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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Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a longtime arts journalist and bass player based in Florida. Formerly the pop music critic for the Tampa Tribune, he has contributed to many national publications, recently including the Washington PostJazziz, and Relix. His byline also has appeared in DownBeat, Bass Player, Billboard, Variety, Spin, Rolling Stone, and several academic journals. The debut CD from his band, Acme Jazz Garage, gained airplay on about 35 radio stations across the US.