Ryan Cohan, Geof Bradfield
Millennium Park Pritzker Pavilion
August 11, 2011
The heat wave broke in Chicago and, weather-wise, the night was shaping up to be one of the best all summer. African Journeys, featuring Ryan Cohan and Geof Bradfield
, began as saxophonist Bradfield's group took the stage to perform his extended work, "African Flowers." Shortly after a brief musical introduction, Bradfield reminded the audience of the trip that had inspired his set and pianist Cohan's piece that was to follow.
Back in 2008, the Ryan Cohan Quartet was chosen by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in affiliation with Jazz at Lincoln Center to participate in The Rhythm Road, a program which would send the quartet on a tour of Africa. During the four-week trip, the Chicago musicians were deeply impacted by the people they met and the music they experienced. So much so, in fact, it inspired both Cohan and Bradfield to compose music based on their travels of the continent.
Bradfield reworked seven of his twelve compositions that make up the full suite to include guest trombonist Vincent Gardner
, who shined especially on "Mama Yemo," the ballad of the set, while also contributing to the agile "Nairobi Transit," where the New York-based Chicago native had to execute a tightrope Routine in unison with Bradfield and trumpeter Victor Garcia. During advanced stages of the tune, the three horn players traded increasingly smaller amounts of solo space until they dissolved into collective improvisation. Garcia, an equally creative soloist and technically proficient trumpet player, seemed to find no boundary he could not cross, weaving from low to high and fast to laid back often times in the same line.
Not to be outdone, Bradfield's rhythm section provided an excellent bed for creative solo work while adding thoughtful solos of their own. Bassist Clark Sommers yielded one of the most inspiring solos of the night, and Cohan proved once again to be one of the most selfless pianists in Chicago. In the wide-ranging styles from one song to the next, guitarist Jeff Parker
played a variety of roles, from unison lines with the bass on "Nurse From Nairobi" to trading comping duties with the piano on "Mama Yemo." Evoking positive reactions from the crowd, drummer George Fludas
played an energetic solo that filled up the vast performance space on "Harare."
As dusk turned to night and the beautiful Chicago skyline became illuminated, Cohan's group made camp onstage to perform "The River." The pianist wasted no Time, immediately jumping into action by performing an unaccompanied solo on "River 1 (Departure)," followed by unaccompanied exchange with other members of the group in "Call & Response." This freer form was followed by "Arrival," featuring the entire group, giving way to a dangerous duo between Bradfield and fellow saxophonist John Wojciechowski
for "River 2 (Dark Horizon)."
Resembling the structure of a river flowing into and through different bodies of water, this suite featured what Cohan called "vignettes," connected by pieces that were often performed by unaccompanied soloists or duets called "rivers." One of the most captivating solos of the entire night was "River 4 (Beautiful Land)," performed by bassist Lorin Cohen. Cohen and drummer Kobie Watkins
made up the other half of the Ryan Cohan Quartet for the 2008 tour that inspired this concert, but here the rhythm section was rounded out by special guest Samuel Torres
on percussion, who was featured alongside Watkins in a hair raising duet on "River 5 (Connection)."
As was obvious onstage, Bradfield and Cohan go much further back than their African excursion. Starting with their time at DePaul University, the two have been playing together for the last 20 years and have been doing so regularly since Bradfield moved back from New York to Chicago in 1997. In accordance with the title of the series, Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz, this concert was truly jazz on a world level, in both content and caliber, made by two of the hardest-working musicians in Chicago.