In 1999, Anthony Branker was forced to stop playing trumpet due to a medical condition. Where many musicians would have felt silenced losing their ability to play, Branker shifted his energy to composing and assembled two collectives, Word play and Ascent, to bring his music to life.
Word Play is the band on his most recent release, The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite
(Origin), a wide-ranging and powerful rumination on America's winding, flawed, still-in-progress journey toward a fuller realization of its founding principles. The project germinated in Europe while Branker was on sabbatical from Princeton University watching the 2012 presidential election unfold from abroad. Rather than delving into polemics, the suite is focused on the composer's optimism for the future of the nation, beginning with a preamble outlining Branker's concept of what America stands for and ending with a piece called "Hope." Halfway between is a song called "Our Dreams," which features the voices of 10-year-old music students in Branker's hometown of Piscataway, New Jersey, reading their own dreams for the future of the world.
"A lot of people have assumed that we did that at an urban school," Branker said, "but it's not. It's a suburban place. They're saying things with innocence. They're 10-year-olds really believing that things can get better."
Branker's use of words in the suite ranges from the very direct to the abstract. On "We The People (Part 1)," he has Alison Crockett singing the title phrase in ethereal, draping melody, then jump-cuts to her reading "If We Must Die," poet Claude McKay's visceral response to the 1919 race riots that erupted in American cities and towns, over a hard funk beat. The juxtaposition is important: It presents more than one angle on Branker's themes, and it also lends the suite a sweeping sense of momentum.
"I was trying to keep it diverse, because I thought that the music was speaking to the diverse influences that have shaped our society and the citizens of this country, and the multiplicity of cultures that come together to make this up," Branker said. "If I step back and ask myself, 'What are you as a composer?' the first thing that comes to mind is that I'm influenced by a lot of different kinds of music and ways of organizing it. I'm going to give you a little bit of everything, because if it's part of me, then I want to share that part of me."
The musicians in Branker's band respect his commitment to his concept and sense of balance and flow. "I think what Tony does so expertly and beautifully in this opus is combining words with vocal and instrumental music in such soulful and sophisticated ways," said pianist Jim Ridl, who gets plenty of room to stretch out on the new album.
Indeed, one of the remarkable things about Branker's music is that, though he is no longer a player himself, his albums feature a wealth of excellent musicianship, from expressive ensemble playing to incisive solos. The wide stylistic and textural range he offers his musicians as a composer, arranger and director seems to give them a lot to chew on, and it's hard for things to go stale when there's so much variety.
This approach carries over to his career as director of jazz studies at Princeton. "I teach a lot of classes, including the improvising ensemble, which is open to everyone on campus," Branker explained. "I've had students involved in orchestra, choir, world music, r&b, funk, hip-hop... .It's aimed at opening up their thinking so they can go back to the places they live in, musically speaking, with another way of thinking about being creative."
Whether he's discussing his students, his work or American culture, Branker's sense of optimism shines through, even when he's offering criticism. The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite
may be harrowing and intense at times, but it's all pointing toward hope. "It may be naive," he says, "but I think we've made tremendous progress. In time, from generation to generation it'll be a little better. And that's all we can ask for."