Kansas City Child. Central Avenue. Dizzy Gillespie. Randy Weston. Detroit / Kingston. Homecoming. This is the story of Melba Liston's life as told by Chicago-based saxophonist and composer Geof Bradfield. Liston's is a story not often told, but she was an extremely unique trombonist and composer with a special gift for bringing out the best in those she collaborated with. Bradfield framed this suite of music, as presented on his album Melba!, around the two big collaborations in her life.
For eight hours a day five days a week for a whole month, Bradfield went to the Center for Black Music Research located at Columbia College Chicago and studied the 44 boxes of Liston's scores as part of a grant from the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. As a result, there's a good chance that there's no one alive who knows these scores better.
As different as their lives may seem, there is one commonality between Bradfield and Liston; they both traveled to Africa as cultural ambassadors with funding from the U.S. State Department. For Bradfield, this trip spawned his last album-length suite African Flowers, an L.A. Times Top 10 Jazz Album of 2010. While that last album focused less on the solos and more on the structure and composition of the work, Melba! has a much looser feel and features extended solo work from each band member. The band from African Flowers was also retained for Melba! allowing the album to have an even more comfortable and relaxed vibe.
On guitar, Jeff Parker is, according to Bradfield, "very conscientious of the sound of his guitar." Most notably, Parker picks out "the most ringing strings" on "Dizzy Gillespie." Ryan Cohan's piano playing on this album is extremely sympathetic to the arrangements, as he is an excellent composer in his own right, receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship Award for music composition in 2009. On trumpet, Victor Garcia, as Bradfield says, "doesn't really need rest" and "can play just about anything." That being said, Garcia's best moment might just be his more sensitive playing on "Dizzy Gillespie."
Quite unlike African Flowers, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer George Fludas are largely improvising their parts on Melba!. Sommers' brilliantly crafted solos and always-on time feel partnered with Fludas' ability to "very quickly make not just a choice that works but a choice that makes it sound like it should've been that way all along" solidifies the whole album.
Though they've both performed with Bradfield and the other members of the group on several other occasions, trombonist Joel Adams and vocalist Maggie Burrell were not a part of African Flowers. For Melba!, Adams had no small task playing trombone on an album dedicated to a trombone player, but he handled it with a combination of finesse and grit that has become the standard of his playing. Maggie Burrell (unfortunately) only sings on the last track on the album "Let Me Not Lose My Dream". "She came into the studio with no rehearsal at all and killed it," says Bradfield.
Through all of the score studying, composing, and careful consideration of bandmates, it should not be ignored that the one thing that makes this well-planned suite of music into a fantastic jazz recording is the saxophone playing of Geof Bradfield. Nearly unparalleled on the Chicago scene, Bradfield's playing is at once inspiring and intimidating. His musical flexibility makes everything sound easy. And yet, it's that very fact which is terrifying: he's making this extremely difficult playing sound easy. Further still, through all of his high-flying acrobatic saxophone work, he never once loses his intensely personal sound or ability to connect with an audience.
When the day came for Bradfield to premier this tribute to Melba Liston, he received a phone call from none other than the man who was her collaborator and close friend for over three decades, Randy Weston. "It was beautiful. He just wanted to thank me, tell me how much Melba meant to him, and that it was so great that we were doing this," Bradfield recalls. He added, "If I had any doubt that it was okay to do it as a 42-year-old white guy, that erased it for me. The person closest to her in her life was excited about it and supportive and took the time to actually call."