Anthony Branker & Ascent – Dance Music – Origin 82579, 64:10 ****:
(Anthony Branker – composer, musical director, producer; Kadri Voorand – vocals (tracks 2, 5, 7 & 8); Tia Fuller – alto saxophone; Ralph Bowen – tenor & soprano saxophone; Clifford Adams Jr. – trombone; Jonny King – piano; Kenny Davis – bass; Adam Cruz – drums; Freddie Bryant – guitar (track 9))
Anthony Branker’s latest Origin Records release, Dance Music, is well named. The jazz instructor, composer and arranger was inspired to infuse his newest crop of compositions with the spirit and flexibility of dance, resulting in a dynamic and energized recording which flows with an upbeat bop-oriented bustle and a bluesy grace.
Branker’s jazz collective, Ascent, was formed in 2004 to showcase Branker’s original music and on the group’s third outing Branker has talented artists who help communicate his conceptions. Sax contributions come from Tia Fuller (on alto) and Ralph Bowen (on tenor and soprano). Trombonist Clifford Adams – well known in pop and jazz circles – offers supple trombone accompaniment. The rhythm section is also above par. Pianist Jonny King brings verve and empathy. Drummer Adam Cruz – who has worked with Chick Corea and the Mingus Big Band – and bassist Kenny Davis, who has an extensive résumé with credits which range from Sonny Fortune to Don Byron, are also impressive. There are also two special guests: Estonian vocalist/lyricist Kadri Voorand furnishes her literate singing to four tracks and guitarist Freddie Bryant conveys his soulful touch on one tune.
The ensemble digs right in on the assured post-bopper “The Renewal,” which includes a heated Fuller solo which has a trace of Coltrane’s spiritualism, and then trombonist Adams Jr. takes the spotlight for an expressive turn. That’s just the start, as Bowen and King both step up to the frontline to deliver more blistering improvisations.
The stylish spry title track is a fine trio excursion for Bowen, Davis and Cruz. Bowen supplies strong solos that nod to peers such as Wayne Shorter – Bowen’s spiraling lines in particular are reminiscent of Shorter – as well as Michael Brecker. Davis presents a bass break which moves in all the right directions and then Cruz accentuates the tune’s solid rhythmic core with an assured drum solo.
Branker has made an indelible mark in the jazz world as an educator. He is the director of the Program in Jazz Studies at Princeton University and has taught in several other secondary schools. One influential appointment was a short visit to the Estonian Academy of Music, which stimulated certain aspects of Dance Music, including the longest piece, the sprinting “The House of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads,” inspired by a building which once sheltered a long-time Estonian association. More importantly is the inclusion of Voorand, a Madeleine Peyroux-like singer who writes with a loosely structured poetic style which is aptly tailored to Branker’s compositions. She imparts a seductive élan to the positivistic “Asking Answers,” fashions a teasing scat as an intro to the poignant ballad “The Holy Innocent,” dedicated to one of Branker’s daughters who passed away, and uses brisk phrasing throughout the vigorously paced “A Beautiful Life,” which is suffused with hope for a better future.
Dance Music is an album which should appeal to many jazz listeners. There is a determined optimism inherent in the ten tracks; the material has both complexity and approachability; and Branker’s jazz perspective looks to both the past and the present.
1. The Renewal
2. Mysterious Ways
3. Dance Music
4. A Smile Awaits
5. Asking Answers
6. The House of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads
7. The Holy Innocent
8. A Beautiful Life
— Doug Simpson