In his liner notes to this release, Emanem founder Martin Davidson recounts that in order to get the gig from which these recordings originated, Bobby Bradford had to audition the week before to prove to the club's owner that he could play. That says a lot about the power and strangeness of Ornette Coleman's music some 12 years after Coleman turned New York upside down. It also says a lot about Coleman's former associate Bradford, and what it says could also be said now: Who is this guy?
If you're not familiar with the Mississippi-born, Texas-reared, L.A.-based cornetist, you might well ask yourself how a player of these abundant skills can be so obscure. Some of it is bad luck. Bradford's tenure with Coleman—a gig that should have raised his profile—came at a time (1961-63) when gigs were scarce. Later, after he had returned to Los Angeles to teach in the city's schools, Bradford was tethered to the academic calendar, and like his teaching and playing colleague John Carter, had few opportunities to build a performing career.
So this valuable little document from Martin Davidson's intrepid Emanem label should belatedly remedy that situation. Recorded in November 1973 at Le Chat qui Pêche, a Paris jazz club, this session with an Anglo-American quartet finds Bradford exploring Ornettish territory with mastery and a musical personality all his own. Though he plays cornet, Bradford gets a round, declamatory sound that is miles from the vocal inflections of Don Cherry's pocket trumpet. It's as big a sound as you can get on the smaller horn and Bradford has big ideas to match. His ballad feature "She" (originally issued as "Woman") is a classic, warm and mysterious and a bit less lonely than Ornette's. The previously unissued "HM Louis I" nods toward Pops with the brassy joy of New Orleans, something you can't imagine even the famously comprehensive Cherry ever attempting.
He's joined on the front line by the British altoist Trevor Watts, whose playing should also come as a revelation. Watts has always struck me as among the most jazz-like of the first wave of Euro-improv players. His assumption of the Coleman style of playing is astonishing, especially when he takes a little fragment of melody and tries it out in multiple keys and rhythms. That Watts could so fully absorb Coleman's still-radical musical language is rather like an 80-year-old teaching himself Mandarin and then writing a credible literary novel several years later—in longhand. But this is no impersonation. Watts lacks Coleman's distinctive tone and tuning—his intonation is more constant. He's more on top of the beat, too; Ornette if he came up in New York rather than Ft. Worth, if you will.
Watts' Spontaneous Music Ensemble mate John Stevens is the drummer, and I find his contributions to be more problematic. It's not fair to criticize Stevens for who he isn't, namely, Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, or even Han Bennink, but he takes a while to get comfortable. Stevens can't seem to find the pulse of the opening "Love's Dream"; it takes until Bradford's more than halfway through to light a fire under him. Elsewhere Stevens plays well enough. And he certainly admires his own playing; at certain points, he'll moan in delight at one of his little licks, only to repeat that lick a few bars later. Still, I find that he puts his snare accents in the same place, robbing the music of buoyancy and making it sound square. Bassist Kent Carter is steady and propulsive, but he and Stevens sometimes sound like they are playing in two different bands. His chops, though, are never in question, as his opening solo on "HM Louis I" proves.
Three of the six tracks included on Love's Dream were first issued on a 1974 Emanem LP. Another (the astonishing "Woman", here inexplicably entitled "She") was released in 1976. The two final tracks (a second take of "Coming On" and "HM Louis I") are previously unissued. Davidson explains that portions of three tracks were "excised for musical reasons", a decision that goes unexplained in the notes. It's hard to be churlish, though, when what we have on Love's Dream is so satisfying.