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Bobby Bradford: Musician, Educator, Survivor

Daniel Graham By

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"We were getting good reviews, including the Japanese magazine Swing Journal, but couldn't get a job booked, including in Japan. Bob Thiele said to us "You're going to have to move to New York." John and I had to sit down and do some real soul searching about that. At that point we both had three kids each and a regular day job. In fact later, we experienced some ambivalence about whether or not that was the right move, to stay in LA. But I look back on it now and think that if either of us had moved to New York it would've been a big mistake."

Bradford would soon visit Britain for the first time on an educational trip that would lead to one his most stimulating collaborations with British drummer John Stevens and his Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Stevens was already familiar with the music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, placing him in an ideal position to join Bradford's band where group improvisation and enhanced listening skills were at the forefront. Introduced to him by the British writer Richard Williams, Bradford took an instant liking to the unconventional Stevens.

"On some level he was just a lunatic but he was a beautiful human being and a wonderful, wonderful creative artist. On the second trip, John introduced me to Martin Davidson who helped organise a tour in Germany, Holland and France at Le Chat qui peche where we played for five or six nights. From that we made the album Love's Dream on Emanem. We'd also played a few times at the Little Theatre in London and in the big ensemble Keith Tippett had called the Centipede."

Bradford put together an entirely new ensemble of musicians in the UK whose musical empathy was matched by the kind of listening ability required to fully grasp, and execute, that conception. Although from radically different backgrounds to Bradford and Carter, saxophonist Trevor Watts and drummer John Stevens understood their idiom and within it, discovered new expressive qualities. Watts' drumming on Love's Dream (Emanem) is a prime example of how a drummer can dramatically reconfigure group dynamics, especially in free jazz where constant listening and adaptability are paramount.

"Use this material as a kind of spring board," is what I used to tell them, "I want to hear what you want to play, not what I want you to play" which is something Ornette Coleman had said to me years before. Free jazz forces the player to be more resourceful...we're taking another tributary which means you don't have the safety net of sticking to the format of the tune. You have to be more resourceful in creating a direction for the solos. You have to find a place to go, tonally."

Bradford's approach to improvisation was quite at odds with other trumpeters who sometimes fell prey to the idea that they needed to cover every imaginable register, as though in competition with each other. Bradford's improvisational world was a more patient and less grandstanding one, much like Steve Lacy's musical conception on the soprano saxophone. Free Jazz has always been notoriously difficult for a trumpet player to grapple with, often forcing them into rather pointless, dead-end runs and sloppy glissando notes, avoiding the more challenging intervallic playing that can trip up unprepared brass players, especially at speed. Bradford's conception and execution, however, remained focused, thoroughly musical and always surprising.

"I do play in little cells and sequences. Intervallic relations are very important to me as opposed to thinking about what note I could play out of a particular chord that's coming up. I was never a big high note player but I never wanted to do that anyway. I liked the register that Miles Davis explored but Fats Navarro was one of my favourites. His playing had a kind of continuity I always liked."


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