Anthony Branker must know how to craft a catchy tune - an idea that is concise, simple and lyrical - because the compositions on Beauty Within
realize the polar opposite of that formula. Each piece challenges the listener with an aural jigsaw of stubborn intensity, an entropic whirlwind sensitively parsed by his star-studded ensemble.
Composing for a small combo can be daunting, lest the performers' personalities drown out the bandleader's own artistic identity. But Branker seems to experience no such friction with his Imagine quintet, despite each member being a group leader with a highly developed stylistic vocabulary of his or her own. The composer illuminates the pungent individuality of each musician without compromising the prominence of hi own voice.The high-octane frontline of saxophonist Ralph Bowen and guitarist Pete McCann bridges Branker's compositional style, rooted in frantically complex post-bop, with the eclectic, contemporary sensibilities that his musicians express in the ample space given them. Piano luminary Fabian Almazan wields the most singular harmonic language among this distinguished bunch, flirting with expectations on his rollicking solo improvisation "Prelude to Wisdom." Drummer Rudy Royston adds youthful flare with bombastic, hip-hop-informed beats; and bassist Linda Oh blends seamlessly, fleshing out Royston's skittering tidal waves with lithe authority.
Between McCann's ecstatic shredding on the title track and Almazan's knotty, impressionistic textures throughout, the players complement one another with a vast range of soloing techniques. Branker's maximalist arrangements push the group to further extremes, teasing out modes that range from the delicate intimacy of "(God's) Wisdom" to the big band-style ferocity evident on "People Everywhere." The virtuosity and mutual responsiveness of the five-piece supergroup grants a near-overwhelming exuberance to this transgenerational project. Beauty Within
presents a dense, blinding musical landscape - not revolutionary, but certainly brilliant.