Anthony Branker & Imagine: Beauty Within

Composer-arranger Anthony Branker, former longtime jazz studies guru at Princeton, turns to his new Imagine quintet for his latest set of forward-looking acoustic-electric pieces. From the titles to the haunting, sometimes meditative textures, a spiritual core seems to inform these imaginative compositions, brought to life via a band featuring saxophonist Ralph Bowen, a longtime Branker associate, and guitarist Pete McCann.

That yearning quality is particularly evident on the pulsing title track, which opens with a long unaccompanied solo by bassist Linda Oh before winding into Bowen’s tenor romp. Later, a similarly searching feeling informs the quiet, hymn-like “Grace,” featuring Fabian Almazan’s crystalline piano declarations, Oh and drummer Rudy Royston, and the gospel-blues-streaked closer, “(God’s) Wisdom.” The set opens with the high-energy blast of the eight-and-half-minute “Joy.” There, a speedy bop line shifts into a zigzagging head, a gradually building bridge, a furious solo workout for Bowen, a floating interlude that morphs into a heavy guitar passage and finally a return to the head, with open space for Royston.

These tunes are all artfully sculpted, whether sprawling, like “Loving Day (June 12),” in part a showcase for Bowen’s probing tenor, and the fusion-tinted “Many Roads Beneath the Sky,” or short and sweet, like the piano-driven “Prelude to Wisdom (Fabian’s Improvisation).” A late-set highlight, the raucous “People Everywhere” thrives on an extended back-and-forth between Bowen’s soprano and McCann’s effects-juiced guitar. There’s never a dull moment here.

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