Composer/arranger Anthony Branker and his ensemble Ascent follow up on the critically acclaimed release Spirit Songs (Sons of Sound, 2006) with Blessings, a spirited collection of progressive jazz. The music was composed during a residency Branker participated in at the Estonian Academy of Music where he represented the United States as a Fulbright Scholar. The recording features a first-rate cast of east coast heavy-hitters.
The disc's themes are strong, matter-of-fact musical statements. The lyrical simplicity of tunes such as "Ascent," "Crystal Angel," and "Wisdom" is livened by the front line of alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, tenor and soprano saxophonist Ralph Bowen, and trombonist Clifford Adams Jr.. Vibraphonist Bryan Carrott plays a dual role of percussive accompanist and horn-like soloist. The individual soloing, especially Bowen's, is intense throughout.
With so many fiery soloists to contend with, pianist Jonny King maintains a mostly supportive role, however, when given the opportunity to shine, as on the title track, his lines come across as flowing and swift. The somber, drawn-out piano pattern on "Sacred Song" is performed with heightened sensitivity.
Branker's music relies on a strong rhythmic foundation, with Afro-Cuban inspired grooves and solo sections over energetic vamps. Throughout the session, the pulse is aptly supplied by drummer Wilby Fletcher and bassist Belden Bullock. Conguero Renato Thoms enhances the montuno groove on "Crystal Angel" and "Arise."
With a unique combination of depth and accessibility, Branker is able to put forth a jazz perspective steeped in soulful optimism.