Geof Bradfield knows that jazz music is the last thing that comes to mind when some people think of the musician Leadbelly.
Leadbelly was a folk and blues singer and multi-instrumentalist best known for such songs as "Take This Hammer," "Midnight Special," "Cotton Fields" and "Goodnight Irene," and on the surface, the music of Leadbelly has nothing in common with the kind of small-combo jazz that Bradfield plays with the quintet he will bring to Merrimans' Playhouse on Thursday.
However, Bradfield doesn't see barriers between jazz and the blues because there are none. The Geof Bradfield Quintet will promote music from their latest recording, "Our Roots," which includes originals as well as jazz versions of blues songs by Leadbelly and Texas blues singer Blind Willie Johnson.
"I don't see a lot of barriers between different genres, but especially among the music of the African diaspora," he says. "Whether you're talking about music from West Africa or music from Cuba or black music from Peru or talking about the Georgia Sea Islands or blues or jazz, they are all from the same source material, and they have so much in common."
But, Bradfield says, fans often want to know what kind of music he plays.
"People say it all the time, 'Do you play jazz or do you play blues?' But I don't see a big difference between those," he says. "I think those (categories) are sort of a creation of people who needed to sell (music), so you can find the one consumer who likes jazz and identified with Ella Fitzgerald and maybe another consumer is more of a blues fan and he likes B.B King and Albert King. But I think there is a lot of people who whose tastes encompass everything."
Bradfield has the type of musical background that makes him open to listening to music from diverse sources. He attended a performing arts school in his hometown of Houston that also counts pianist Robert Glasper as an alum.
Bradfield also says he grew up hearing the music of Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins and other blues artists who were raised in Louisiana and Texas. He also recalls hearing the brother of Lightnin' Hopkins perform around Houston, and those experiences further sparked his interest in roots music. Then, when Bradfield moved to Chicago to attend college at DePaul University, he learned more about the music's history.
"I realized that the music migrated to Chicago as well - whether it was from Texas or the Mississppi Delta - as black Americans came north looking for work," he says.
Shortly after moving to Chicago, Bradfield discovered an earlier effort by a jazz musicians to give the blues of Leadbelly a jazz interpretation when a friend introduced the saxophonist to "These Are My Roots: Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly." That 1965 record by the Chicago-based tenor saxophonist Jordan features cover versions of nine Leadbelly songs.
Only four of the 12 tracks on "Our Roots" appeared on Jordan's 1965 album, and all of the cuts on the Geof Bradfield Quintet project are instrumentals while Jordan brought in vocalist Sandra Douglass.
"I rearranged 'Black Girl' as a trio that has more of an avant-garde take than Clifford did, and it owes a lot to Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman," Bradfield says.
Bradfield says that he sought to ensure that fans of Leadbelly and Blind Willie Johnson would be able to recognize the songs even as they were transformed into jazz tunes.
"I wanted to put some kind of personal stamp on the songs but still make them as close to the original so that if somebody knew the song they would recognize it," he says. "We are not totally deconstructing it, but leaving something of the melody in tact."