Reviews of Recent Recordings
Bobby Bradford Extet
Bobby Bradford with John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Even though Bobby Bradford will be forever linked to John Carter, the trumpeter-cornetist – who turned 75 on July 19th – has made important recordings outside his partnership with the clarinetist. Intriguingly, the earliest of these were waxed in London, which Bradford first visited in 1971 as part of a LA teachers’ charter tour. A chain of contacts beginning with a California acquaintance of Melody Maker’s Richard Williams facilitated a jam session with drummer John Stevens and saxophonist Trevor Watts within hours of Bradford’s arrival. The whirlwind continued for the next few days, as Bradford played pub gigs and recorded for Freedom with the edition of Spontaneous Music Ensemble with bassist Ron Herman, trombonist Bob Norden and vocalist Julie Tippetts. The bond created with the drummer and saxophonist prompted Bradford’s return to London for an extended stay in 1973, during which he recorded Love’s Dream (Emanem), a quartet date rounded out by bassist Kent Carter; the session was also Bradford’s first playing cornet. Even though Freedom released part of the SME material in Germany in ’74, the label decided not to issue a different, only slightly overlapping set of tracks in the UK, which was then followed by Michael Cuscuna’s pass on the material for the Arista-Freedom series. This allowed Chuck Nessa to buy the masters from Alan Bates and release the entire output in two volumes in ’80 and ‘84, using sequences different from either Freedom version. By then, Love’s Dream had seeped into the US. The two albums went a step beyond establishing that the Brits could keep pace with the cutting-edge American; they confirmed them to be peers.
Additionally, the UK sessions contained compositions that remained staples of Bradford’s dates, with and without Carter. First recorded with SME, “Room 408,” a serpentine line with pronounced, tactical shifts in rhythmic feel, also closed Bradford and Carter’s ’88 hat ART date; the title cut of that album, Bradford’s “Comin’ On,” an Ornettish theme that flirts with resolution a few times before committing, was included on the Emanem date and his ’89 live date on Soul Note, One Night Stand. Though the UK sessions provide vital context for what came after, they were not made on his home turf of LA. This is one reason why Midnight Pacific Airways, a ’77 airshot on KPEK (LA’s Pacifica station), is one of the more important archival albums of the past few years. It is a document not only of an artist, but a challenged, if still vibrant jazz community, which is evoked in detail by annotator Mark Weber. To a degree, the growing tenuousness in the LA scene is reflected in the name of Bradford’s ensemble. The “Ex” in “Extet” is a pun for the variable “X” and refers to Bradford never knowing how many players would show up for the Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon gigs at his Pasadena storefront venue, The Little Big Horn. Weber surmises trombonist Glen Ferris, then a regular, had a salsa gig on the night of the broadcast; Roberto Miranda, Bradford’s first-call bassist, is also absent.
Still, the musicians who made the date had great instincts for and commitment to Bradford’s music. Flutist James Newton was an acutely attuned front line partner for Bradford, highlighting the ensembles with everything from vocalized sparks to cool pools of sound. Already an astonishing improviser, Newton’s solos compellingly mix darting lines and aerobatic, multiphonics-flecked glissandi with bedrock jazz lyricism. Richard Rehwald frequently played with the Extet, particularly when Bradford hit with multiple bassists; like the Carter-Bradford Quartet’s original bassist, Tom Williamson, Rehwald developed ideas based on Bradford’s lines instead of a harmonic grid. What’s noteworthy about Rehwald’s playing is its urgency, which is at least partially attributable to the presence of drummer John Goldsmith. A member of Sun Ra’s drum corps on the ’70 Maeght Foundation recordings, Goldsmith gave the bounce Billy Higgins devised to offset the jagged themes of Ornette Coleman a primal power. They infuse Bradford’s music with the energies of the late ‘70s; had this music been made by New Yorkers at Studio Rivbea, it would have been a prime example of loft jazz. “Comin’ On” is grittier than the other cited versions, while the oft-recorded ballad “She” – first issued as “Woman” on Flight for Four, the Carter-Bradford’s Quartet’s ’69 Flying Dutchman debut – is transformed by Goldsmith into a scorching workout (a contrasting, bonus track 2003 duo reading by Bradford and clarinetist Vinny Golia provides a sense of how differently the piece can be interpreted). Rounded out by the initially impressionistic, quickly heated “Improvisation #12” (that’s Newton laughing when Bradford makes his mock-serious announcement) and a rollicking “Blue Monk,” Midnight Pacific Airwaves is a very satisfying album that also fills a huge discographical gap, as there were previously no official Bradford-led recordings from the decade subsequent to the Emanem album.
Bradford’s collaborations with John Stevens and Trevor Watts generally follow the contours of his work with Carter. Although they are front-loaded onto the first CD, Bradford’s composition only amount to only to a third of the 2-CD’s running time (this includes the pellucid “Bridget’s Mother,” for which Bradford and Watts share composer credit, even though it is a largely improvised trio with Tippetts). His instincts as an ensemble player are particularly evident in off-speed compositions like “Norway,” a prescient Stevens appropriation of the folk music that continues to shape Norwegian jazz today. And, Bradford’s use of the jazz idiom is both exuberant and edgy. His playing on “His Majesty Louis” effortlessly melds New Orleans jazz and Coleman’s lexicon; in this regard, it is noteworthy that Bradford played with the saxophonist in the early ‘50s, when Armstrong and the other giants of his generation still roamed. Compositionally, the way the ensembles veer through changes in rhythmic feel and emotional tint foreshadows Henry Threadgill’s double-edged use of jazz lexicons; it is a very sophisticated approach to linking structure and mood. This fuels the communal drive of Stevens and Watts, which is center to the music. Even though Herman more than acquits himself in running with them, Stevens and Watts are in the zone here and on “Room 408:” they know Bradford’s importance; they have refined ears for his material, having explored Coleman’s advents together since the early ‘60s; and they’re having a ball. That’s a necessary chemistry for a recording to remain relevant after almost 40 years; on this occasion, it is one that Bradford catalyzed.