Yes, and…Music For Nine Improvisers might initially seem an odd title, but a bit of background brings clarity. The name originated from The Compass Players, a Chicago theatre outfit founded in 1955 (and predecessor to Second City) that turned improv into a fine art by applying the ‘Yes, and . . .’ principle to its productions, the idea being that each improvising player builds on whatever everyone else is doing—even if the choice is purposefully contrarian. In such a context, a framework functions as a vehicle for in-the-moment explorations by the participating members. For his seventh album as a leader, Geof Bradfield (tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet) has applied the idea to an extended suite by a nine-piece unit.
In truth, Bradfield’s approach isn’t all that novel or radical; after all, jazz is fundamentally predicated on the ‘Yes, and . . .’ principle, even when it’s not formally articulated as such, as every participant in a jazz context is presumed to be reacting to what’s happening in the moment. Regardless of how the music came into being, the album’s a compelling set of contemporary jazz that puts its players in an extremely flattering light. Helping the leader realize his concept are Greg Ward (alto sax), Anna Webber (flute, bass flute, tenor sax), Russ Johnson and Marquis Hill (trumpets), Joel Adams (trombone), Scott Hesse (guitar), Clark Sommers (bass), and Dana Hall (drums). The Houston-born Bradfield is well poised to take on the challenging project. He’s appeared on more than fifty recordings, seven as a leader, and as an Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University is an educator, too.
It’s worth noting that not all of the suite’s eight parts apply the principle in the same way, with four longer, structured nonet pieces preceded by trios. Though the former are meticulously mapped out, they still allow room for soloing; the latter, on the other hand, grant greater flexibility to their participants. To get things moving, Bradfield’s sing-song phrase and Sommers’ muscular riff give “Prelude” noticeable heft, which Hall bolsters with his own explosive commentary. Whereas the leader’s musicality is evident in the powerful post-bop swing of his tenor solo, the opener’s sax-bass-drums setup is exchanged for a comparatively more reserved horns-only presentation in the polyphonic second trio, “Chorale.” Though as a composer, Bradfield’s his own man, “Impossible Charms” could be taken for a Mingus cover, so characteristic is its theme of the legend’s writing. Regardless, a clear through-line can be detected from the bassist’s own large ensemble style to Bradfield’s, especially when the latter’s material swings as forcefully as it does here. If Mingus isn’t referenced outright, Hermeto Pascoal is in “Forro Hermeto,” which caps the album with a breezy, swinging tribute to the Brazilian figure.
Each of the album’s pieces distances itself from the others in particular ways. Whereas Hesse’s spidery runs separate the brief “Ostinato” from the rest, the dirge-like “Anamneses” highlights the wail of Johnson’s muted trumpet, the ethereal textures of Webber’s bass flute, the inspired colourations of Hall’s percussion, and a deeply smoky turn by the leader on tenor. A gratifying balance between written material and free improvisation distinguishes the recording, allowing one to appreciate Bradfield’s talent as a composer and the musicians’ prowess as improvisers. Each player’s contributions are integral to the whole, whether it be Hesse’s omnipresent shadings or the luscious timbres of the reeds and horns, and with a band nine members strong, the album’s rich in colour, especially when it features a wealth of orchestral textures.