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Bradford-Gjerstad Quartet at Philadelphia Art Alliance

Tyran Grillo By

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Bradford-Gjerstad Quartet
Philadelphia Art Alliance
Philadelphia, PA
March 29, 2014

Pivot or persevere? It's a question that frames every moment of jazz performance and one that suffused the Philadelphia Art Alliance loft, where on a rainy Saturday cornetist Bobby Bradford, reedman Frode Gjerstad, bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, and drummer Frank Rosaly cast their bones and divined whatever messages came spontaneously to mind. Under the auspices of the Ars Nova Workshop, which presents a yearly series of jazz and experimental music happenings, the Bradford-Gjerstad Quartet put theory to practice by collapsing any differences between the two.

Even before a single note was heard, it was clear what listeners were in for. On and around the drums was a veritable arsenal of percussive accoutrements. Chains, sticks, mallets, straws, bells, and shells: these objects—still and soundless—were like ideas just waiting to be audibly expressed. The bass lay recumbent. Propped near it, an alto saxophone and clarinet, and in front of them a cornet left on a chair. Such were the dynamics that held true throughout the night once activated by breath and hands. For Rosaly indeed made use of all that was available to him; Flaten moved horizontally, hatching every cross along the way; Gjerstad constantly switched reeds, lurking more than leading; all while Bradford held his own, modest yet secure.

The resulting origami of styles and signatures was almost mournfully celebratory. There was, in other words, a feeling of sadness underneath all the energy. Whatever the reason for this contrast, the effect was captivating, even if it did require a bit of acclimation. Once settled, the group's sound evolved throughout the night in an entirely freeform suite. Although broken into four distinct sections, each seemed to echo and expand upon the last, so that by the end any interjections of applause were lost to memory.

It's often said that mastery is indicated by effortlessness. Not in this case. Bradford, who on the cusp of his 80th year brought his formative experiences with Ornette Coleman to the table, muscled visibly between idioms with the pounce of a feline and gave the strongest indications of melody. Gjerstad, for his part, was more strategic, dropping squeals and stones with aplomb. Rosaly and Flaten, for theirs, were practically inseparable, kicking things off as they did with synergy galore. The drummer's extended techniques were an easy target of attention (at one point, Rosaly even made use of the balustrade behind him), but soon enough the collective sound won out with crosscurrents of attention and deep listening.

Amid this seeming chaos, familiar references felt downright avant-garde. Gjerstad's occasionally boppish altoism resonated strangest of all and touched off something of a groove that echoed through each musician in kind. Flaten's arco playing was similarly perverse, at one moment delicate as a bee's wing before ripping like thunder through cloud the next. The most magnetic shifts were also the most unexpected, as when the group eased organically into a spindly free-for-all (memorable for Rosaly beating a knife and fork on a metal plate) that recalled the Art Ensemble of Chicago at its most whimsical.

Lest histories be forgotten, Bradford sang in the final number. Sounding for all like a plantation song coming at us through the distorted lens of cultural amnesia, his voice— words indiscernible but sentiments as blatant as the toiling sun—rang in the chest. Even with this bayou memory lingering, the band encored with a brief expectoration to send us home in good spirits. It was an aural snapshot of a hundred jazz clubs compressed into one, a fiery jambalaya stirred by musicians who thought not only out loud, but also within.

Pivot or persevere? It should be obvious by now.

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