Chicago-based saxophonist Geof Bradfield said he was inspired to craft a suite in honor of the late trombonist and arranger Melba Liston while he was preparing a follow-up to his 2010 recording, African Flowers (Origin). Liston's arrangements for pianist Randy Weston were among Bradfield's primary influences in composing African Flowers. Now, he's incorporated them into Melba!, a six-part commission for septet that premiered in Chicago last summer.
Liston's celebration of the African homeland--Little Niles, Uhuru Africa, The Spirits Of Our Ancestors and High Life, along with like-minded pieces such as Duke Ellington's The Far East Suite and John Coltrane's Africa--are among the standards to which Bradfield's paeans to heritage are inevitably compared. "I began to study Melba's music at the Center for Black Music Research [at Columbia College in Chicago]," Bradfield said. "As I began to study her scores, her story came alive for me. I was stunned. As an arranger, and as a woman, undoubtedly, she was always standing in the shadows, creating all this beauty. I thought her story should be in the foreground for a change."
Couched in the diverse styles and genres Liston both absorbed and shaped over the course of her career, the musical storyline of Bradfield's suite Melba! winds its way through many aspects of the trombonist's life: her gospel-infused Kansas City childhood; her immersion in the thriving Central Avenue scene of '40s-era Los Angeles; her breakout work with Dizzy Gillespie a few years later; her extended collaboration with Weston (which began in the late '50s and lasted until her death in 1999); her '70s-era stints as a pop arranger at Motown and Stax Records and an educator and writer/arranger in Jamaica (she worked with Bob Marley, among others); and her public triumph at the 1979 Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival as leader of the all-women septet Melba Liston and Company.
Bradfield's six-part suite, however, is not a tribute, per se. "I'm not really trying to write like Melba," he explained. "She did that very well." Likewise, Bradfield and his band--trombonist Joel Adams, trumpeter Victor Garcia, guitarist Jeff Parker, pianist Ryan Cohan, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer George Fludas--retain their own musical personalities throughout. (Vocalist Maggie Burrell sings the coda, a reprise of the opening "Kansas City Child" theme augmented by lyrics from the Georgia Douglas Johnson poem "Let Me Not Lose My Dream.")
"Joel is on the other end of the spectrum from [Liston's style]," Bradfield pointed out. "He's the sort of trombone player who plays like [the late trumpeter] Woody Shaw. He's a virtuoso trombone player, very raw and very emotional. Victor can be brash and searing--that trumpet model--but he can also have this really beautiful, softer sound on the instrument and a huge range of expression." For his own part, Bradfield combined the full-toned assertiveness one might expect from a Houston-born reedman who cut his teeth on the sounds of saxophonists Arnett Cobb and David "Fathead" Newman.
Nonetheless, the spirits of both Liston and Weston are dominant. "There is some collage involved," Bradfield said. "I spent all that time with those scores. I have little snippets of things, and I wrote out from those snippets. So, for instance, Randy gets the tri-tone interval because that's the interval he uses so much in almost all of his writing. That shows up in "Randy Weston" [the suite's fourth movement], and it pops up in some other places, too. The initial theme, "Kansas City Child" Melba writes some very interesting chords. She liked a lot of these ambiguous harmonies. So I took that shape. I grabbed it from something she did with Mary Lou [Williams]. I did borrow a little from Melba's arrangement of [Williams's] "Aires"--not the one they played with Dizzy, but another one that was in the collection. She has a lot of things like that; the kind of harmonies a self-taught musician might write. They sound great because of her voicing and the way she spaces them out in the range."
In the wake of his success with African Flowers and now Melba!, Bradfield finds himself both gratified and humbled. He said, "It crossed my mind: the "burden of authenticity." How is this going to be critically received? Will somebody say, "Hey, a white saxophone player from Texas, what right does he have to do this?""
Any doubts, though, were dispelled when he went to Brooklyn to discuss the Melba Liston project with Weston himself. "You've been chosen," the legendary pianist and composer told him. "The African Ancestors chose you. When the ancestral spirits touch you, you have to respond. So they got you!" Remembering Weston's rich laughter as he spoke to him, Bradfield breaks into a smile and reaffirms his confidence in what he's accomplished with both African Flowers and Melba!. "It's music that I love and that I've learned a lot from," he said. "If you immerse yourself in the culture, then your music is your music."