Geof Bradfield. Yes and…Music for Nine Improvisors
Geof Bradfield, tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet
Greg Ward, alto saxophone
Anna Webber, flute, bass flute, tenor saxophone
Russ Johnson and Marquis Hill, trumpet
Joel Adams, trombone
Scott Hesse, guitar
Clark Sommers, bass
Dana Hall, drums and percussion
2018 Delmark Records
I am listening to “Anamneses,” a piece from Chicago-area saxophonist Geof Bradfield’s new album, Yes and…Music for Nine Improvisors. The music begins with a bass line from a favorite, Clark Sommers. After several notes, I stop it, and restart. And again. Something in my mind is telling me, ”You’ve heard that before.” Again. I try to remember. Oh…maybe…I turn around to find Kurt Elling’s album 1619 Broadway—The Brill Building Project. Cut 1, “Off Broadway.” After Elling’s chatty start, the bassist…Clark Sommers…begins. The line is not precisely the same, but the construction is very similar, and the last low blues notes are pretty much a copy. I am thinking, “If I had a jazz radio show, wouldn’t playing ‘Anamneses’ right after this song be cool, my version of improvisation?”
When I had a show, I did this all the time. I listened to my collected music, and often I would hear something that tipped me toward something else that shared an element, helping me create a “medley” out of pieces of recordings. When it worked, I felt more than elation. In this case, the two recordings could be easily fused, as Elling’s ends with Sommers’ line followed by footsteps that fade into . Was Sommers borrowing from his own past? Why not?
The one area where being a non-musician probably hurts my ethos as a reviewer is in the realm of improvisation, that wondrous intuitive skill that, in my mind, elevates musicians over others who may be technically skilled but are ‘limited’ to playing notes on paper, even if expertly. Yet, I should not be too overwhelmed to offer criticism because, as Paul Berliner makes clear in his seminal book Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, jazz improvisors, like writers, don’t “make up stuff” on the fly; they invent what they play as an extension of their collected musical experiences placed into a context provided by a leader or ‘composer.’ Kind of like what I tried to do on my show but, of course, of a higher skill. I put “composer” in quotes because, as Chris Potter once explained to me, jazz composition often consists of a line, a beat, an outline, and a tone—fragments that are tossed to chosen players trusted to use their abilities to follow the guidelines and listen to the others as they craft their contributions to the whole. The music created can be transcribed for future use, of course, and then these “compositions” hold form. Think of Kind of Blue, that paragon of modern jazz recordings, where Miles’ ideas are taken to supreme synergy, leaving us with the sublime themes that resonate still. I think of Ornette Coleman’s initial Atlantic albums in the same way. Or of how an Ellington arrangement provided space for his musicians to riff. Or any Andrew Hill album. Etc.
And then, think of the genius of a Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, or Sonny Rollins solo. Each could be ‘compositions’ on their own, borrowed from their past, placed into a new context, and reformed into something new. I am thinking about all this because Bradfield has released a new album featuring some of our area’s most talented players doing, according to the title, exactly what the jazz elite has been doing for over a century—improvising. The album is the result of these musicians collaborating for over a year in live performance, listening to each other and riffing on whatever directions they have received from Bradfield. (And these musicians will hold sway at this year’s Jazz Festival.) To these relatively untrained ears, the recorded pieces sound very arranged, to the point where I cannot always tell just where the fragments reside and where the magic occurs. I hope I am right in saying that this confusion is a result of mastery, of composing, playing and inventing. I have no qualm about believing it, given the cast.
Besides Bradfield on tenor, soprano, and bass clarinet, with Sommers on bass, we are treated with more Chicago cream-of-the-crop: Russ Johnson and Marquis Hill on trumpets, Anna Webber on flutes and tenor, Greg Ward on alto, Joel Adams on trombone, Scott Hesse on guitar, and the redoubtable Dana Hall on drums and percussion.
Can I just say this album is a total treat, top to bottom? The performances, deftly planned to showcase each of the nine, cover a fair amount of ensemble sub-genre so as to never sound dull. The contributions and various embellishments never sound forced or pretentious. These superb musicians are clearly comfortable in this creative environment, and the results are striking in their clarity and artistic consistency. There is a chamber music thread that permeates the album, as though the music represents a medley of its own, a kind of sonic seamlessness that makes listening to the whole in one sitting a pleasurable experience, even though the pieces have plenty of distinctions. The album begins with “Prelude,” which features Bradfield in full Potter-cum-Coltrane eastern mode, with Sommers all Colley and Hall all Elvin. Makes one wish these three would do a trio album.
But then, being an ensemble album, comes “In Flux,” which suggests, certainly, the nature of these pieces. From a ringing brass intro emerges Hesse’s guitar, a bridge to something more sedate, embellished with Webber’s flute, that leads to a more intense trio of Hesse, Sommers, and the thrashing Hall. Here is the hint of arrangement—we return to the brass ensemble, which sets up the next section, featuring Ward, Hesse, and Hall, leading to another ensemble bridge to an edgy statement from Hill, and then back to the original theme. This yin-yang of trio/quartet and ensemble is clearly planned and provides intelligence that a listener can recognize . “Chorale,” the following cut, provides a modern classical feel, and reminds us of the essential experience provided by Adams and Johnson as supporting players. It’s not classic jazz, but as a trope of collective musing and performance, this piece informs us of the depth and width these players provide.
“Impossible Charms,” in contrast, swings like heck, returning to a bigger band atmosphere, with Hesse, Sommers, and Hall providing the backbone to dancing solos from Adams and Hill.
The interstitchal order showcases those moments of improv, especially. “Ostinato” is Hesse, Sommers, and Hall musing on a frenetic theme before Sommers’ bass introduces “Anamneses,” a probing development of Sommers’ theme and a concomitant playing around it, the one offering where the arrangement suggests a deft mix of plan and invention. Webber’s flute does the most musing, bolstered by Hesse’s gentle support and Hall’s insistent percussive fills, as though he makes sure the music doesn’t fall into nodding off. In the middle appears Johnson, almost as a debate foe, answering Webber’s more sedate expression with a slowly built, Miles-Latin dramatic solo that receives ensemble response. Bradfield has the last word, a balladic pronouncement with nifty Hesse comping that leads, finally, to a group climax. “Chaconne” is Webber on flute, Bradfield on bass clarinet, and Ward on alto, another chamber improv ‘stitch’ that leads to the finale,
“Forro Hermeto,” a composition inspired, according to notes from Bradfield’s web site, by the Brazilian jazz composer Hermeto Pascoal. The idea is to suggest a corporate dance in which the soloists dance-riff. Here Sommers’ talent shines, keeping the ‘dance’ alive while the participants flourish. And everyone dances, together and individually, a great and exceedingly appropriate ending to an exceptional album that celebrates jazz’s ability to commingle transcendent individuals into a meaningful whole.
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