If nice guys finish last, Larri Branch may never be done.
On a rainy Wednesday night, Branch subs for fellow pianist Brian Mahne at Selba. It's the last of the sophisticated Cary Street restaurant's attempts to establish a regular Wednesday night jam session. The crowd is tiny, but the sound of the grand piano is huge. Notes glitter and decay in acoustic glory as the pickup trio illuminates the melodic landscapes of the Great American Songbook. Outside it's cold and bleak; inside the music is warm as a winter hearth.
The funky, propulsive, hook-laden songs that Branch writes and plays with the Larri Branch Agenda, also known as Labragenda, are equally inviting and almost instantly familiar. Modern improvised music typically signals its seriousness through angular dissonance and bursts of chaotic abstraction. Branch's music just seems to be having fun. This philosophy is a throwback to bands such as the Last Crusaders, who skirted between jazz and pop without sliding into the treacle of smooth jazz.
For Branch, a 2001 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University's mass communications program, becoming a working musician is somewhat accidental. "I was always interested in music," he says. "But I stopped taking piano lessons in grade school, and didn't pick up playing again until after college." Instead his interests in art, design and writing led him to pursue a life in advertising. But aside from freelance work, that career never took flight. Instead he found himself with a job in the bowels of a major local law firm, filing papers and listening to music all day on headphones.
Initially taken with blues and hip-hop, he drifted into jazz. "I always liked the idea of jazz," Branch says. "From when I was a kid and heard Vince Guaraldi's work on the Peanuts cartoons. I started going into the library, typing 'jazz' into the search and listening to whatever CD popped up." It was an eclectic mix, he recalls — '50s and '60s classics like Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy along with newer works like Roy Haynes' group with pianist Danilo Perez.
Branch, along with his then-roommate — fellow VCU mass-com graduate and future leader of Glows in the Dark Scott Burton — started going to Friday Night Jam Sessions at Emilio's. Organized by Doc Branch, one of a bunch of musical Branches in Richmond that include Larri and James "Plunky" Branch, who aren't related, this weekly jam may be the longest-running regular jazz gig in the country. "I listened for a while," Branch says. "Then eventually I started sitting in." Soon he was one of a rotating crew of regulars on the gig.
Eventually, as a result of hanging out, he started getting calls to play. The circle of gigs expanded, and he started taking students at the Short Pump YMCA and Atlee Music. A hobby gradually became a living, and he left his soul-killing clerical position to become a full-time musician.
And he started Labragenda. The other members, drummer C.J. Wolfe, bassist Brian Cruise and guitarist Chris Ryan, had worked together in various lineups. They spent a few months rehearsing before their first gig in June 2009, opening for the No BS Brass Band at the Camel. At the time, No BS leader Reggie Pace was Branch's roommate. Together, from the exterior of their second-floor apartment on the corner of Thompson and Grace, they were host to the memorable Balcony Concert series.
The Larry Branch Agenda's self-titled debut recording is available at its shows, Amazon and iTunes, and features band originals, and a cover of former roommate Scott Burton's Glows in the Dark tune "Adamantium." The group plans to go back to the studio in January.
"We judge our success by how much fun we are having. I'm not sure how it affects our sound," the quietly self-effacing Branch says. "But it does seem to rub off on the audience." S
The Larri Branch Agenda will perform at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday, Jan 5, from 6-9 p.m. Larri Branch plays piano from 7-10 p.m. every Friday and Saturday at Buckhead's Chophouse; the New Year's Eve show will feature the Larri Branch Trio from 8-midnight.