Geof Bradfield has drawn plenty of praise for his work as a reed soloist, and it's all deserved; on tenor and soprano saxes, plus bass clarinet and flute, his muscular, choate solos unfurl with a torrent of detail, even as he sketches the bigger picture. Surrounded by like-minded virtuosi -- as will be the case Saturday, when he plays the Green Mill with an all-star septet starring trumpeter Victor Garcia and guitarist Jeff Parker -- pretty much guarantees an evening of stellar performance.
But in the last few years, Bradfield has made just as much impact with his precise and colorful writing, in compositions that evoke a vivid sense of place through the same mixture of detail and sweep. I placed his 2010 album African Flowers (inspired by a State Department tour of four African nations) among the year's Top Ten -- as did several other writers -- and I'd do so again in an instant.
Now comes the follow-up, Melba!, a six-movement suite that Bradfield debuted this summer, and which he'll reprise at the Mill. Melba! celebrates the life and career of Melba Liston, the pioneering woman trombonist, composer, and arranger best known for her work in translating the compositions of Randy Weston from the piano to larger groups. Operating with grants awarded by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Bradfield spent a good deal of time investigating Liston's original scores, which are right here in town, archived at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College.
It's a lively, lovely suite, bristling with Joel Adams' trombone fanfares (as you'd expect from a piece dedicated to a trombonist); slyly incorporating Africanized rhythms and echoes of African melody (in a nod to the continent's strong influence on the best-known Weston-Liston collaborations); and glistening in the funky sophistication that marked orchestral writing in jazz of the 50s and 60s (Liston's heyday).
The opening section, "Kansas City Child," exuberantly references Liston's birthplace with a soulful motif that threads throughout the suite. Other movements trace her teen years in Los Angeles -- when she apprenticed with the dean of West Coast arrangers, Gerald Wilson -- and time spent in Jamaica, writing for film and arranging for Kingston recording sessions. "Randy Weston" takes advantage of pianist Ryan Cohan's keyboard-leaping technique to evoke that movement's eponym, whose partnership with Liston spanned four decades.