It is increasingly rare for a jazz composer to not perform his or her own work. Exceptions are often made for large ensemble conductors, like Maria Schneider, but on a quintet date, the only question is usually which band member wrote which tune. This new release by Anthony Branker, however, is a rare occasion in which a composer employs a separate ensemble to realize his music. On this date, this is wholly a good thing. Branker, who taught jazz at Princeton for 27 years, knows the contemporary jazz scene, and the quintet that joins him on this project is a tight working band. Pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston work often in each other's bands, while saxophonist Ralph Bowen and guitarist Pete McCann are versatile sidemen in their own right. This is not just a case of an ace band elevating mediocre material, however; for this project, Branker has composed a searing set of modern jazz.
Opener "Joy" brings to mind Weather Report for its fusion groove, while "Beauty Within" is a more ethereal piece featuring a thundering solo from Almazan. "(We Are) What We Are Not Yet" features a dense bit of saxophone-guitar counterpoint, while "Grace" is an almost atonal ballad. There is a brightness to the music, reflected in the overtly religious titles like "(God's) Wisdom" and "People Everywhere," but it never becomes too cloying. Part of this has to do with the band's ability to shape any piece into a dramatic arc, but Branker, too, seems to have taken note from Bach that sacred music (or at least that which alludes to the sacred) should work on its own terms as well.