The two aneurysms that forced composer and musical director Anthony Branker to give up the trumpet in 1999 have done nothing to stem the tide of thoughtful and progressive music that he consistently delivers. Downsizing from his "Word Play" ensemble, Branker guides a quintet of new and long-time colleagues on Beauty Within.
A regular Branker collaborator, saxophonist Ralph Bowen joins a consummate session man in guitarist Pete McCann who has worked with Maria Schneider, Lindsey Horner and many others. Bassist Linda Oh is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after players on the New York scene and whose eclectic tastes show in all her work. The young, Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan had previously worked with Oh on her Initial Here (Greenleaf Music, 2012). Rounding out the group is drummer Rudy Royston who also had worked with Oh, this time on Dave Douglas' Be Still (Greenleaf Music, 2012).
Opening with the appropriately titled "Joy," Branker demonstrates his ability to expertly balance structured and freer forms. That piece, along with the subsequent title track serve to provide all the personnel with opportunities to step out front long enough to highlight their considerable skills. McCann finally lets loose on the fusion piece "Many Roads Beneath the Sky" where this smaller group takes on the personality of Branker's larger troupes. "Grace" features a fine solo by Almazan on the most meditative composition on the album. The fast and funky "People Everywhere" paints a frenetically impressionistic picture before the closing "(God's) Wisdom" recalls Branker's spiritual side with a bluesy gospel opening.
Beauty Within is a solid entry in Branker's catalog. The pieces may not be startlingly unusual in terms of the territories explored, but there is certainly a sense of adventure and fine playing all around. Branker, a career educator, writes with intelligence and class and knows how to surround himself with like-minded artists. He provides those musicians with opportunities to reshape and expand on his ideas and throughout the course of his musical career, he is yet to get it wrong.