"Travel broadens the mind," says the ancient maxim. When the traveler is a skilled and sensitive artist – such as Geof Bradfield, the relaxed and brilliant Chicago tenor saxophonist – his travel can also broaden the minds of others. And at the very least, it will prove enormously entertaining.
Bradfield's newly released African Flowers (Origin Records) exploits these possibilities with inspiration and panache, and enough of each to make it the front-runner for "album of the year" in Chicago jazz. He has crafted a stirring suite of original compositions and pitch-perfect solos, capturing the colors and flavors he encountered while touring Africa in 2008, and transmuting them into evocative portraits for those of us who didn't make the trip.
(Bradfield will present this music in a CD-release event tonight, Wednesday, at 8 and 10 at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.)
For example, the album-opening "Butare," derived from a Rwandan melody, has a loping yet urgent 5/4 beat, which instantly identifies it as "African" to those familiar with many of the continent's idioms. But Bradfield has asked guitarist Jeff Parker to outline this rhythm with staccato lines that recall the sound of the kora, and that -- along with George Fludas's polyrhythmic drumming -- really completes the picture.
It's a somewhat fanciful picture, in that the kora comes from west Africa, on the other side of the continent from Rwanda. But that doesn't matter. These are musical impressions, not reportorial photographs from the field; and throughout the album. Bradfield proves himself a highly prized correspondent.
It certainly helps that he has assembled such a multi-dimensional sextet for this project, which includes the Latin and jazz dynamo Victor Garcia on trumpet; Parker, the multifarious guitarist whose comfort zone extends from the jazz mainstream to avant-garde rock; the gifted and versatile rhythm players Fludas and Clark Sommers (bass); and pianist Ryan Cohan, whose own albums have displayed his stylistic breadth.
It was with Cohan's quartet, in fact, that Bradfield went to Africa in the first place, on a tour sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rhythm Road program. Jointly administered with the U.S. State Department, Rhythm Road is the latter-day successor to the State Department tours of the 1950s and 60s, which used "arts ambassadors" as Cold War ice-breakers and cultural propagandists. That puts Cohan and Bradfield in awfully good company; predecessors have included many of the iconic names in American musical history, among them Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, and The Fifth Dimension.
At least two of these travelers sought to collect their impressions into music – Dave Brubeck with Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia (1958) and Duke Ellington with his justifiably lionized Far East Suite (1967) – and it is against these works that we can confidently appraise African Flowers. That the piece lacks the sweep and indelible power of Ellington's masterwork takes little from Bradfield's achievement: African Flowers still belongs in the discussion, and that's saying a lot. (We're talking about Ellington here.) On the other hand, I think even Brubeck himself would agree that Bradfield's ambitions and execution go far beyond his own travelogue from eastern Europe.
We've come to expect top-drawer saxophone solos from Bradfield, on previous recordings (by Kelly Brand, Aaron Koppel, John Moulder) and in frequent performance (with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls, and others). His solos unwind with a wealth of imaginative detail but without any sense of alacrity; at his most impassioned, he remains unruffled and unflappable, drawing occasional comparisons to a young Sonny Rollins or to the contemporary Chris Potter.
But Bradfield's writing is a revelation. Not only does it have much the same power and precision of his soloing; it also shows a highly refined use of the limited instrumentation, which allows him to create orchestral textures from just his sextet. (Give credit to Parker's protean guitar work, along with Bradfield's own use of bass clarinet, soprano sax, and flute.)
The album teems with illuminating highlights and respectful references. The percolating tenor solo of "Lubumbashi" finds a link between African rhythms and the jazz boogaloo tunes so popular in the 60s (epitomized by Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder"); a short solo interlude from Cohan embraces the piano work of Randy Weston, the first modern jazz artist to open himself to contemporary African influences; and the lovely "Mama Yemo" coaxes distinctly Ellingtonian textures from Bradfield's miniature orchestra.
But these are relatively small occurrences within the larger and pleasingly personal series of compositions that make up African Flowers. Some pieces, such as those mentioned above, faithfully transpose rhythms and harmonic structures from various African traditions. Tellingly, though, Bradfield's best work results from mixing those musical elements in with his own formidable musical intelligence, on tunes like "Nairobi Transit" and "Harare"; this alchemy provides the best of both worlds.
"Travel broadens the mind," according to that ancient maxim – ancient enough to ignore the other opportunities for expansion available to modern Americans (who pack on the pounds during all-you-can-eat cruises and gastronomic tours abroad). Fortunately, Geof Bradfield returned from his African sojourn lean and hungry, impelled to transform his impressions into sonic portraits that the rest of us can enjoy, almost as if we'd been there with him.