote a book of five piano etudes that explore different aspects of dialogue and rhythm. There's supposed to be a premiere of that either at the end of May [2011] or, if not, maybe in the fall at Temple University. And I want to continue writing for piano. There are many things as a composer that I want to do. I want to write for big band more than I have in the past. But first and foremost, I want to explore Word Play, because there are some wonderful possibilities there.

AAJ: When you're sitting there listening to Word Play, after you've rehearsed them and all that, do you ever feeling like going in there and picking up a horn or telling them to do something different?

AB: Well, no, because I trust the musicians implicitly, and I just wanna see where they take it.

AAJ: It appears that you're able to let go of your ego, the "control freak" aspect, and just let it happen. That's very spiritual; it stands in contrast with, say Miles Davis, who was always shaping his groups.

AB: To a certain extent, but Miles also had an aspect to him where he left things very ambiguous and let the musicians figure it out. So he really empowered them. He wasn't one to say, "I need to hear this; I need to hear that. Give me that chord change again."

AAJ: Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), for example, was done in a very open way. Was Miles a role model for you?

AB: Yes, in many ways.

Spirituality, Family, and Life

AAJ: Speaking of spirituality, Coltrane once said, "Music is my spirit." Tell us about your own spiritual beliefs, practices, and so on.

AB: My spirituality is at the center of who I am, not just as a person but as a musician. A number of the compositions I've done with Ascent do speak to that. There's a piece that I wrote for my dad. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and given less than six months to live, which I just didn't believe—and he survived for nine years. I wrote a piece for him called "In God's Hands." It's on the Spirit Songs recording. He was a very spiritual person as well, and it was just this notion of trust in the Lord above. Put all your troubles in God's hands, and he will provide for you, he will give you that strength that you need to deal with any circumstance. I wrote a piece for my mom, "Imani" which means faith, and a piece on a recent recording called "Mysterious Ways." So my spirituality manifests itself in my compositions, in my inspiration.

I've mentioned in my liner notes that my daughter passed away at childbirth. I wrote a piece for her called "The Holy Innocent." Her name was Kassandra. At full term pregnancy, my wife and I were going to the hospital January 22nd 2001, we thought she was giving birth to a beautiful baby girl, and then she was still-born. When my other daughter, Parris was born, I wrote this piece for her called "Parris in April." I wanted to write something for Kassandra, but it had to be perfect and a real tribute to her, and I just couldn't do it. When I went to Estonia on the Fulbright in 2005, without my family, I had a lot of time to write. And the first piece I wrote was the one for Kassandra. It was an experience I haven't ever had before or after, where everything seemed to come out fully formed, the melody and chord changes were just so intuitive.

That was the first piece I wrote there, and I wrote a total of thirty-two on that trip. I recorded quite a few of them. And that was Kassandra from above saying, "Thank you so much Daddy. Let me talk to God to help you in this process." It opened the flood-gates for me; I know it was her and God that allowed me to write. I've always been a spiritual person. That's how my family is, as well. Spirituality and religion are two very different things entirely. Religion can be just for show: "Let's go to church so we can say we do."

AAJ: Spirituality, like music, is really about dialogue, a dialogue with God and/or the universe. Of course, religion and spirituality come into jazz in an ancestral way, through hymns and gospel music. Spirituality has gotten you through difficult times, so I'm wondering about your aneurysm or AVM in that connection.

AB: That was it. If it weren't for my connection with God, I don't know how I would have gotten through that. It was a very difficult period. I became so close to God. There was a CD by Kirk Franklin, a gospel singer, called The Nu Nation Project (Gospocentric, 1998), and when I was getting back on my feet, I was listening to that CD all the time, and praying and thanking God all the time for getting me through, because, as I would say to God, "Without You, no me." And God got me through; my faith got me through that, and so much more. Got me through the passing of my daughter, and all that happened within a year: the craniotomy in 2000, my daughter's passing in 2001.

AAJ: I'm sure that God being a living presence for you shows up in the music as well. They said that Coltrane was God-inspired when he wrote A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). His wife, Alice Coltrane, remembered that he went up to his room and stayed there for a couple of weeks, and it just poured out of him.

AB: It's interesting because I was raised Roman Catholic, but I was also raised by my mom and dad to honor and understand the bond that we have with all religions. When I was younger, I went to different services of different denominations.

AAJ: It seems clear that you consider your family the center of your life.

AB: Most definitely. My dad passed in 1995. My mom lives in Plainfield, but I'm always bringing her down here and she spends a lot of time with us. It's hard to describe her. She's such an incredible force. At the Word Play concert, I spoke about the late Rutgers trumpet professor Bill Fielder as being one of the influences for the ballad, "The Selfless Soul." My mom is really that same kind of individual who puts herself before others, for anyone who needs help. She's just a beautiful spirit.

I've been married to my wife Lisa going on nineteen years December 12. And my daughter Parris just turned 17 and is now doing her college search thing. She plays basketball and is involved in AAU. I take my role as a dad very seriously and we have a great time together.

AAJ: Do you utilize dialogue with issues that come up with your daughter in a similar way to your jazz groups?

AB: I'm very much a conversational person. In high school, I was called "Henry Kissinger" [laughter] because I was always that mediator, the person that people came to with a problem. So that's how I'm built, I guess. And sometimes that works at home, and other times it may not work. Conversation is so important, this give and take, this ebb and flow, negotiation. You have to be willing to be open enough to hear others' perspectives and takes on things that may be quite different from your own. And not only that, but you have to be willing to step aside and be OK with being wrong about certain things.

Selected Discography

Anthony Branker & Word Play, Dialogic (Origin, 2011)
Anthony Branker & Ascent, Dance Music (Origin, 2010)
Anthony Branker & Ascent, Blessings (Origin, 2009)
Anthony Branker & Ascent, Spirit Songs (Sons of Sound, 2006)
Anthony Branker, For the Children (Sons of Sound, 2006)

Jann Parker, Voicings (Self Produced, 2001)
Spirit of Life Ensemble, Twenty-5ive (Rise Up Productions, 2000)
T.K. Blue, Another Blue (Arkadia, 1999)
Spirit of Life Ensemble, Collage (Rise Up Productions, 1998)
Spirit of Life Ensemble, Live at the Pori Jazz Festival 1996 (Rise Up Productions, 1997)
Spirit of Life Ensemble, The Panasonic Village Jazz Festival 1997 Compilation CD (International Music Factory, 1997)

Photo Credits

Pages 4, 5: Denise Applewhite

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Anthony Branker
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