Perhaps it was because I’d been editing some old GMR reviews of fantasy books by the likes of Kage Baker, Neil Gaiman, and Charles deLint, but I got a spooky sense of living oak trees dancing under a moonless sky when I first heard “Oak” as I was listening to Jason Branscum’s Beyond The Walls Of The World. It’s the kind of serendipity that adds enjoyment to both literature and music when they complement each other that way, and it happens more often than you might think.
Branscum is a trombone player, multi-instrumentalist and composer born and bred in Dayton, Ohio, now living, playing and teaching in Cincinnati. Though on this album he plays mainly within the idiom of jazz, he grew up with a love for funk and hip-hop, and he has played in and led jazz groups that range from polished dinner music perfect for restaurants or private events to challenging avant-garde performance.
The music on Beyond The Walls Of The World is centered around a quartet fronted by Branscum on trombone with influences ranging from avant-garde to hard-swinging contemporary jazz & rock-tinged fusion. The 17 tracks contain a generous 90 minutes of music: nine longer “alien fantasy” pieces and eight short interludes named for types of trees. To bring his vision to life, Branscum and guitarist/co-producer Brandon Coleman enlist a host of electronics, special effects, guest instrumentalists and even a string quartet.
But around this, helping to construct the nine ‘alien-fairytales’ on the record (plus eight interludes), Branscum and guitarist/co-producer Brandon Coleman – along with Aaron Jacobs on bass guitar and
Tom Buckley on drums – enlist electronics, special effects, guest instrumentalists and even a string quartet.
Branscum conceived and developed this music during the pandemic year of 2020, when most of us were spending a lot of time at home. He’s upfront about its aim: pure escapism. “I crafted this music to draw us out of the mundane world in which we now live, into fantasies in lands both real and imagined. The fantasy of this release begins not in a cottage or castle, but in our own abode of disillusionment, escaping to places Tolkien described as filled with ‘both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.’ ” The jazz concept album is back, if it ever went away.
It’s a sprawling near-masterpiece, especially if you like the deep mellow tones of the trombone as much as I do, and you appreciate adventurous music. It’s bookended by two versions of “When The Sky Is Big,” the first one short and introductory, the last one longer with lots of air for soloists Branscum and Coleman to breathe. In between are explorations of various modern jazz styles on tracks that range from about 5 to 10 minutes. There’s urbane post-bop like the swinging bluesy ballad “Urban Nature Walk,” with ambient sounds of sirens and the hissing of wind – or is it traffic; the soulful, similarly urbane stroll of “I And The Village” with a long bluesy guitar solo and deep swing from the rhythm section.
In “Obsidian Lies,” which opens with a portentous drone and flatpicked acoustic guitar, Coleman plays a jagged freeform guitar solo with rock overtones and lots of distortion, that’s still recognizably based in blues. “The Ninth Baktun” has a long cinematic lead-in featuring the rhythm section, that opens into a melodic soul strut by Branscum and Coleman that seems inspired by Herbie Hancock’s 1970s electro-soul jazz. From the same era is the long fusion track “The Missing Coil,” with Branscum’s languid trombone and Coleman’s fuzz-guitar solos over skittery drums and funky free jazz bass.
“Lucy with Levi and Catherine” is a lovely slow ballad, and “Six Demon Bag” despite its title is some really nice modern jazz with a swinging West Coast-style trombone melody, angular guitar solos, funky bass, sassy drumming and a backdrop of mellow strings. “Nooks And Crannies” has it both ways, with Branscum’s trombone pushing the tune into mellow swingland, while Coleman’s quietly fierce guitar solo leans into the outfront rhythm section’s serious funk.
Of the interludes, the standouts for me are the uptempo “Sycamore,” with offset bop counterpoint on trombone and sax; the seriously swinging “Maple” and the creepy electronica juxtaposed with a jaunty melody on the aforementioned “Oak.”
Shoutouts to Marc Fields, who doubles Branscum on trombone on several of these pieces, especially “When The Sky Is Big”; Justin Dawson for superb, melodic acoustic bass, likewise on “When The Sky Is Big”; and Josh Kline for his saxophone, especially on some of those interludes.
Maybe Branscum tries to do a little too much on this opus – it’s a lot to take in. But on the other hand, in these times, who can have too much fantasy? Listen to sample tracks and purchase this music at Bandcamp.
(Branscum Tunes, 2021)