Anthony Branker plays no instruments on his latest record Uppity. Actually, he’s never performed on any of his six releases, so I can’t discuss what a great instrumentalist or vocalist he is. That’s quite all right, however, because his composing and arranging are what Branker records are all about.
A burgeoning trumpet player, Branker’s career as a performer was cut short following a seizure and a couple of brain aneurysms, so he redirected his musical abilities in these other ways. If that story sounds familiar, then you must be thinking of Quincy Jones, who also had to hang up his trumpet but still found ways to be so viable in music. As the Director of Jazz Studies at Princeton University, Dr. Banker had already established himself as an academic in the field, but he’s not the kind of guy who holes himself up in ivory towers; he’d rather go out and make fresh contributions to his chosen field of study.
Which brings us back to the music. Branker initially formed an ensemble Ascent that has made four albums since 2006 and last year he introduced another group, Word Play. That latter band made it’s first record Dialogic in 2011 as a quartet and now it’s expanded to a sextet for the new release, Uppity. Though the band’s a little bigger, it is still a study on how to get big band type of harmonics out of a smaller combo, and still leverage the agility advantage inherent with less musicians. Getting the best of both worlds is what Branker is able to master time and again on Uppity and that is most evident on the first track “Let’s Conversate!”.
At its core, “Let’s Conversate!” is electric funk-jazz, a syncopated gait by drummer Donald Edwards and Fender bassist Kenny Davis. But as Davis performs a repeating figure, electric pianist player Jim Ridl is playing a countering ostinato, succeeded by another complementing figure by Ralph Bowen (tenor sax) and Eli Asher (trumpet). A finally, there’s Andy Hunter’s trombone quavering around the two other horns, to provide the fourth and final tier. It’s very, well, contrapuntal.
The highly dynamic pattern acts as a springboard for charged individual performances, too, such as a call and response between Bowen and Hunter, a Hancock-esque Rhodes solo by Ridl and finally a brief but power packed drum solo from Edwards. Then it’s back to the layered repeating pattern.
By adroitly folding together harmony, tight arrangements and improvisation, Branker is indeed able to get the best of both worlds. Some may scoff at any comparison to Quincy Jones, but there’s little question he can also get others to play really good jazz that he can no longer play himself. And that’s all that matters to my ears.
Uppity was released March 19, by Origin Records. Visit Anthony Branker’s website for more info.
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