Geof Bradfield

African Flowers


MUSIC REVIEW BY Jordan Richardson, Canadian Audiophile


In early 2008, saxophonist and composer Geof Bradfield took on a month-long tour of Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe as part of pianist Ryan Cohan's quartet. The tour was arranged as a part of The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad, a unique program co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Similar programs have taken place since the Cold War, with the U.S. government turning to the world of jazz to spread the "virtues of democracy." Artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dave Brubeck are all part of the storied exercise.

In Bradfield's case, he used the opportunity as a way to absord different musical traditions. Prior to leaving Chicago, he was fiddling around with the notion of "an extended work for sextet blending African melodies and rhythms with elements of modern jazz," but the trip really solidified the vision and brought it to life as African Flowers.

This is Bradfield's second release on the Origin label and his third overall as a leader. He's joined by Cohan, his longtime friend and musical companion. Also along for the ride are Jeff Parker (guitar), Clark Sommers (bass), George Fludas (drums), and Victor Garcia (trumpet).

African Flowers engages from the outset, letting the fine top notes of "Butare" play with the senses. Based on a Rwandan praise song, "Butare" opens like colourful possibility and blossoms into a warm, tenderly-paced piece.

There are nine main songs in the suite and they all flow into each other like a continuous floral field. Interludes serve as pathways to further discovery. "All the pieces use motifs from other pieces," says Bradfield. "There's no piece that stands alone, that isn't in some way connected to another."

This value of connection helps African Flowers dig in as a complete experience, deep in its paces and glorious in its ability to tackle tough issues with the sheer power of music.

The beautiful "The Children's Room" is an example of Bradfield's larger vision. The piece is a meditation on the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Prompted largely by a visit the musicians made to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, "The Children's Room" is more than a piece of music characterized by notes on a page. It a sense of awe in the face of profound distress. Delicate and tender, Bradfield's piece flows open with improvisation.

African Flowers isn't content to simply see the continent as a tragic figure in our larger world. While touching on darker themes, Bradfield ensures that optimism shines through as well.

"Kampala" comes from a traditional piece of Bugunda music called "Omussi W'enswa (Killer of Termites)." Bradfield's use of repetitive, joined rhythms proves challenging but ultimately rewarding. Cohan's offbeat triplets shroud the pace in a bit of apt mystery, purposely perplexing the listener with a dazzling array of offbeat segments. It's a perplexing but ultimately joyous number.

"Harare" closes the record like a friendly glance over the shoulder. It is as if we are leaving Africa, eager to return to share in the work to be done and in the joy to be had. Bradfield's heartfelt saxophone plays over an adventurous bit of work from Fludas that culminates in a gleeful solo.

African Flowers is a rich, rewarding experience built from some rather complex musical foundations. Bradfield has constructed something unique and has soaked in his African experience, bearing its fruits with every note and revealing a land of optimism, resolve and determination.





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