Origin Records to Release “The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite” by Composer & Bandleader Anthony Branker & His Octet Word Play, July 15

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With a unique combination of depth and accessibility, composer and bandleader Anthony Branker is able to put forth a jazz perspective steeped in soulful optimism. "The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite," the Princeton University professor’s latest project for Origin Records, is a stylistically diverse twelve-movement work spotlighting Branker's exceptional prowess as a composer and guided by thought-provoking material meant to embody the essence of America and its people.

I wanted this music to be reflective of our democratic spirit; our dedication to the principles of freedom and equality.

"The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite" is Anthony Branker’s seventh recording as a leader and sixth for Origin Records. Featuring his all-star group “Word Play,” we hear the latest from the pen of this forward-thinking composer whose work has steadily been gaining recognition worldwide. Recently, Branker was named in Down Beat magazine’s 62nd Annual Critics Poll as a "Rising Star Composer."

As a composer who takes delight in incorporating an eclectic array of styles and approaches in his recordings, Branker’s new CD features a broad range of influences – from jazz to spoken word and funk – to modal music and R&B – to African and Afro-Latin sensibilities – to freer methods of music-making.

As Branker shares, “I wanted the music for this project to be reflective of our democratic spirit; our dedication to the principles of freedom and equality; the multiplicity of cultures that have come together to comprise our country; the array of diverse influences that have shaped us; as well as our passionate, vibrant, and soulful nature.”

Anthony Branker is joined on this captivating recording by a powerhouse edition of his group "Word Play" featuring several long-time collaborators that include tenor & soprano saxophonist Ralph Bowen, pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Donald Edwards, and conguero Renato Thoms as well as new additions to the collective – alto saxophonist David Binney, trombonist Conrad Herwig, and vocalist Alison Crockett. Also appearing as guests are 5th Grade students from the Martin Luther King Elementary School in Piscataway, New Jersey who provide spoken word offerings.

Branker recognizes how extraordinary it was to work with this collection of musicians: “Every member of the group is someone whose music I have greatly admired for a long time. I am absolutely blessed to have these brilliant artists involved in this project…they have infused the music with their unique sensibilities and, together, have provided an indescribable spirit!”

According to Branker, the concept for "The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite" was realized during the fall of 2012 when he was out of the country on sabbatical and watching the final weeks of the presidential election campaign unfold by way of international television news media. “During this time, I thought long and hard about what America meant to my family, who came to the United States from the West Indies in the 1950s, and what it might mean to future generations of my family…I thought about notions of democracy, freedom, justice, and equality…I thought about where we have been as a nation and what we can still aspire to be and accomplish in the name of all Americans, if we, as a people, could simply come together as one, on behalf of all…”

Branker’s new "Forward Suite" release is filled with an abundance of memorable moments, created, in no small part, by the emphasis he places on presenting lyrical melodies, infectious grooves, and passion-filled collective conversations within the ensemble. “The principle I value most as a composer is the importance of communicating and connecting with the listener in some way. In fact, I believe that melodic lyricism and rhythmic feel can be used in powerful ways to bring others into our musical world, because it is through these elements that most people come to interact with music as listeners.”

While there are far too many musical highlights on this CD to give adequate attention to in this space, several are worth noting. Composed in 2005, the Woody Shaw-John Coltrane influenced “Forgotten Peoples” is packed with imaginative solos and fiery ensemble play. This was Branker’s creative response to images he viewed of victims of Hurricane Katrina living in New Orleans stranded and huddled together waiting on rooftops above the flood waters; hoping to be rescued and wondering whether America had turned their backs on them during their time of despair.

Constructed around the rhythm of the syllables found in its title, the contagiously joyous “Equality” features vivid and dazzling improvisational performances by saxophonist Binney and pianist Ridl in a quartet setting with Davis and Edwards. “Its performance,” as Branker writes in his liner notes, “reveals the kind of communicative interaction that can take place when individuals are connected to each other by a necessary mutuality. Here, each member is viewed as an equal and what guides the creative process is an unspoken obligation to a spirit of we, which I believe is symbolic of our democratic disposition. It also illustrates what can emerge when diverse voices unite and work together.”

Special mention should also be given to “Our Dreams,” the Suite’s seventh movement on which Branker collaborated with sixteen 5th Grade students from the Martin Luther King Elementary School who shared their dreams for the future of this country and the citizens of the world. As Branker states, “It was incredible to return to the town in which I grew up to work with these remarkable young people who talked about, with hope and innocence in their voices, such pressing social issues as poverty, gun violence, hunger, racism, education, pollution, and joblessness. They also spoke of their desire to one day live in a world where the concept of peace could be experienced by all.”

Since 2004, Anthony Branker has led two jazz collectives ("Ascent" and "Word Play") and has added seven recordings to his musically rich discography as a composer. They include the Origin releases "The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite" (2014), "Uppity" (2013), "Together" (2012), "Dialogic" (2011), "Dance Music" (2010), "Blessings" (2009), and the 2006 "Spirit Songs" recording on Sons of Sound Records.

Besides the musicians found in his current Word Play ensemble, Branker’s recording projects have also featured Mark Gross, Tia Fuller, Steve Wilson, Antonio Hart, Andy Hunter, Clifford Adams, Eli Asher, Jonny King, Bryan Carrott, John Benitez, Belden Bullock, Adam Cruz, Ralph Peterson Jr., Wilby Fletcher, Kadri Voorand, and Freddie Bryant.

Branker holds an endowed chair in jazz studies and is the director of jazz studies at Princeton University, where he has taught for the past 25 years. Internationally, he has served as a visiting composer at conservatories in Denmark, Germany, and Estonia, and has had his music featured in performance in Italy, Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, China, Russia, Lithuania, and Japan. In addition, his music has also been presented in such New York venues as the Iridium Jazz Club, Sweet Basil Jazz Club, The Five Spot, Symphony Space, and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Branker is very enthusiastic when he talks about "The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite" release and feels it represents some of his best work to date as a composer/bandleader. “I am so proud of this project as both a recording and as an extended composition! Yet, anyone who knows me is aware that I’ve never been fond of sitting still too long. I guess at the heart of it all is this desire to keep on exploring and discovering, to continue to use music as a means to provide commentary on life and our world, and to create interesting music with others that will hopefully resonate in some way with listeners.”

"The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite" will undoubtedly be a recording that will resonate with many because of its beauty, infectious energy, and positive messages. When composer Anthony Branker brings you into his musical world, you may never want to leave!

Anthony Branker
J Prof Music

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Anthony Branker
J Prof Music
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