Geof Bradfield's 'Melba!' On JazzSet Not long ago, when musicians needed good charts, they called Melba Liston. Now, saxophonist Geof Bradfield and his ensemble offer the radio premiere of a suite commissioned by Chamber Music America.

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

Becky Harlan/WBGO

The Evolution Of Jon Batiste

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Jon Batiste was born for show business. Hear him play an intimate set in New York and on our radio show as we trace his story to his current gig as band leader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Vibraphonist Stefon Harris and double bassist Ben Williams. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

Stefon Harris: A Generation's Preeminent Voice Of The Vibraphone

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Vibraphonist Stefon Harris gives us a lesson in empathy on and off the bandstand with his band Blackout.

Stefon Harris: A Generation's Preeminent Voice Of The Vibraphone

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/859446035/861194603" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Raul Midón plays a Tiny Desk (Home) concert. NPR/NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR/NPR

Raul Midón (Home) Concert

The jazz singer and guitarist has multiple Grammy nominations to his name. He performed five songs for our Tiny Desk quarantine series.

Braxton Cook AT HOME NPR/NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR/NPR

Braxton Cook Plays A Jazz-Infused Tiny Desk From Home

Braxton Cook has supported artists at the Tiny Desk on three separate occasions. This time around, he takes center seat, so to speak, from the comfort of his sunny New Jersey home.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performs 'Portraits of America: A Jazz Story.' Frank Stewart /WBGO hide caption

toggle caption Frank Stewart /WBGO

Jazz And Art Take Center Stage To Form 'Portraits Of America'

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Let's go to the museum with our ears. Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis explain their work inspired by the collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Jazz And Art Take Center Stage To Form 'Portraits Of America'

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/851561846/852088225" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Jon Batiste performs during Tiny Desk on November, 8 2019. (Photo by Mhari Shaw/NPR) Mhari Shaw/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Mhari Shaw/NPR

Jon Batiste Premieres New Music At The Tiny Desk

Jon Batiste premieres new songs and takes us through some of the many sides of his rich musical history at the Tiny Desk.

JNIA Monty Alexander and Ray Brown (Photo Courtesy of the Artist) hide caption

toggle caption (Photo Courtesy of the Artist)

'Smile' With A Performance By Pianist Monty Alexander And Bassist Ray Brown

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Hear a concert with pianist Monty Alexander and bassist Ray Brown from 2000. Host Christian McBride picks his favorite songs from the gig that puts both musicians' joy and camaraderie on full display.

Jazz Night in American - Monty Alexander and Ray Brown

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/841646948/841689423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Watch the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour perform live from Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Jazz at Lincoln Center hide caption

toggle caption Jazz at Lincoln Center

Hear The Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour Perform Live At Jazz At Lincoln Center

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Hear highlights from a show with the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour featuring Christian Sands, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Bria Skonberg, Melissa Aldana, Yasushi Nakamura and Jamison Ross.

Back To Top