Anthony Branker & Imagine

What Place Can Be for Us?



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Ron Schepper, Textura


As the composer, arranger, and musical director for the ten-movement suite What Place Can Be for Us?, Anthony Branker is the visionary force behind the project and, as importantly, the one responsible with recruiting the top-tier musicians that perform it. The latest edition of his group Imagine draws on the considerable talents of tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, trumpeter Philip Dizack, alto saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf, guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Donald Edwards, with vocalist Alison Crockett also making key contributions to two tracks. Testifying to the high calibre of musicianship involved, Imagine laid down the suite at New York's Samurai Hotel Recording Studios on a single day in August 2002, with Crockett adding her parts separately two months later.

Thematically, Branker's eighth Origin Records release explores issues of race, inclusion, xenophobia, and the plight of refugees seeking a safe place they can call home. Such issues are directly addressed by Crockett and intimated elsewhere by track titles, "Sundown Town," for example, alluding to "the white supremacist practice of banishing people of colour from certain townships by sundown" (from Michael Ambrosino's liner notes) and the solemn "Sunken Place" referencing Jordan Peele's Get Out and its own provocative take on racism and the systemic marginalization certain groups experience.

Branker is clearly qualified to take on the challenge, not only because of the discography he's compiled but as an academic associated with august institutions such as Princeton and Rutgers Universities (he was on faculty at the former for twenty-seven years and is currently on the jazz studies faculty at Rutgers). The structural foundation he creates for the musicians grants them the room to express themselves fully and brand the performances with their personalities. The tension that underlines many a piece mirrors the tenor of the thematic issues that inspired the release. The son of parents who came to the United States from Trinidad in the mid 1950s, Branker knows whereof he speaks.

"The Door of No Return" sets the tone with a swinging jazz-funk groove and Crockett's reading of Beatriz Esmer's words about the slave trade that came through Senegal's Gorée Island ("What hands are these that pulled us out of our land? ...The sound of the whip cuts the soul... The sob that never ends"). With an insistent Almazan, Oh, and Edwards powering the septet through the ambitious piece's four parts, McCann and Smith III drape heavy riffing in amongst the horns and multi-tracked vocal harmonies. The other Crockett piece, "I, Too, Sing America," draws on Langston Hughes' poem "I, Too" and anticipates the day when the oppressed will be treated with respect and receive their due ("Tomorrow I'll be at the table when company comes / Nobody will dare say to me, 'Eat in the kitchen,' then ... I, too, am America"). Bolstering the impact of the text, the horns declaim furiously alongside the singer.

The slower tempo of "Sundown Town" calls forth a ruminative performance by the ensemble, with Almazan enhancing it elegantly. The ballad-styled "We Went Where the Wind Took Us" likewise offers a showcase for strong turns by Dizack, Oh, and the pianist. The trumpeter subsequently elevates the elegiac "The Trail of Tears to Standing Rock" with a solo turn that's dignified and heartfelt, and Le Boeuf and Edwards make their presences felt elsewhere with personal statements. Compositionally, some pieces ("Indivisible," "Placeless," "What Place Can Be for Us?") possess an intricacy not unlike a Steve Coleman composition or more generally one from the M-Base camp. It's the kind of project, put simply, where participants excel as both ensemble members and individuals.

While solos are abundant, the ten tracks aren't mere blowing vehicles; instead, Branker's fashioned richly textured arrangements that have space for individual expressions judiciously worked into their compositional design. That the musicians navigate such material with seeming ease testifies to their advanced abilities. As a total statement, What Place Can Be for Us? registers as a multi-hued tapestry that weaves multiple strands into a thought-provoking meditation on race, equality, and social justice. As Ambrosino notes, "Branker constantly reminds us that while we might not like what we see, there's always room for change."





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