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Geof Bradfield: Melba!

Dan McClenaghan By

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Melba Liston (1926-1999) isn't one of the big names that comes up when great jazz composer/arrangers are mentioned, but it should be. Starting as a trombonist with some of the greats—Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie, Art Blakey—she soon began working with Randy Weston, arranging the pianist's composition on Uhuru Africa, (Roulette Records, 1960) and Highlife (Roulette Records, 1961). She also wrote the charts for saxophonist Johnny Griffin, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Charles Mingus. Fast forward thirty plus years and she again collaborated with Weston for an under-appreciated masterpiece, The Spirits of Our Ancestors (Polygram Records, 1992), a double disc that reedman Geof Bradfield, in his student days stint as a record shop employee, stumbled upon.

Entering the musical world of Melba Liston—her scores for Motown Records, for vocalist Billie Holiday, pianist Mary Lou Williams—had Bradfield smitten with the trombonist/arranger's artistry. Melba! is Geof Bradfield's love letter to the under-appreciated genius.

On this set of originals laid down to capture and pay tribute to Liston's life and spirit, Bradfield heads up a top tier septet that starts the journey at Liston's early days, with "Kansas City Child," and begins with a loose fabric fanfare, reeds and brass trombone wandering, until Joel Adams—who has the trombone chair in the band—steps forward with a spirited solo in front of Ryan Cohan's percussive sparkle on piano, until the other horns join back in to give the sound a church-like mood.

"Central Avenue" celebrates Liston's time in Los Angeles during the 1940s, working for bandleader Gerald Wilson. It is a hip and well-polished arrangement, with a tangy guitar turn by Jeff Parker and a bright, singing trumpet solo from Victor Garcia. "Dizzy Gillespie" is a nod to the time Liston spent in the trumpet great's employ, capturing some of Gillespie's famous "Latin tinge" that gives way to a gorgeously brooding section of piano introspection leading into trumpeter Garcia's muted ruminations and Bradfield's sweet soprano sax lines.

"Randy Weston" celebrates Liston's finest contribution to the jazz cannon via her work with the pianist, celebrating with Weston-esque verve the African rhythms and North African melodic structures that Bradfield first encountered in the Weston/Liston collaborations. It is a piece that, expanded perhaps with more horns and percussion, would fit in with sometimes ominous, sometimes celebratory moods of the Weston/Liston masterpiece, The Spirits of Our Ancestors.

This six piece suite/homage to Melba Liston closes with the longest section, the eleven and a half minute "Homecoming," a tranquil and soothing celebration of the artists return to the U.S. after a time spent in Jamaica; a return that saw her introducing an all-female band and headlining at the Kansas City Jazz Festival in 1979. It is a touching and poignant tune, full of beauty and love, leading into a brief epilogue, featuring vocalist Maggie Burrell's rich-timbre and heartfelt passion backed by bass and piano, a succinct, and lovely no frills wrap-up to a magnificent recording.

Track Listing: Kansas City Child; Central Avenue; Dizzy Gillespie; Randy Weston; Solo Saxophone Introduction; Detroit/Kingston; Homecoming; "Let Me Not Lose My Dream.

Personnel: Geof Bradfield: Tenor and soprano saxophones; Victor Garcia: trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion; Joel Adams: trombone; Jeff Parker: guitar; Ryan Cohan: piano; Clark Sommers: bass; George Fludas: drums, percussion; Maggie Burrell: vocal (7)

Title: Melba! | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Origin Records

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