London Jazz Festival Review (8):Bobby Bradford plus Colin Stetson

Bobby Bradford Quartet + Colin Stenson,
(Purcell Room, part of London Jazz Festival, Sat Nov 13th Nov. Review by Jon Turney ), photo of Bobby Bradford and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten from http://www.frodegjerstad.com/
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Do I hear a '1,2,3 and 4'…? Nope. A sideways glance, an intake of breath, and Bobby Bradford’s quartet went straight into headlong free improvisation, all four pitching into choppy, unanchored, intense interchanges which gave clear declaration of intent. We’re going to do whatever we feel like, whenever we feel it.

Mostly, that worked well. Partly because what they felt like was often more reflective, and because Bradford is naturally lyrical even when skirting conventional melody. He likes to work with simple materials, bluesy fragments and parts of scales, and work them into new shapes. The result sounds fluently experimental and rooted in tradition at the same time, as befits someone who has been a master of the art since the 1960s.

This was the smallest of the three gigs on a South Bank Saturday night at the London Jazz Festival. Old star Herbie Hancock was rocking the Festival Hall and new star Esperanza Spalding entertaining the crowd in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We who just about filled the Purcell Room had come to hear someone who was never a star, but damn well ought to have been. Best known as Ornette Coleman’s "other", little recorded, trumpeter, he was a more resourceful player than Don Cherry, in some ways, certainly more technically adept, and has had great collaborations since – with the late John Carter, and with David Murray.

For this rare London visit he was reunited with another old partner, Norwegian reed exponent Frode Gjerstad. There’s a radio recording of the two of them playing in the UK back in the 1980s with John Stevens on drums and Johnny Dyani on bass. That is freely improvised as well, but the rhythm team has more obvious forward motion. This time the bass and drums were in the hands of Gjerstad’s younger compatriots Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (with Bradford above) and the remarkable Paal Nilsen-Love. They largely eschewed regular time, being more interested in colour and commentary, so the group improvisations were generally wilder and freer.

That meant focussing on one aspect of Bradford’s music – he has recorded whole albums of melodic, freebop themes and a finely composed suite in tribute to Carter - but still allowed many nice moments. Standouts included the slow fade which ended the first piece, with bass, sibilant clarinet from Gjerstad at his best, and muted trumpet (Bradford’s mute manipulation is endlessly interesting) and a lovely duet for bass and muted cornet in the second piece.

Niggles? A few. The sound balance for the full quartet passages was pretty poor. Bradford is not the loudest of trumpeters, but you really ought to be able to hear the trumpet/cornet clearly in £20 seats in the Purcell Room.

I also found I didn't respond favourably to Gjerstad’s fondness for the extreme upper register, making all his instruments sound pretty much the same. Whether that accounted for the gradual departure of perhaps a third of the audience, I can’t say – it surely cannot have been because a freely improvised set disconcerts jazz people that much in 2010, can it?

Bradford parted with some gracious words about the importance of the audience when making music like this: "you’re in the cauldron with us". I was happy to jump in, though I did sympathise with a fellow enthusiast who remarked afterwards, I wouldn’t have minded if he had played some tunes."

We got some tunes, of a kind, beforehand in a solo set from Canadian sax exponent Colin Stetson. Most saxophone players these days throw in some circular breathing. Stetson does nothing but circular breathing. He starts doing it on bass sax. It sounds primeval. It's how I imagine a John Surman baritone recording would sound at 16 rpm. It looks spectacular – you find yourself hoping he has a good cardiologist. It is also - for a time - surprisingly gripping. Stetson demonstrated the same technique on alto and soprano horns, executing some Philip Glass like repeat-with-small-variations songs, as he called them.

Becoming the Evan Parker of the bass saxophone is clearly a niche Stetson can fill, but he can evidently also do a lot more than this, as his extensive session discography shows. I’d like to hear him again, but not just playing, as it were, with himself.

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