By Jeff Cebulski
Black History Month gives us the opportunity to revisit and reconsider the disconcerting events that unfortunately occupy our socio-historical legacy. From Billie Holiday to Max Roach to Charles Mingus and beyond, Jazz artists have played a huge role in increasing our awareness of the nation’s inequalities. Thanks to Origin Records, I discovered another such artist.
Anthony Branker is an Ivy League-educated trumpet player and composer who rose from a Fulbright Scholarship to become the founder of Jazz Studies at Princeton. He has also conducted many orchestrated performances and participated in many conferences. But in 1999, complications emanating from two brain aneurysms forced him to give up the trumpet. His story would be even more tragic if not for his talent for composition and his association with many accomplished players. Undaunted, Branker was able to complete 27 years at Princeton, including establishing the Certificate Program in Jazz Studies. As he has drifted away from a fulltime educational career, Branker has continued composing music for other people to perform.
Anthony Branker & Imagine's new album is entitled What Place Can Be for Us?. Branker's ensemble Imagine is one of three ensembles he leads and his eighth release on the Origin label. (He has three releases with each of his other ensembles Ascent and Word Play.) Based on a previous album, Beauty Within (highly recommended), Imagine seems to represent Branker’s more spiritual/cultural side in thematic approach. The link between the two recordings is the dynamic bass-piano duo of Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan, who more than adequately bolster the proceedings from Branker’s ever-creative muse.
On What Place, described as a suite with 10 movements, the now-married Oh and Almazan are joined by the likes of Walter Smith III on tenor; rising players Phil Dizack on trumpet and Remy Le Boeuf on alto and soprano; NYCs Pete McCann on guitar, and the New Orleans veteran Donald Edwards on drums, with a couple of spoken word additions from Alison Crockett (aka Ms. DivaBlue).
The album is a commentary “that speaks to notions of ‘Place’ and the overarching issues of inclusion and belonging, as well as circumstances of exploitation and zones of refuge experienced by people of color and other global citizens,” according to the album notes.
Crockett’s poetic-like recitations are included on the Kwame Alexander-inspired opener “The Door of No Return” and the Langston Hughes verse “I, Too, Sing America,” a proud and defiant declaration within an environment of prejudice and disillusionment. Crockett adds vocal texture to “The Door,” a sprawling, multi-rhythmic display that provides an Afrocentric forward to the album’s thematic exposition.
The song titles speak for themselves, as Branker demonstrates his capacity for creating tone poems that capture the varying moods of American minorities’ “moving history.” To these ears, Branker seems to have an affinity for the post-fusion music of the late eighties and early nineties, as represented on “Indivisible,” the title cut, and “Sanctuary City.” On “Indivisible” (which reminds me of the music guitarist Mitch Watkins was producing back then), McCann begins with quasi-rock chords, leading to Almazan and the sax brothers pronouncing the theme, onto which McCann burns a steamy solo. On “What Place…,” Oh’s electric bass travels in tandem with the horns, backed by Edwards’ syncopated beat. On “Sanctuary City,” Smith and McCann communicate over Almazan’s insistent comping, an arrangement that reminds me of the early Weather Report exploits of Zawinul and Shorter.
Meanwhile, the thoughtful balladries of “Sundown Town,” “We Went Where the Wind Took Us,” and “The Trail of Tears to Standing Rock” pay respectful tribute to those who were forced to pay a drastic, nomadic price for their skin color. Here is where the intricate pairing of Almazan and Oh can be appreciated. “The Trail of Tears…” also features evocative expressions from McCann and Dizack.
Meanwhile, “Sunken Place” starts with Oh’s acoustic bass and Almazan’s piano, with Dizack and Smith pronouncing the theme before LeBoeuf expands on it, leading to another fresh McCann solo. The closer “Placeless” is a faster-paced post-bop excursion that reinforces the album’s focus; here the rhythm trio of Almazan, Oh, and Edwards demands attention, along with the tag team of Smith and LeBoeuf.
Anthony Branker and Imagine’s What Place Can Be for Us? is a worthy addition to the legacy of Jazz’s social commentary and yet another victory for this gifted and determined composer and leader.
Anthony Branker and Imagine, What Place Can Be for Us? (Origin Records, 2023.)
Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone
Philip Dizack, trumpet
Remy LeBoeuf, alto and soprano saxophone
Pete McCann, guitar
Fabian Almazan, piano
Linda May Han Oh, double and electric bass
Donald Edwards, drums
Alison Crockett, vocals and spoken word
Anthony Branker, composer and musical director
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at email@example.com