Geof Bradfield

Our Roots



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Michael Jackson, Downbeat


In each of his four CDs for Origin, the enlightened, musician-led label from Seattle, commencing with Urban Nomad in 2008, through African Flowers (2010), Melba (2013) and Our Roots (2015), Chicago-based Geof Bradfield has proven himself a blue chip saxophonist/arranger/composer and conceptualist. Further to that, Houston-born Bradfield has emerged as a witty and informative live presenter of his ambition projects.

Case in point was a two-night residency at the legendary Green Mill in Chicago on Dec. 12 and 13. The CD release party for Our Roots, a piano-less project grounded in a 1964 Clifford Jordan album celebrating folk artist Huddie Ludbetter (aka Leadbelly, 1888-1949), boasted a crack quintet with bassist Clark Sommers, trumpeter Marquis Hill, trombonist Joel Adams and drummer Dana Hall.

Over three sets on a Saturday night, Bradfield introduced each selection with insouciance, deftly sketching the background to the Ledbetter songs, additional pieces by Blind Willie Johnson and his own dedications to bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, Afrocentric pianist Randy Weston and Zimbabwean musician Oliver 'Tuku' Mtukudzi. The music began with the staggered opening cut to Our Roots, "Adam In The Garden," a chant from the Gullah people of the Georgia Sea Isles, ancestors of slaves from Angola who retained African traditions as a result of the relative isolation of areas of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. That Bradfield would see potential for expanded improvisation in this call-and-response structure speaks much about the integrity of his aims for Our Roots.

After the initial antiphony heralded by Bradfield's tenor and articulated by Hall's tambourine, the chart reared back then released again, allowing the leader to drill out one of his gear shifting, rangy solos egged on by the swinging bass of Sommers.

Another ritard then springloaded the brilliant Marquis Hill, who took a lengthy, crackling sortie before he and Adams counterpointed Bradfield's recap of the opening motif.

Bradfield has used some of the best pianists around on previous projects, including Ryan Cohan and Ron Perrillo, but the absence of the overt harmonic stipulations of the keyboard on Our Roots was crucial. Another factor that abetted the spacey simpatico of the group at the Mill was the shared legacy of Sommers, Bradfield and Hall, all of whom have also toured with the trio ba(SH).

Indeed Sommers and Hall are an incredibly tensile team, both hardwired to contribute no less than 150 percent to proceedings. Hall was a tour de force, never cruising or permitting his bandmates any room for complacency.

Often hollering "Whooooa!" as he rode restless choppy grooves of his own engineering, notably on the traditional "Before This Time Another Year" - also salient for swaggering articulations from Adams - Hall functioned like a Charles Mingus of the drums, fiercely invested in every measure, seemingly on a wild quest of his own. After a diverse, thunderous foray he'd suddenly sign off with an emphatic crack on the snare, issuing a pregnant pause before the rest of the band re-entered.

The sheer skittering variety of Hall's input and the relevance of certain elements, including the deployment of two tambourines, one framed and one mounted, plus hand drumming, was quite staggering.

In contrast to the drummer's ferocity, Bradfield never broke a sweat, barely varying from his upright stance, despite playing at a high level of virtuosity throughout ranges of his instrument, deploying Breckerish false fingerings and blues-infused phraseology.

Although Bradfield maintains in liners to Our Roots that he was anxious to strip back - "most of my favorite music is simple and direct, about singing a song with the right feeling" - it's a challenge for musicians at this level to rein in, and there were several horn solos of impressive complexity.

Since performing at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in 2014, the group had certainly developed an even tighter lock, despite Hall's rambunctious efforts to banish comfort zones. Given the adroitly porous scoring of Bradfield, each member of the band breathed naturally amidst background riffs and uncomplicated cross structures. No matter how turbulent the height of the play, Bradfield's conceits, extrapolated from these mostly simple elements, always brought the band to a peaceful conclusion, whereupon he would introduce the next piece with a knowing levity.

On introducing "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground," he pointed out that Willie Johnson's song was included with Bach and Louis Armstrong on Carl Sagan's music compilation that was shot into space with the Voyager expeditions, intended as a greeting to any alien life. Bradfield also gave props to Green Mill manager Chris Anderson, who was serving his last Saturday night in charge, after a ten year run.

It was Anderson, by inviting Bradfield to participate in his Jazz Record Art Collective series, who first inspired the saxophonist to transcribe tracks and perform material from Jordan's Leadbelly tribute These Are My Roots.

Another of Bradfield's inspirations, Weston, was honored by "Clinton Hill" commemorating the neighborhood in New York where Bradfield was invited to brunch with the piano legend. As with the shifting reverberations of "Mbira" this performance overtly references both Weston and Bradfield's experience of the music of Africa and featured some microtonal and scalar explorations from the saxophonist.

Lighter fare in the last set included Ledbetter and John Lomax's skipping "Yellow Gal" and the jovial roadsong "Silver City Bound" written by Leadbelly as a callout to his fellow sojourner Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Like the work of John and Alan Lomax, the prolific ethnomusicologists who recorded Leadbelly, Bradfield's inquiries have a depth and range to them; he's a strategist but also an outstanding performer. It will be fascinating to see in what direction he heads next.





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