These are the musicians you want on any heart-stopping new jazz recording: guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Fabian Almazan, double-bassist Linda Oh, tenor/soprano saxophonist Ralph Bowen, and drummer Rudy Royston. They’re in-demand jazz side men and session players who do a number on nine compositions by bandleader and composer Anthony Branker for his and his Imagine Quintet’s new album on Origin Records, Beauty Within, recorded on April 29, 2016.
Imagine a quintet that isn’t satisfied with the jazz norm, that constantly seeks to offset beats and charge up the momentum by ripping apart the rhythmic, in-the-pocket foundation of solos and interplays. And, they do it very, very well.
“Joy” immediately bounds into an offset beat with tempestuous climbs on horns, throwing out a host of stylistic divergences leaning toward the dance groove. The high-energy track pits piano against horns and guitars for a purposely funky imbalance ambience that works to set your soul on fire and your feet on the dance floor.
Guitarist Pete McCann owns this opening number on his stupendously climbing solo 3/4ths of the way in, as the others hug the bare minimum for a wild ride.
The title track gives bassist Linda Oh her own spotlight, as she solos in alone over so much space, taking time to set just the right adulterous mood before Ralph Bowen creeps in on his sax, with the rest of the crew. He seems to pick up on one or two notes in the lingering press of Oh’s spare, private introductory bass tones, imagining a whirlwind of innermost thoughts. Pianist Fabian Almazan plays both the bass and snippets of a new musical sequel before giving in completely to the temptation, flowing over with the bounty of what wasn’t said before.
Musically, Oh’s bass represents the hidden beauty still inside, held tight — the introspection of a bruised ego — while Almazan and Bowen, empathic extroverts in this passion play, coax it out in rivulets, according to their own personalities — the saxophonist choosing a dramatic straightaway, the pianist going ornate.
What they unlock is truly beautiful.
“Loving Day (June 12)” features everyone chiming in on another spectacularly offset jazz instrumental. The musicians are free to roam in their interpretive plays, heavy on the jagged edges and discordant tension. The pianist both teases incredible displays of melodic bursts and dark, contrasting notes that fall short of pretty, perhaps to heighten the dichotomy of the light and dark, highs and lows of a person’s day.
The fade cut in by the pianist, again infringing on the bass territory, previews the end in a foreboding yet riveting backstream that repeats in the ear as the saxophonist ricochets back and forth with his activity, and then drummer Rudy Royston’s — unwilling to let that day go quite yet, filling it with as much richness. Royston drifts then from the saxophonist’s play to that bass signaling the end of the day, and all the good times turned melancholy.
The nine instrumentals can play both as a jazz fan’s dream and a soundtrack to an as-yet unwritten, post-modern dance, featuring an avant-garde Japanese Butoh. Oftentimes, Branker’s compositions play both the stand-alone jazz instrumental and the post-modern soundtrack possibilities, as on “(We Are) What We Are Not Yet.”
Bowen is musical director Branker’s longtime collaborator. This is Branker’s seventh Origin record. Imagine is one of three jazz collectives led by the highly decorated recording artist.
In 2014 and 2015, DownBeat magazine’s annual Critics Poll anointed Branker “Rising Star Composer.”
He’s as home in big band (Bob Mintzer’s March Majestic) as he is with major scores for major television (Grammy-winning music for ‘A Tale Of God’s Will (A Requiem For Katrina),” with Blanchard and his quintet with orchestra.
Dr. Anthony D.J. Branker wields a mighty influence at Princeton University, as professor, founder/director of the Program in Jazz Studies, director of the university jazz ensembles program, and associate director of the Program in Musical Performance. He also holds an endowed chair in Jazz Studies.