Anthony Branker & Imagine

What Place Can Be for Us?



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Richard Kamins, Step Tempest


Dr. Anthony Branker is quite an accomplished person with a list of achievements that would fill this page. I spoke to him in 2017 at the time Origin Records released "Beauty Within", his seventh album of original compositions (and six issued by the Seattle, WA-based label). At that time, he had recently stepped down as the head (and founder) of the Jazz Studies Program at Princeton--he currently is Adjunct Professor at the Mason Gross School of Music at Rutgers University. I am impressed by his ability to tell stories, truths about issues such as racism, equality, spirituality, and more, writing music that sounds familiar yet can be challenging, swings yet sings. The son of Caribbean immigrants, Dr. Branker once played his music (he was a trumpet player) in venues around the world. Dr. Branker has also conducted ensembles for Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis as well as orchestras in Israel, Germany, Japan, Estonia, and in the United States.

His eighth album, "What Place Can Be For Us: A Suite In 10 Movements" (Origin), is the second recording with his Imagine ensemble, an octet built around guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Fabian Almazan, and bassist Linda May Han Oh plus Walter Smith III (tenor saxophone), Remy Le Boeuf (alto and soprano saxophones), Philip Dizack (trumpet, flugelhorn), Donald Edwards (drums), and on two tracks, Alison Crockett (vocal and spoken word). As you should be able to tell by the title, the themes of this new collection are inclusion, immigration, belonging, citizenship, and the never-ending racism that permeates the United States. Ms. Crockett is featured on the opening track, "The Door of No Return", an episodic that blends the squalling guitar of Pete McCann, the telegraph notes from the piano, and the words of poet Beatriz Esmer. There is a powerful solo from Smith III as well as well as brilliant background arrangements. The words hearken back to The Middle Passage (many more Black Africans were enslaved in Brazil than anywhere else on the American continent).

Ms. Crockett returns for "I, Too, Sing America" from Langston Hughes 1926 collection "The Weary Blues". It's a powerful work with fine piano work and a commanding solo from Smith III yet be sure to listen to how the alto sax and trumpet play a drone beneath the tenor sax and the heartfelt vocal.

Elsewhere, there's the nervous energy of McCann's guitar solo and the wistful alto sax solo from Le Boeuf on "Indivisible", the melancholy reminiscence of "Sundown Town" with far-ranging solos from Almazan and Dizack, and the "prog-rock meets hard bop" riff on "Sanctuary City" and the crackling guitar of McCann and keening tenor sax.

It's hard not to think of boats filled with refugees on "We Went Where Wind Took Us" but the music has more of a hopeful feel as well as fine solos from Ms. Oh and Almazan. After a lovely solo piano introduction, "The Trail of Tears to Standing Rock" reminds us all of how the Andrew Jackson Presidency pushed Native Americans onto lands where their crops could not grow; not that succeeding US Presidents made the situation any better, creating reservations that keep them held down. Now when they fight the oil pipeline that will split their land up and subsequently cut them off from or contaminate their water supply, their protests still fall on deaf ears.

As you should be able to tell, Dr. Anthony Branker does not shy away from controversy; instead he channels his concerns, beliefs, and his fears into music that often vibrates with urgency, compassion, commitment, and impressive musicianship. Don't you shy away from "What Place Can Be For Us: A Suite In 10 Movements"--instead, embrace its activism, its message, and its power.





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