10:59 AM EDT, September 9, 2012
It was a great weekend for jazz composition, as two noteworthy Chicago musicians showed their skills with a pen, as well as a horn.
Saxophonist Geof Bradfield already had caught listeners' attention with "African Flowers," a 2010 recording of his pictorial suite for jazz quintet.
But Bradfield dug deeper in his newest work, leading a septet in the ambitious, hour-long "Melba!" at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Saturday night.
As its title suggested, the piece paid homage to the life and art of Melba Liston, a groundbreaking composer-arranger unjustly overlooked in the history of jazz. Through the course of six carefully composed movements, "Melba!" evoked the spirit of Liston's times but still carried the hallmarks of Bradfield's musical language. The long lines, complex themes and meticulous structuring of this score pointed to the high craft of Bradfield's writing, even as particular movements portrayed specific periods in Liston's life.
The piece began grandly, with a quasi-orchestral introduction in which all the players produced bright bursts of color. Before long, trombonist Joel Adams dispatched the gorgeous opening theme of the first movement, "Kansas City Child," a musical evocation of Liston's early years and a tip of the hit to her work as trombonist.
Bradfield conjured the spirit of Los Angeles' "Central Avenue" in the second movement, his bebop-influenced tenor saxophone solos answered with beautifully sculpted statements from trumpeter Victor Garcia and sinewy cadenzas from guitarist Jeff Parker. Like each section of the suite, this one built to an inexorable conclusion, the logic of the piece apparent from first theme to last.
It would have been easy for Bradfield to draw upon Afro-Cuban clichés and conventions in the "Dizzy Gillespie" movement, which nodded to Liston's collaborations with the brilliant trumpeter-bandleader. Instead, Bradfield penned an intricate work cast in several musical episodes. The syncopated, Latin-tinged motif that launched the piece soon made way for uptempo trumpet solos, three-horn choirs, radiant passages for the entire septet and so on.
Similarly, the "Randy Weston" movement – a salute to a towering pianist-composer closely associated with Liston – in lesser hands might have been a retread of Weston's African rhythms and heroic pianism. Instead, Bradfield assigned pianist Ryan Cohan vast solos, then answered them with staccato blasts from the horns and full-ensemble writing rich in dissonance. The cumulative force of Cohan's double-octave solos and the band's hard-charging responses made this a highlight of the suite.
Finally, the "Detroit/Kingston" and "Homecoming" movements that closed the work again attested to Bradfield's gifts at configuring a large-scale composition for maximum effect. Given the marginalization of Liston's contributions, one might not have expected such a triumphant finale, but the surging final minutes of the suite said a great deal about Bradfield's view of her life and accomplishments.
On Friday evening at the Green Mill, the emerging trumpeter Marquis Hill played original compositions from his newly released CD "Sounds of the City." Though Hill wasn't working on a scale as exalted as Bradfield's, the trumpeter showed impressible control in writing more compact tunes. The melodic elegance of "The Token," the appealing twists and turns of "Abracadabra" and the light touch and sleek phrase-making of "Like Lee" (a salute to trumpeter Lee Morgan) represented short-form writing of the most succinct kind.
Better still, Hill developed these ideas effectively, bringing ample technique – but no bombast – to his work on trumpet and fluegelhorn. Alto saxophonist Christopher McBride proved a kindred spirit, while Hill enjoyed atmospheric support from drummer Jeremy Cunningham, bassist Charlie Kirchen and pianist Josh Moshier.
But in the work of both Hill and Bradfield, it was the writing that stood out, a sure sign that the art of jazz composition still flourishes in Chicago.
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