Something special happened in Dallas last night.
For a brief flash, our city was the center of free jazz--jazz's most uninhibited form. A quartet named The Bradford 4 performed at an intimate project space (Beefhaus) put on by local artist collective Art Beef. The Bradford 4 is fronted by legendary trumpeter/cornetist/composer Bobby Bradford, a man that can name Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy and Charlie Haden as former co-workers. The other three members aren't exactly lightweights either - Frode Gjerstad (saxophone/clarinet), Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten (bass), and Frank Rosaly (drums) - having individually and collectively had a hand in some of the most exciting music in contemporary jazz.
In a stark, white room full of mostly 30 somethings, Yells at Eels opened the evening with their patented, crowd-pleasing aesthetic, though, in a no less impressive turn, they sounded less visceral but more enchanting than usual.
A few feet from me, Bradford sat, relatively unnoticed, in a chair in the corner of the room. It was strange to think that within this patient stoic there roared the sound of a thousand colors--oceans of sonic motion masked beneath undisturbed stillness. You could see Bradford calculating things with his eyes. The gaze he shot spoke to wisdom and experience, a look that told you he understood more of what was going on here than the rest of us.
It was not long before The Bradford 4 moved to the front of the room and began prepping their instruments. The transition from rehearsal to performance was seamless. In fact, the quartet was a minute into playing before the room fully grasped what was happening. Soft speech and shuffling bodies were soon displaced by a cast of bobbing heads, rolling necks and satisfied smirks.
The great thing about free jazz, and most avant garde music for that matter, is that it's easily understood. Stay with me. That is, contrary to accepted belief, this is music meant for immediate digestion. It's the same sort of thrill had by kids who intentionally color outside the lines; only this is a more advanced shade of that concept. You don't have to have an education in musicology or music theory to appreciate the synthesis, juxtaposition and fantasy associated with musics like these. You just sit back, take it in, and see what happens. No need to over-think, just feel.
There are no filters here, just outpourings of energy and emotion, which makes this perfect music for children. Who better than children to judge music meant to restore brilliant ignorance back into jazz composition (that's what Coleman's Free Jazz was about, right?)? On that reasoning, the night was wildly successful. Every kiddo in attendance was up, smiling and dancing. It was the cutest shape interpretive dance ever took.
Only a few minutes in and The Bradford 4 hit their vein--an incendiary immensity of musicianship as unharnessed creativity. Brass stabs snaked through the space, the percussion was clinical in its measured violence, and the bass - thick and pungent as it was - drew a path of indecipherable elegance. The whole scene was savory in the most unexplainable way. The performance was indulgent, yet nothing felt excessive. There seemed to be a lot going on, yet the result was downright skeletal.
From a visual standpoint, the drummer and bassist stole the show, particularly during their momentary duets and solos. The inventiveness and manic talent displayed throughout was exceptionally impressive.
I've never seen drum-work like I saw last night. Feet and elbows flailed, as Rosaly dissected his instrument--literally disassembling, then reconstructing his drum set several times throughout the course of the evening. To say his technique was unorthodox would be an impossible understatement.
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Rosaly's style put every physical component of his person and instrument to use, unearthing the most unusual effects in the process. Brushes, taped-together-straws, bells, and even a creaky stool were incorporated into his performance. While playing, the man cuts a startling shape, looking very much arachnid-like as his limbs and fingers paint blurred waves in the air. At one point he played solely with his foot and forearm. At another, he used a Tom like a wind instrument.
The bassist, Haker-Flaten, was no less remarkable. The musician courted his instrument like a gravedigger exhuming a body. The man moves rigidly, yet produces the most magnificently fluid lines. It's no wonder he's one of the most in-demand bassist in modern jazz.
On the left side of the room, the other two men went about their work in a business-like manner. And I mean that in the best possible way. Their playing was visually subtle, yet sonically extravagant. There wasn't a single direction their tones didn't search.
Last night was a rare gift for Dallas. We so infrequently host touring jazz musicians of the caliber seen yesterday. It was an event that lived up to its billed hype, and then some. On behalf of many, I'd like to say thank you to The Bradford 4 for coming through; and on a more selfish note, I'd like to say come again soon, and please, please tell your friends.