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CDs galore, part 2: jazzmen Geof Bradfield, Frank Catalano, Paul Wertico

The "Melba!" band: (from left) Ryan Cohan, Joel Adams (rear), Jeff Parker (front), Clark Sommers, VIctor Garcia, Geof Bradfield, George Fludas
The "Melba!" band: (from left) Ryan Cohan, Joel Adams (rear), Jeff Parker (front), Clark Sommers, VIctor Garcia, Geof Bradfield, George Fludas
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If you crave variety, you need look no further than the weekend’s remaining CD-release shows by Chicago jazz artists. (Click here to can read about the other two such events taking place in Chicago this week.)

At the Green Mill on Saturday, reedist Geof Bradfield presents the latest chapter in his ongoing development as a leading composer. Bradfield issued one of the year’s best albums in 2010, with his album-length suite “African Flowers,” a musical diary of time spent in Africa. Now comes another album-length suite, which again touches on Africa, as well as other influences in the work of Melba Liston, the pioneering woman trombonist and composer who achieved recognition for her work with pianist Randy Weston in the 60s and 70s.

In 2011, working with a grant from Chamber Music America, Bradfield delved into the Liston scores and documentation collected at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. Out of that study came “Melba!,” a buoyant and varietal suite for septet, which Bradfield premiered in Chicago last summer and subsequently recorded for Origin Records. (The piece’s seven movements have been performed only a few times in Chicago; after Saturday, the next scheduled presentation of “Melba!,” from start to finish, will take place at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, on August 30.)

Writing for a stellar septet that stars longtime associates Ryan Cohan (piano) and Jeff Parker (guitar) – and casts the fine trombonist Joel Adams in the role of the suite’s dedicatee – Bradfield spins a musical biography of Liston’s career.

It starts with her childhood in Kansas City, then moves to Los Angeles, where the teenaged Liston first encountered the music that became her life. Along the way, Bradfield also depicts her pivotal associations with Weston and with Dizzy Gillespie, in whose band she developed an appreciation for the Afro-Caribbean rhythms she later mastered. He then moves to the 70s, when Liston wrote for Motown stars and reggae productions – the movement “Detroit/Kingston” – and finally her triumphant return to Kansas City toward the end of her life.

“Melba!” reiterates Bradfield’s ability to translate specific images into successful music, moving from the travelogue of “African Flowers” to a more personal portraiture. It is elegantly conceived as a fully fledged piece with a distinct narrative arc. But within that arc, each of the individual episodes can stand on its own – not only as a strongly stamped composition, but also as a vehicle for improvisation – as proved by the superb interpretation the music receives on the album.

The album’s entire lineup will take part in the CD-release celebration (with the exception of trumpeter Victor Garcia, replaced for this gig by Tito Carrillo), in three sets starting at 8 PM on Saturday at the Green Mill, 4802 Broadway.

The “CD-release show” concept takes a few hits when saxophonist Frank Catalano and drummer Paul Wertico headline this weekend at Andy’s. To begin with, the album they’re celebrating, “Topics Of Conversation,” won’t officially go on sale till the end of summer. What’s more, the artists will have few (if any) physical copies of the disc for sale at the venue.

To top it off, the group on stage will be twice the size of the “group” on the album. “Topics Of Conversation” comprises a series of sax-and-drum duets, whereas Catalano and Wertico will feature a standard quartet for their shows at Andy’s.

But those inconsistencies aside, the music taking place this weekend has enormous potential. Despite a 25-year difference in age, Catalano (who balances his jazz life with guest spots in rock and even metal bands) and Wertico – the versatile, multiple GRAMMY®-award winning drummer, best known for his 15 years in Pat Metheny’s group, who leads two noteworthy bands of his own in Chicago – have a great deal in common.

That becomes clear on their album, a pre-release copy of which I’ve had the opportunity to hear. To many listeners, the bond between these two would seem obvious. Both Catalano and Wertico have the ability to pour forth hyper-expressive, high-octane improvisations: cyclonic energy music. And ever since John Coltrane’s sax-drums duets with Rashid Ali, in the mid-1960s, no context has better suited such no-holds-barred interaction.

In such situations, you could say that “nothing succeeds like excess,” and both artists can tap into a seemingly limitless storehouse of power, ideas, and technique.

But while “Topics Of Conversation” has plenty of that, it also features an equal amount of quieter, more spacious communication between the two. This will surprise those listeners who never get past the fireworks when listening to either Catalano or Wertico on their own. Yet both of them can boast an artistic depth that often gets overlooked. Indeed, the salient aspect of “Topics Of Conversation” turns out to be the music’s emotional range – as well as the artists’ ability to tame this frankly difficult and often inaccessible format.

In any case, it’s not exactly music for a supper club packed with tourists seeking an undemanding night out – which explains why Catalano and Wertico have expanded the lineup to include piano and bass (Scott Williams and Emma Dayhuff, respectively). But don’t be surprised if an explosive sax-drums duet happens to erupt in the middle of the set.

Frank Catalano and Paul Wertico perform three sets, both Friday and Saturday, from 9:30 PM till 1:30 AM at Andy’s, 11 E. Hubbard.


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