Album Review: Anthony Branker – Uppity

The following review first appeared in the Septemeber 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine.

Anthony Branker & Word Play

Anthony Branker

UPPITY – Origin Records 82635 http://originarts.com  Let’s Conversate; Dance Like No One is Watching; Three Gifts (from a Nigerian Mother to God); Across the Divide; Uppity; Ballad for Trayvon Martin

PERSONNEL: Ralph Bowen, tenor saxophone; Andy Hunter, trombone, keyboards; Eli Asher, trumpet, flugelhorn; Jim Ridl, piano, Fender Rhodes; Kenny Davis, acoustic bass, electric bass; Donald Edwards, drums; Charmaine Lee, vocals; Anthony Branker, composer, musical director

By Curtis Davenport

With a large percentage of jazz musicians being African-American, racial justice has long been a point of contention and frustration for them (us). This frustration has manifested itself in different ways. Many in the 50’s and 60’s aligned themselves with religious groups such as the Nation of Islam, which preached black self-reliance and encouraged members to discard their “slave names” in favor of names that they felt were closer to their original selves. Others left the U.S. altogether and moved to Europe, where they believed the sting of prejudice to be less prevalent. Others remained and turned their frustration into musical expression; albums such as Max Roach’s We Insist! were part of a subgenre that continued to thrive through the 60’s into the 70’s. Though individual compositions dealing with racism and social justice continued to crop up in certain situations (Branford Marsalis’ “Breakfast @ Denny’s” comes to mind), the jazz social protest album had become pretty much a thing of the past.

Recent well publicized events have begun to awaken the sleeping giant; from decisions by the Supreme Court, to controversial decisions by juries in high-profile racially charged cases.  President Obama even recently commented on his experiences with being profiled.  Jazz musicians do not live in a vacuum. Many are all too personally and painfully aware of the scourge of racism and they express their feelings about it, musically.  Dr. Anthony Branker, chairman of the Jazz department at Princeton University has recently created a beautiful and eloquent musical statement about his frustrations, titled Uppity.

Dr. Branker began his career as a trumpeter, including a stint with the Spirit of Life Ensemble, which enjoyed a lengthy stint as the Monday night band at the legendary NYC jazz club, Sweet Basil. His interest in jazz education led Branker to Hunter College and subsequently to Princeton, where he helped to build the ivy-league school’s moribund jazz program. Around 1999, medical problems stemming from a brain aneurysm led him to put down his trumpet and concentrate on composing, arranging and conducting. Dr. Branker has founded two collectives at Princeton, one called Ascent and the other Word Play, each of which has made several previous recordings. It is Word Play that joins him on Uppity, featuring a few well-known NYC jazz musicians such as Ralph Bowen on tenor, Jim Ridl on piano and Donald Edwards on drums. Dr. Branker chose the album title as an acknowledgement of the word that is often used to describe blacks who “don’t know their place” in society as some view it. He cites several high-profile cases where recently young black men who were thought by others not to belong in certain places, paid with their lives for other’s assumptions. And each of the album’s six compositions has something to do with some of these circumstances.

This is not to say that Uppity is a totally dark or angry album. There are joyous moments as well, such as “Let’s Conversate”, a piece of jazz infused with a bit of funk, all riding on Ridl’s skittishly joyous Fender Rhodes, Kenny Davis’ popping electric bass and a sax/’bone duel between Bowen and Andy Hunter. “Dance Like No One is Watching” is in that same vein. “Three Gifts (from a Nigerian Mother to God)” is based on the heartbreaking story of a mother who lost her three children as they returned home from school during a 2005 plane crash. It’s stunningly beautiful music, with a mournful flugelhorn solo by Eli Asher with counterpoint by Bowen and a softly mournful vocal line by Charmaine Lee going on underneath. You will feel the tug at your heartstrings. “Across the Divide” is a plea for us all to take the first step in bridging the gap of understanding. The African rhythms that drive the piece give it a “world music” tinge. The title track, is the most dissonant number on the album, announcing itself with the horns wailing and Edwards bashing out his frustration on the drums. You can almost hear the epithets being hurled. Things settle down a bit in the middle as if there’s an attempt to reach détente with Ridl’s piano acting as mediator. The “peace talks” fall apart and we return to the shouting horns at the end, now joined by Ridl as the frustrated mediator. “Ballad for Trayvon Martin”, written obviously in honor of the Florida teen who went out for snacks last year and somehow ended up dead, closes the album. It is lushly orchestrated with two lengthy and beautiful tenor solos by Mr. Bowen telling the story, in some of his finest recorded work. These solos are broken up by Mr. Ridl’s piano statement which is also quite good.

Anthony Branker’s Uppity is thought-provoking jazz that is still quite accessible for most listeners.  I pray that one day it won’t be necessary for artists to write music about such situations but as long as they do, I also hope that they continue to express themselves so powerfully.

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