JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater

Geof Bradfield's 'Melba!' On JazzSet

Geof Bradfield's 'Melba!' On JazzSet

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/168976328/230750819" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Not long ago, when musicians needed good charts, they called Melba Liston. She wrote for Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Elvin Jones, Clark Terry and many more.

Now, saxophonist Geof Bradfield and his Chicago ensemble offer the premiere of a suite — Melba! — commissioned by Chamber Music America. It traces her life story through Kansas City and Los Angeles, her work with Gillespie and Weston, and her assignments in Detroit and Kingston. The studio recording of Melba! is just out on the Origin label. JazzSet has the live version.

Liston was born in 1926 with music in her soul. As a child, she taught herself to play the trombone. She was a reluctant soloist, but she grew into a stunning, sought-after composer and arranger. Bradfield knows, because he studied 45 boxes of her scores in the archive at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. In an interview with JazzSet, he described his mindset after his research, as he began to create Melba!

"I thought about the struggle that she went through as a woman in the jazz world," Bradfield says, "as somebody largely self-taught in this very complex music, and how she always talked about — because she had taught herself — she always had to reach down deep. It was always hard for her to write. That idea of struggle, I think, is there in her music."

"Let me not lose my dream," a line by the Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, inspires the opening movement, "Kansas City Child." Next comes an almost-blues named "Central Avenue" for the street where swing met bebop in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Melba Liston was there. Her middle-school classmate was Dexter Gordon, the future saxophone idol. Liston also worked for the up-and-coming bandleader Gerald Wilson at the Lincoln Theater, a.k.a. the Apollo of the West Coast.

The next two movements are "Dizzy Gillespie" and "Randy Weston." It is Gillespie who hired Liston as one of the first woman horn players — if not the first — in a major big band. As she told it in Gillespie's autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, "[Dizzy] heard I was in town. There was one trombone player he wanted to get rid of, so immediately he fired him. And I went by to visit. [Dizzy] says, 'Where's ya goddamned horn? Don't you see this empty chair up there? You're supposed to be working tonight.'" Melba Liston toured the Mideast and South America with Gillespie's band, supported by the U.S. State Department.

Her association with pianist Randy Weston was long and fruitful. For four decades, she arranged and conducted on Weston recordings like Uhuru Afrika (1960) and The Spirits of Our Ancestors (1991). According to Weston in NPR's Jazz Profiles, their collaboration went like this: He would write a theme (often a waltz), play it for her and answer her questions about it. Liston would take the music home. Later, when she came to the studio with the arrangement, Weston says she always surprised him. Even though it wasn't something he had made, it was exactly what he intended, he told Geof Bradfield in an interview.

In the 1970s, Liston wrote arrangements for the Motown and Stax labels, and taught in a school in Jamaica. The movement "Detroit Kingston" is a conversation between melodic fragments from "What's Goin' On" and "No Woman No Cry."

Then the first Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival brought Melba Liston home. In his finale, "The Homecoming," Bradfield brings back melodic motifs from "Kansas City Child." Committing yourself to your best material is one lesson Bradfield says he learned from studying Melba Liston.

Bradfield participates in the Melba Liston Research Collective, which in 2014 will publish an edition of the Black Music Research Journal about her. To hear Liston's story in her own and others' words, with plenty of her music, see NPR's Jazz Profiles.

Personnel
  • Victor Garcia, trumpet
  • Geof Bradfield, soprano and tenor sax
  • Joel Adams, trombone
  • Jeff Parker, guitar
  • Ryan Cohan, piano
  • Clark Sommers, bass
  • George Fludas, drums
Credits

Melba! by Geof Bradfield and the Geof Bradfield Ensemble has been made possible with support from Chamber Music America's New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. An album from Melba! is coming in 2013. Location recording by Dan Nichols of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Geof Bradfield is on the faculty at NIU. Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos.

Correction Jan. 10, 2013

The audio of this segment misidentifies Jeff Parker as Jeff Nelson.

[+] read more[-] less

More From Jazz

Bill Charlap and his mother, Sandy Stewart. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

Sandy Stewart And Bill Charlap On Piano Jazz

Hear the cabaret singer and her pianist son bring a rare combination of swing and sophistication to a session with host Marian McPartland.

Sandy Stewart And Bill Charlap On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/535960111/535960769" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Marian McPartland and Eddie Gomez in 1993. R.J. Capak/Piano Jazz Archives hide caption

toggle caption R.J. Capak/Piano Jazz Archives

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

Eddie Gomez On Piano Jazz

The Grammy-winning bassist's sense of swing shines through on this session with Marian McPartland, who joins in on "My Foolish Heart" and "All Of You."

Eddie Gomez On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/533993916/533995152" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Joshua Redman on saxophone, Scott Colley on bass, Brian Blade on drums and Ron Miles on cornet perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center hide caption

toggle caption Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center

Jazz Night In America: Video Episodes And Shorts

Still Dreaming: Joshua Redman's Tribute To A Tribute

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

The saxophonist opens up about the legacy of his father, Dewey Redman, and performs with Still Dreaming — his own nod to the quartet his dad once helped convene as an homage to Ornette Coleman.

Terence Blanchard is the guest on this week's Piano Jazz. Henry Adebonojo/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Henry Adebonojo/Courtesy of the artist

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

Terence Blanchard On Piano Jazz

The Grammy award-winning trumpeter and composer joins Marian McPartland to perform standards like "I Thought About You" with bassist Gary Mazzaroppi.

Terence Blanchard On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/530240350/530241963" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Buster Williams performs at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. Lawrence Sumulong /Courtesy of Jazz At Lincoln Center hide caption

toggle caption Lawrence Sumulong /Courtesy of Jazz At Lincoln Center

Jazz Night In America: The Radio Program

Buster Williams: The Low End Maestro

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

The low end has always been terra firma for Williams, one of the all-time great bassists in modern jazz. Hear highlights of a recent set with his post-bop ensemble, Something More.

Buster Williams: The Low End Maestro

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/528918610/528942262" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

T.S. Monk performs at the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz hide caption

toggle caption Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

T.S. Monk On Piano Jazz

The percussionist dedicated this 1995 set with host Marian McPartland to his father, Thelonious Monk.

T.S. Monk On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/528135123/528136364" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Carmen Cavallaro performs in 1971. Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

Carmen Cavallaro On Piano Jazz

The pianist's tender style created an ideal atmosphere for romantics everywhere. In this 1989 session, he solos on his arrangement of a Cole Porter medley.

Carmen Cavallaro On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/527052788/527052981" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Back To Top