Chicago based saxophonist Geof Bradfield's Melba! is a much needed tribute to the criminally underexposed trombonist and arranger Melba Liston. Liston debuted with trumpeter, bandleader Gerald Wilson, was one of the stars of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's bebop big band and devoted herself to arranging after she met pianist Randy Weston with whom she had a long and fruitful career.
Commissioned by Chamber Music America's 2011 New Jazz Works program and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation this ambitious album is a musical biography of sorts with each movement representing a significant era in Liston's life. The brilliantly orchestrated pieces allow individual band members to step into the spotlight without dominating the scene. The carefully structured role of the instruments, nevertheless allows for creative spontaneity within the framework of each composition. This innovative and seamless fusion of the ad-lib and pre-written makes for a thrilling listening experience.
"Homecoming" for instance opens with pianist Ryan Cohan's intelligent, blues tinged, improvisation that ushers in trombonist Joel Adams' soulful, melancholic growl. The percussive piano and brief drum bursts punctuate Bradfield's meandering warm soprano that is a sublime combination of the joyous and the somber. The cinematic dialogue between Adams and Bradfield unfolds over the expansive beats, thrums and strikes of the rhythm section and forms the focal point of the movement.
The engaging, supreme musical sympathy between Adams and Bradfield is apparent throughout. On "Detroit/Kingston," a track devoted to Liston's time as an arranger for Stax label and her tenure as a professor in Jamaica, Adams' intriguing and pensive trombone and Bradfield's expressive and eloquent tenor enter as a chorus behind guitarist Jeff Parker's earthy, melodic and deeply resonant strings as he cleverly lays down contemplative and visceral grooves over the piano-led trio's sparse but solid support.
Drummer George Fludas' colorful polyrhythms and bassist Clark Sommers' furious pizzicato add a primal element to the sophisticated "Randy Weston." Cohan's mesmerizing ostinato filled solo enhances the tune's North African sensibilities, as does Sommers' delightfully dark and intensely lyrical walking bass.
Cohan's nocturnesque lines introduce trumpeter Victor Garcia's mellow and burnished horn on "Dizzy Gillespie." His mystical poetry contrasts nicely with Fludas' exuberant, percussive and whimsical conversation with the winds.
The disc aptly closes with versatile vocalist Maggie Burrell's evocative, gospel like delivery of Harlem renaissance pioneer Georgia Douglas Johnson's dolorous yet hopeful words on ""Let me not lose my dream."
With this innovative and captivating record Bradfield has not only created a tribute to an unsung hero but also a work, simultaneously rooted in tradition and forward looking, that will surely stand the test of time.