Geof Bradfield

African Flowers


MUSIC REVIEW BY Areif Sless-Kitain, Downbeat


The green room beneath the Petrillo Music Shell in Chicago's Grant Park isn't the toniest backstage. In fact, the brightly lit cellar looks better equipped to accommodate a fleet of football players than the cast of Chicago Jazz Festival artists. Saxophonist Geof Bradfield is beaming, nonetheless, and with good reason - fresh off stage from a well-received set with Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls, filling a coveted slot on the headlining state between the Brad Mehldau Trio and Henry Threadgill's Zooid.

It speaks to the 40-year-old father's sense of stamina that he's still raring to go, plotting a trip to the Jazz Showcase later on to sit in at one of the venue's storied post-fest jams before heading home. Then again, as much was evident from his spirited set with Sirota's band, half of which featured Bradfield's arrangements, including a Caetano Veloso number. In the past he's custom-tailored a Miriam Makeba tune for the Rebel Souls; still, that only hints at the Columbia College adjunct professor's enthusiam for music stemming out of the African diaspora, which has grown exponentially since he visited the continent. That connection is tangible on his latest album, African Flowers(Origin).

The Ryan Cohan Quartet brought Bradfield to Africa in 2008 on the Rhythm Road tour, an instrument of cultural diplomacy cosponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center and the State Department. Bradfield's experiences there play out vividly on the new disc in a continuous suite; the thematic arc is identical to his itinerary, which found the group playing a string of cities across Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The titles tell the route: "Butare," "Lubumbashi" "Kampala" and "Harare," divided by solo interludes in addition to melodic anecdotes, like the hard-swinging postbop bustle "Nairobi Transit" and tender ballad "Mama Yemo," A sleek swing undercurrent keeps African Flowers filed in the jazz bin, but the syncopated countermelodies coursing through Bradfield's compositions play like a musical travelogue.

For his third album as a leader, Bradfield enlisted Cohan, a longtime cohort going back 20 years to their days as undergrads at DePaul University. Having been immersed in the same sights and sounds, the pianist brought a uniquely sympathetic understanding of the music. Remarking on the reflective, lullabye-esque "Children's Room," Cohan recalls the sobering source material, a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda, "I remember walking out of that museum, and the whole band just couldn't speak-our eyes were welling up," Cohan said. "It was profound. Hearing that music and hearing him tell his story about his experience walking through the children's room was really poignant for me. I saw directly where that came from, and it was really interesting to hear how he adapted that, how he told the story through music."

Bradfield's first authentic taste of African folk music arrived in the early '90s, while pursuing a master's degree at California Institute of the Arts under the guidance of Charlie Haden and Roscoe Mitchell. During that time he received a hands-on introduction to West African rhythms from Ghanian percussionist and brothers Alfred and Kobla Ladzekpo, and in many ways Bradfield's latest body of work reflects the conceptual underpinnings of that multilingual education. "I wanted to put something together that was personal, beyond just reflecting the countries," says the saxophonist, with a palpable sense of enthusiasm, underscoring the passion that he brought to the project. He's humble as he describes sitting in with a local musician in Harare, which in effect planted the seed that became the titular tune. "We played this piece and it was completely mystifying," he confesses with a smile. Though momentarily stumped, he had the foresight to record it, and upon returning to Chicago dissected the figure and worked it into his own music. "I tried to do that in each place to some extent-to bring in not just the feeling of the place, but if there was some concrete musical theme that I had contact with, then I tried to use that."

Cohan acknowledges as much. "I saw first-hand how what we'd seen was incorporated into the music," says the pianist, "[Bradfield] adapted some of the Zimbabwe guitar style and mbira playing that influenced us both a lot."

"There's a long history of that back-and-forth exchange in jazz," explains Bradfield, "for instance, Randy Weston in the early '60s with Uhuru Afrika and Highlife, and before that Dizzy Gillespie with Chano Pozo." The tenet of musical diplomacy guiding the Rhythm Road program is, after all, a two-way street





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