Dave Miller: Guitarist

Creator of music & baker of goods…

A Conversation with Geof Bradfield, part I

Geof Bradfield is a saxophonist and composer living in Chicago.  He is an incredible musician, steeped heavily in the jazz tradition, who is always looking towards the future.  Geof’s commitment to his vision and self-improvement has always been a huge inspiration to me.  His ability to digest, write, and interpret music on a high level seems to know no bounds.

I recently sat down with Geof to talk about, among other topics, his upcoming album “African Flowers,” which will be released on Origin Records in the fall.  The album also features Victor Garcia [trumpet, percussion], Jeff Parker [guitar], Ryan Cohen [piano], Clark Sommers [bass], and George Fludas [drums, percussion].  Scroll down to a bit to hear “Butare,” a selection from the album.  Here is part I of my conversation with Geof.  Enjoy!

DM: Hey Geof!  Alright, so you have a new album, entitled African Flowers coming out in the fall.  It draws upon folk music from many different parts of Africa mixed in with your writing sensibilities.  You received a grant from Chamber Music America to help fund the project.  I’m obviously summarizing this very heavy experience and prestigious honor for you in a few sentences.  Can you talk about how all this came about?

GB: Sure.  Well, for some background on the situation, I was doing my undergrad at DePaul and thinking about grad school.  I ended up going to CalArts.  One of the reasons I went there was because of their world music program.  I had started checking out African music when I was going to school in Chicago.  I came a across Youssou N’dour’s record, Set, when I was working in a record store and it blew my mind.  I had never heard anything like it.  CalArts was an attractive place to go because it wasn’t just a college jazz program.  I could actually learn about music from other places around the world whereas DePaul was generally a very conservative program.

Another attractive component of CalArts was that Charlie Haden taught there.  I had just started to check out Ornette Coleman’s music, but I didn’t understand it at all.  At that point, I was very much into Bird and Cannonball.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to really figure out what was happening with that music.

As I was finishing my undergrad, part of me really didn’t want to go back to school right away.  I was working a lot in Chicago already and wanted to keep playing with good musicians.  However, Mark Colby, who I was studying with at the time, gave me some great advice by telling me, “go back to school now, because you’ll never go if you don’t go now.”  He said I should do that or move to New York.  Honestly, though, I was too scared to go to New York then.  I felt like I wasn’t ready.  You know, I had just started getting a repertoire together and I was playing a weekly session with Bob Dogan [piano] and Eddie De Haas [bass] and those guys were kicking my ass.

So, I decided to go to CalArts.  The great thing about Charlie Haden was that he was there all the time.  When I was studying at CalArts, I had class with Charlie probably about 13 out of the 15 weeks in the semester.  When he wasn’t there, he’d send Robert Hurst or Jeff Watts or Jimmy Rowles.

DM: Wow, pretty sweet!

GB: Yeah, so it didn’t suck [laughs].  The experience with Charlie coupled with the fact that CalArts was the only world music program that was performance-based, as opposed to coming at it from an ethnomusicology standpoint, really made me want to go to CalArts.

When I was there, I studied with these Western Africans, these Ewe drummers, and you had to do the whole thing–As shy as I was, I had to dance these African dances.  It was rough!  Bad news…[laughs].  You had to play the drums and sing the songs in Ewe.  It was a great experience.  I also took Indian percussion and Gamelan orchestra courses.

If we fast forward to a few years ago, I went on this tour with Ryan Cohen’s [piano] band through Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Rhythm Road.  This program used to be called Jazz Ambassadors and was operated by the Kennedy Center.  It’s gone on for years.  People like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington participated in these tours in the past.  It’s a great program.

DM: What an honor for you guys to be a part of that legacy.

GB: Yeah, it was amazing.  There’s this amazing book called “Satchmo Blows Up the World” that has some incredible stories in it.  You know, like, Dave Brubeck contemplating riding across the Iron Curtain in the trunk of a car because he didn’t have the right visa…it ends up working out and he doesn’t have to do it, but that was an option that was presented to him!  As a result, it puts anything you might have to deal with in perspective.

Anyways, we got accepted by the Rhythm Road program and they sent us to eastern Africa.  At the same time, I had also been thinking about writing some music for my own group and applying for this Chamber Music America grant.  The idea I came up with for the grant application was to bring my Zoom recorder to Africa, record whatever music I heard there, and write a suite of music based on my experiences.  It ended up that I got the grant, although I didn’t know until six months later.

DM: So you just did all the recording anyways with the hopes that you would get the grant?

GB: Yeah.  I actually assumed I wouldn’t get it.  I figured I would just write the piece anyway because it seemed like a great idea.  I also thought this might be the only time I would be able to visit these places.  I mean, how else can you get to Rwanda?  Fortunately, Kobie [Watkins, drummer] is such a techy guy.  He had this hi-def video camera that he used to record a lot of the stuff with, as well.  Billy Banks, who works for Lincoln Center, also recorded a ton of stuff.

Some of the most memorable footage was from the Gekoke dancers from Conga .  These 11 or 12 year old kids do this crazy double-jointed dancing with no expression on their face.

The way most of these performances would work is that we would play our set, which was comprised of Ryan’s music and some jazz standards.  After our set, we would take questions, and then, in a very natural way, the local musicians would get on stage and perform for us.

In Rwanda, we were performing as a part of this festival in Butare, which gathered musicians from all over Africa.  We jammed with some of the other musicians on the festival.  They showed us the bass line for one of their songs, which I ended up borrowing for one of the pieces, “Butare,” that ended up on African Flowers.

Here is a full length mp3 of “Butare”:

DM: That bassline that ended up on “Butare” is in five.  Was the original bassline the same?

GB: No, actually the original bassline is in six.  There is, however, a lot of traditional Rwandan praise music that is in five.  It’s a traditional meter in Rwandan folk music.  So, I took this bassline, which is from a Burkina Faso song, truncated it a little bit, and put it into a Rwandan rhythm which I got from a Hugh Tracey recording.  He’s the guy that traveled all over Africa and recorded a bunch of music for Smithsonian Folkways.  The way “Butare” works, which is similar to how a lot of Rwandan music works, is that the bassline is in 5/4 and there is an underlying 5/8 going on in the guitar.  They dovetail together, of course, but aren’t in the same meter.

There’s this other Rwandan music called Intore music which was common in the court of Rwanda.  In this music, the way the horn parts work is that they are almost independent from the underlying rhythms, but they do lock up every few cycles.  This is how I structured the horn parts in “Butare.”  The horns are in an even slower five than any of the rhythm section.  It’s a free, lyrical, vocalizing type of phrasing over a steady beat.

DM: Yeah, the melody in “Butare” doesn’t necessarily feel like it has a time signature to it.

GB: Right.  It’s tricky to make it happen so that everything lines up correctly.  As one horn part ends, the other begins, so if one person falls down on the job…

DM: Then the whole thing is kind of screwed.

GB: Yeah.  It can fall apart very easily.  I think this is the crux of African music, though.  Everybody has to understand each others’ part.  Each part is very simple on its own.  It’s the way that they work together that is complicated.

DM: When you listen to it on the surface, it feels very good, but if you approach it from an intellectual standpoint, it can feel somewhat chaotic because there’s so much going on.

GB: I like that idea.  It should be easy for the casual listener to enter into the music, and then it should be challenging for the musician listener.

DM: It’s like walking the line between pleasing a wide audience and being an innovative artist.

GB: Yeah there’s definitely a border.  There’s nothing wrong with very cerebral music that’s hard for all of us and doesn’t appeal to a broad audience, but I think it’s much more interesting and more of a challenge, at least for me, to try and make music that seems very simple on the surface.  However, then it also has this depth that the musician or sophisticated listener can get into.  It can be appreciated from a number of different perspectives.  That’s the music I like.  The music I really love is music that I heard and loved when I was a kid, for whatever reason, that still continues to reward over the years.  Something like Kind of Blue.

DM: Yeah.  Some of those albums I’ve been listening to since I was a kid evoke something much more than music inside of me.

Regarding the writing of African Flowers, was it a trial and error process for you to tastefully integrate African music into jazz and still make it your own thing?

GB: Yeah, it was.  It’s tricky in a lot of ways and, for one, it’s been done a lot already.  Some of my favorites in this vein are Randy Weston’s Uhuru Africa and Highlife, and also some of Duke Ellington’s music where he’s  drawing on some influence of various different cultures in Africa.

The first thing I decided I didn’t want it to be was a project where American musicians played African music.  I’m a jazz musician, first and foremost, for all the things that that means.  I feel a very clear connection to the lineage of saxophone players.  As a writer, I feel a clear connection to that too, but I also have a lot of different interests.  I decided that I wanted the music to be jazz and to have elements of these African musics involved.  For instance, if you listen to Uhuru Africa, it’s very clearly jazz music and jazz musicians, but there are these elements of African music that are included in a very hip way.

When I was writing African Flowers, I was also checking out a lot of classical music, especially romantic-era music, some Schumann art songs, and impressionist stuff like Debussy and Ravel.  I knew that I wanted to incorporate some of those compositional and harmonic elements.  For years, I’ve also been listening to Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, people like that.   I wanted some of that in it, too.  That soulful feeling that is really closely connected to the jazz idiom.  I wanted it to be explicit, like I wasn’t trying to hide that.

As far as the trial and error process goes, one of the first things I did was transcribe some mbira music from Zimbabwe.  I wrote it all out for the sextet to cover all the different mbira parts.  I never tried to play it with a group because I could see there was no way it was going to work.  It was just insanely difficult.  The piece has no clear starting point and beat one is almost always obscured.  There’s really no way a western listener would hear one, that is, if there is a one!  That sounds very meta-physical, but that’s the gist.  I tried to write it out in a way that was true to that.  Then I realized once I completed it, which took a really long time, that it was just not going to happen.

DM: That’s a frustrating moment when you realize that!

GB: Yeah!  I mean I spent dozens and dozens of hours transcribing this field recording of mbira music!  It’s gorgeous.  Then there’s the guy singing on top of it and the percussion underneath it, so I tried to orchestrate all these things.  Then, luckily, I realized, before I put it in front of the group, that there was no chance it was going to work.

So, yes, at that time, I was veering way too close to the African side of things–trying to recreate something African and just orchestrate it for a western ensemble.  Actually, an interesting thing about Thomas Mapfumo’s music is that he kind of does that.  He orchestrates mbira music for, kind of, a funk ensemble.  He’s already done that and that’s as good as it’s going to get!  I really have nothing to add to that.  It was a painful realization.

DM: With African music, in general, it tends to be much more about the aural than the written, right?

GB: Definitely.  For instance, I was learning this piece from some of the African guys I played with.  They played it for me and I was just trying to play along.  I swear I finally thought I knew where one was but came always came out on the wrong beat.  After we played, I had one of the guys sing it to me because I wanted to write it down, but to write it down, you have to decide on a meter.  This didn’t really work, so I decided to write it down and then just bar it later.  That didn’t really work, either.  He didn’t read music, though.  I would ask him as I was writing it out if it was correct and he just kind of shrugged.  I do have a video of it, though, and I went back to it later.  One thing I realized is that the bass player is kind of screwing it up, so I didn’t feel as bad!  It was kind of reassuring, but on the other hand, I was totally wrong!  What I expected for it was something that was 6/8 or 12/8 based.  It turned out to be something sort of in 9/8 but it overlapped measures.  It still had the triplet feel to it.  The accents were weird enough, though, that it just threw me every cycle.  I used the rhythm for this song to create the bassline for the last piece on African Flowers called “Harare/Leaving Africa.”

DM: Was it a consideration to have the music be accessible, and, if so, was it more of a consideration after you got the grant?

GB: Actually, if I had the grant initially, I probably would have given even less of a shit if it was accessible, because then it’s payed for either way.  The grant is the type of thing that makes it possible to present in venues where it doesn’t matter as much if you sell it out.  The musicians get paid either way.  Nevertheless, the grant didn’t really impact my thinking either way.

At that point, though, I had already gone through some sophomoric stages of my playing and writing.  I had already made a decision around the time I recorded Urban Nomad (Origin Records, 2008) that, in general, I wanted whatever complexity that was in the music to be disguised in some way.  Before that, I had thought that there’s this culture among musicians of writing music that is difficult, and that it’s better because it’s difficult.  I had finally come to the conclusion that that was bullshit.  Music is not improved by being difficult.  In fact, most of the time, if your music is extraordinarily hard for another musician, who is of substantial ability, to play, there’s probably something wrong with your music.

DM: [laughs]

GB: Now sometimes that’s not true.  Sometimes you’re writing something that’s super new and super bad.  It’s going to be really happening when everybody gets it together.  You’re just on the cusp of a new thing.  Say, for instance, Steve Coleman’s music.  That’s really hard, but it’s bad, and it’s really important and significant.

That wasn’t, however, the feeling that I had about the music that I wanted to write.  I thought that if I couldn’t make it so that a reasonably educated listener, like my mom or friends that are jazz fans, could enjoy it, then I’m doing something wrong.  I didn’t want to write a set of music that was like that…you know, when people sit there in their black turtlenecks and nod and smile at the right time.  I’m just not interested in that, honestly.  There’s a place for that, and it’s just not my place.

I wanted my music to have that personal thing that moves you.  Like the first time I heard Stevie Wonder or Donny Hathaway.  That soulfulness.  Randy Weston’s trio…all the people we’ve been talking about.  I think all those people have that element.  There’s an entry point for anybody if you just sit down and listen.  You don’t need a degree.  It’s not neurosurgery.  But, on the other hand, if you listen to it repeatedly, it continues to reward you.  There’s stuff there every time.

Different types of people listened to Miles at different points in his career.  When he started in with the whole electronic thing, a whole new set of people started listening to him when In a Silent Way came out.  These people didn’t have to know that he’s using these chords that are planing in half steps, or whatever.  Who cares?  There’s something that was connecting with the music that wasn’t just the drum beat.  It’s the whole structure of it.  The way the whole works together.  The sounds that the musicians are getting.  All these things factor into why people could listen to it.

So, yes, in general, around the time of Urban Nomad I wanted to start making music that many people would enjoy listening to and that, yet, edges away from that pandering that you hear in a lot of contemporary popular music.

DM: Was there anything in particular, besides getting tired of complicated music, that moved you in that direction?

GB: There’s a few things.  One was an interview I read with Herbie Hancock.  He was talking about the making of Fat Albert Rotunda.  He was talking about how he really liked Sly Stone and James Brown and how he really wanted to make an album like that.  When he examined his motives, he realized that it was just out of pure jazz snobbery that he hadn’t made a record like that yet.  That kind of struck a chord with me.

I don’t think I was making difficult records before that, but I just went through a period of time where I was writing music that was hard.  There were two things going on there.  One was that I was just at a point in my development where I don’t think I had the craft to make it easier and still get the sound I wanted.  The other was that I also thought that, for whatever reason, if it was harder to play, it was hipper, and that’s the sophomoric aspect of it.  In the end, I just realized what kind of music I really enjoyed listening to.  There’s some music that you listen to in the way that you take medicine.  Like, I should listen to this because it’s good for me.  Then there is other music that was just really fun for me to listen to.  I found my lists for these two purposes to be much different and that I wanted to make music that lined up more with the ‘fun’ list.

DM: So your writing has changed because of that.  Do you feel your improvising has, too?

GB: Yeah, I think so…on good nights.  There’s still nights where I’m playing for the wrong reasons.  The wrong reasons are playing to impress or meet some kind of goal in your mind.  In the book, The Inner Game of Tennis, there’s this great chapter called “Games that People Play on the Court,” and they don’t mean tennis.  It’s very transferable to music.  There’s still nights where I’m playing some of those games, even when I don’t mean to be.  On better nights, though, I’m not playing those games.

As far as the music goes, I think I play both more and less than I used to.  In terms of playing less, I’m not trying to play to impress like I used to.  You know, in a way when somebody walks into the room and you’re like, ‘oh, now I gotta play some bad shit’–it’s just a certain recipe for disaster, musically!  Basically you decide to abandon the rhythm section, you don’t give a shit about them anymore.  That’s a bad place to be and I don’t feel like I do that as much as I used to.

With the playing more idea, I went through a period where I was too self-consciously editing myself.  I would strip out stuff from my playing because I didn’t think it was hip enough.  This is just as bad an idea as playing to impress.  For me, it was a lot of second-guessing happening on the bandstand.  Both these things were going on for a long time with me.  In retrospect, there were some nights, though, that I was really happy with when neither of these things were happening.  I also don’t mean that these faults don’t come back every once in awhile, either!  On the good nights, though, I’m just responding to the other musicians in the moment and not worrying about anything else.

DM: How do you approach a gig where you’re playing the same music over and over again?  As improvisors, we try to create something new every time we play, but, sometimes, that approach can go overboard.  We start thinking too much and the music suffers.  How do you deal with this?

GB: I don’t think about it too much.  I had a breakthrough with that, actually, on the tour of Africa with Ryan Cohen’s band.  We were basically playing the same set every night.  What I noticed was that for the first ten gigs or so, I felt my ability to play the music steadily increasing.  The music, in some cases, is pretty complicated and hard to negotiate, but I felt myself internalizing it more and more.  Then I felt like I hit a cusp and sort of got worse at the music for a few gigs.  I was just frustrated with playing the same stuff.  Then, after these few gigs, it went up in the other direction pretty dramatically.  I got to a place where I felt I had even more freedom on it, like I do when I play a standard or a blues.  It did, however, take the period of being sick of the music to get there.  Especially with some of the more restrictive tunes, I just felt like I had nothing left to say during that cusp period…and then, suddenly, I did again.

The Ryan Cohen Quartet in Africa with legend Oliver Mtukudzi

The Ryan Cohen Quartet in Africa with legend Oliver Mtukudzi

Now, I’ve tried to suspend disbelief in some ways.  I just think now that it doesn’t really matter, actually.

DM: It doesn’t matter if you repeat yourself?

GB: No, I don’t worry about that at all.  I’m more worried about not feeling inspired on any given night, which is not the same thing as repeating yourself.  For example, when I was at CalArts, a few of the other students and I decided that Charlie Haden has three solos that he usually played: a major scale solo, a minor scale solo, and a folk song solo.  The amazing thing, though, was that I couldn’t wait to hear him play any of those!  That was the high point of my week if he did.  The reason is because each time he played the solo, he played it like it was brand new.  It wasn’t the same every time.  It was just sort of the same idea every time in the same way that, say, a Red Garland solo with Miles’ band is somewhat the same idea.  It’s a certain style but it always sounds fresh and inventive.

DM: Because of the inspiration behind it.

GB: Right.  So, I’ve learned, from playing specific music over and over again, that it doesn’t have to be a new tune for me to feel inspired.  It could just be a new night if everything is going well.  If the the drummer’s playing well, we’re interacting, and everybody else in the band is listening and not asleep at the wheel…as long as nobody’s just phoning it in, I don’t think it matters if you’ve played the music a lot.

In some ways, I prefer to play on vehicles we’ve played a lot and that everyone is comfortable with as long as we can all bring the fresh attitude toward it.

DM: That takes a lot of effort sometimes.

GB: Yeah.  I think that takes a certain sort of thinking about it.

DM: Perhaps a clairvoyance and openness to letting a comfortable tune evolve naturally.  Just being open to having the tune be different.

GB: I think that’s totally right.  Something bad, though, that can happen with a band that’s playing the same material is that, not only are you playing the same material, but you feel trapped into going to the same places within it.  That’s a really negative thing.  That’s death.  That’s the end of a band.

The other thing, though, is when you can play the same material and have it still be exciting.  There’s still different stuff happening.  Think of Miles’ band with Herbie, Tony, Ron, and either George Coleman or Wayne.  They basically played a pretty set repertoire.  Another example is Lennie Tristano’s cats.  They played, maybe, a repertoire of 15 tunes, but the stuff sounded so exciting and fresh.  If you listen to those records, they sound like they’re really reaching and struggling like it’s the first time.  For me, that was the lesson I learned from Charlie Haden–even if you’re playing something very simple, you can make it feel like the first time.  It’s not just the way you present it.  It’s also about embracing everything that’s going on around you.

DM: The whole concept of the struggle can be frowned upon when trying to present a professional concert.  To me, though, the struggle is something that translates to the audience even more the flawlessness.

GB: Yeah.  I think that the sophisticated jazz audience actually wants to hear you fail sometimes.  I don’t mean in the catty way that other jazz musicians want to hear you fail.  Audiences want to hear Miles crack a note.  They like the fact that they’re attuned enough to what’s going on that they can hear when it doesn’t work.

I was just listening to this Lee Morgan record, The Rajah.  I had never heard it before, but I got it recently on vinyl.  There are definitely some rough patches on that record.  There’s a reason it didn’t come out in 1966 when it was first recorded.  The band, Lee, Hank Mobley, Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers, and Billy Higgins…as great as they are, they’re not all firing together all the time on this record.  Not to mention the first track on the record is almost 15 minutes long.  So, it’s not one of the greatest moments in Blue Note’s history.

I realized, though, when I was listening to it, that I learn more from hearing them trying to work it out than I would if it was really perfect.  I can hear them trying to make it work and it works great at moments.  It’s interesting, though, to hear the things that don’t quite work.  For instance, at one moment, Lee tries to play in another key and it’s not quite happening.  Then he tries it again later in the cut and it is kind of cool.  He’s clearly working it out in the recording studio.  I mean, can you imagine, God forbid, working it out in the recording studio?!

DM: Time is money!

GB: Yeah.  All of us jazz musicians have almost adopted a pop mentality of making a polished, finished product.  This is in direct opposition to the famous ‘warts and all’ quote from JJ Johnson.  It’s gotta have the mistakes.

DM: I remember discussing Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Standards Trio performance at the Jazz Showcase with you and you said that you would almost enjoy hearing Jeff Parker play over that material even more.  I think it’s safe to say that Parker’s playing is much more raw than Rosenwinkel’s.  Does this aspect have anything to do with your preference?

GB: Yeah.  I mean, Kurt is awesome.  I have nothing negative to say about Kurt, but I love Jeff.  I think that if I were going to sit down and listen to a guitarist playing standards, I’d like to hear Jeff.  And, yes, it directly relates to the ‘warts and all’ idea.  Yeah, Jeff’s thing is raw, but it’s so sophisticated and so crafted.  It’s not raw from lack of practice.  It’s because he’s spontaneous and he’s working it out on the bandstand and he has plenty of material to work from.  I think that most cats don’t realize that there’s a lot of effort on his part that’s gone into that particular crafting of his style.  It’s not by accident that he sounds like that.  It’s not just that he’s trying for something else.  Whatever it is, whether it be practicing the guitar, listening to music, thinking about music, or just knowing how you want to sound, it’s craft.  I would rather hear Jeff than almost anyone on the planet.  He’s my favorite.

DM: When I first heard Jeff, I was immediately drawn to him, but I didn’t know why.  This was when I was in high school, so I didn’t know a whole lot about music yet.  I thought he wasn’t technically impressive, but something really made me connect.

GB: He’s the antithesis of jazz school values.  So, if you’ve been schooled on the jazz school values system, then liking Jeff is almost contrary to what you’ve been in school for for the last four years.

DM: Right.  This was before I even started playing jazz.  I was just listening to jazz at this point.  There was some vitality or humanistic quality in his music that just drew me to it.  I didn’t know why I liked it so much because, no matter what music you play, the most celebrated musicians are usually the ones that are the most technically adept.

GB: Yeah, almost always.  Maybe the blues thing is a little bit more lenient.  Say, for instance, someone like Albert King.

DM: Definitely, but at that younger age, all my friends were way more into Stevie Ray Vaughn.

GB: Ah, interesting.  Well I’m from Texas, so I’m required to like Stevie Ray!

DM: [laughs].  As I started to learn more about music, I began to realize that there’s a considerable depth of knowledge in Jeff’s playing.

GB: There’s tons of language in Jeff’s playing.  He plays pretty much nothing that’s not jazz language.  There’s no bullshit.  With a lot of other cats, you hear a lot of extra stuff in addition to just the point they’re making.  Jeff is able to make his point and not play a lot of extra shit.  He seems to always play exactly what he wants to play even if it’s on the edge of working.

DM: Yeah.  You can tell that he’s really present and in the moment.

GB: I feel like I’ve never heard Jeff stumble.  Sometimes I feel myself stumble and, say, a phrase doesn’t work out the way I intended it to.  When I listen to Jeff, I feel like the intention is so clear on every phrase in the same way it is for, say, Jackie McLean.  It doesn’t have to be technically right all the time.  He can fumble and miss a note, technically, but the musical idea is so clear that you can fill in the spaces.  Even on an uptempo tune, he’s still able to make it work out in some way.

I also feel that there are some other really strong things in Jeff’s craft that people don’t really give him credit for.  One thing that I think is really unique about him is his sound.  I’m not a guitar player, so I have no idea what that’s about, but he’s one of the only guitar players that I can voice like a horn.  His sound on the guitar has a similar weight to a horn player’s sound.  So, when I wrote African Flowers, for example, I had the freedom of deciding whether or not he would be a comping instrument or a lead instrument.  He’s one of the only guitar players I can think of that does that.  He has the same weight as a trumpet or a saxophone in a melody situation, whereas, most of the time, when you write that way for guitar, it just gets lost in there.  The attack and decay of a guitar can be an issue to blend with the horns in the right way.  It can be great if it’s just one horn and one guitar playing unison.  That almost always works, but if you try to crunch it in there with a couple of horns, it doesn’t work with most guitar players.  Jeff’s sound, though, has this meat and substance to it that isn’t present in a lot of guitar players’ sounds.

DM: Yeah.  I feel like it’s bright but it also has a lot of body to it.

GB: Yeah, and that’s sort of like the full harmonic spectrum that a horn has.  So, when I write it with the sax and trumpet, say in “Harare,” the blend is great.

DM: There’s some very crunchy voicings in there.

GB: Right.  A lot of times, we’re separated by a half step and a fourth.  On the first Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls record I did [Vs the Forces of Evil], there’s a tune like that as well.

DM: “Grendel.”

GB: We played it with other people, but with Jeff it always worked.  It’s just his understanding about how the whole harmony is supposed to sound and how full or resonant his particular sound has to be within that harmony.  That’s a craft thing.  It’s very sophisticated.

The other thing that’s great about Jeff is his knowledge about how to get different sounds out of the guitar.  Without me asking, Jeff got some sounds on African Flowers that sounded like vibraphone or pedal steel.

DM: “Children’s Room” is a great example of that.  [we listen to excerpt from “Children’s Room”].

GB: Yeah, so in this section, the bass is voiced very high and the guitar is doubling it.  It’s supposed to sound like an mbira.

DM: It totally does.

GB: Mission accomplished!

DM: The first time I listened to it, I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from until I listened in and realized it was Jeff.

GB: Part of that sound also comes from the fact that Clark [Sommers, bass] uses high action gut strings.  In the higher register, the bass doesn’t have that same ring to it.  It sounds more percussive and thumpy up there, the same way that iron mbira pegs do on the hollow body of that instrument.

DM: Yeah.  It works great.

Stay tuned for part II of my interview with Geof Bradfield, which should be posted in the next few days.  Thanks for reading!


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3 thoughts on “A Conversation with Geof Bradfield, part I

  1. NICK FRYER on said:

    Hey Dave! Nice interview. I really liked the sections where you guys discuss how to approach playing the same material and also the part on easy music vs. complex music. I look forward to the next installment. Also the Ulery interview was nice. Keep em coming!

  2. Thanks for this piece, and for promoting it on the chi-improv list-serv. It was fascinating hearing the full story behind the record, including the artistic and transcribing challenges, and the philosophical stuff on solos and snobbery was priceless.

  3. i’m reading one or two paragraphs before heading off to sleep////// you… know… Charlie Haden is my absolute favorite bass player!!! this experience is amazing! amazingly amazing. wow.

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