The Chicago triumvirate conflates the initials of its members—reedist Geof Bradfield, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall—adding an extra lower case vowel (and parentheses) for onomatopoeic effect. The name represents the trio’s chamber aesthetic “sh” and sporadic aggressiveness: “bash.” Though it might also suggest the bashfulness of Sommers, who became the effectual leader after writing for the trio and organizing the recording. In the CD’s incisive liner notes, Dennis Carroll recalls Sommers’ “agonizing intensity” when he first met him—certainly, modesty undersells his talent. Possessed of a massive, tensile sound—well captured by recording engineer Scott Steinman—Sommers makes emphatic musical decisions and is responsible for writing five of the ten compositions—with three more from Bradfield, plus Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” and Billy Higgins’ “Inga.”
Clarity of purpose is a Hall hallmark, too, although he can also be incendiary and unpredictable, investing everything—even shouts of excitement—on the opener “Garrison.” A nod to Jimmy Garrison, the driving pulse behind John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the song takes after the bassist’s proactive, sometimes guitaristic style, which is audible in Sommer’s anchored strumming, while Hall’s chivvying, plosive polyrhythms echo Elvin Jones.
Bradfield has always been a sturdy Chicago saxophonist, but his 2008 record Urban Nomad (Origin) with Sommers gave further notice of his exceptional talent. A controlled, non-gratuitous player, the rich variation and technical acuity in his playing can be overlooked, but not by Hall and Sommers. They assist his brilliant surf-ride on the stop-start “Quanah.” Bradfield’s soprano curlicues over click-clack rimshots and spartan bass on “On Meditation” is an unforced delight. All told: Ba(SH) is a collective, uber-musical sound painting.
In this trio, three heavies of the Chicago jazz ecosystem combine their powers under the leadership of Clark Sommers, widely known as Kurt Elling’s bassist-and as he proves here, he’s much more than a first-call sideman. Rounded out by omni-directional saxophonist Geof Bradfield and drummer Dana Hall, who has the strength and finesse for any job. Ba(SH) take full advantage of the looseness and intimacy of the trio format. On their self-titled 2013 debut, released by the Origin label they take care not to slip into the default setting that would situate the sax at the front of such a lineup; instead they fully integrate, moving so deftly between the composed and the improvised that you’ll be hard-pressed to find the seams. Sommers is always a treat, with his gloriously palpable sound and infallible musicality, but no group shows him off as well as this one.
In most jazz groups, the bassist stands a few steps back, usually just out of the spotlight – both figuratively and literally. But this weekend, two of Chicago’s more accomplished bass players step out front with bookings designed to show them off to the best advantage.
Bassist Clark Sommers leads his cooperative trio Ba(SH) Thursday night.
Thursday at Constellation, Clark Sommers offers a CD-release performance celebrating the eponymous debut album by his trio Ba(SH), comprising two of the city’s best and busiest, reedist Geof Bradfield and drummer Dana Hall. Both of them lead various bands of their own; the fact that they come together in this setting, under Sommers’ leadership, says much about his standing on the Chicago scene (while his steady gig, in all-star vocalist Kurt Elling’s band, has thrust him onto the international stage as well).
Of course, in a bare-bones power trio like this, “leadership” operates on a continuum: without any chord instrument to cement the textures or steer the rhythm section, all three artists become equal collaborators on everything from theme statements to the shifting momentum of the solos. This they do with such stupendous musical empathy, you might wonder why anybody would work with a larger group in the first place. In a program of mostly original compositions by Sommers and Bradfield – and thanks in large part to the endless variety provided by Sommers and Hall (a simmering dynamo behind the drums – Ba(SH) etches a clear, clean aesthetic that owes much to similarly instrumented masterpieces by such artists as Sonny Rollins, Dave Liebman, Dave Holland, and others who have delved into this format. And Ba(SH) (the album) belongs on any short list of the year’s top releases by Chicago musicians. It’s a winner straight through.
Over the past decade Clark Sommers has emerged as one of Chicago’s finest bassists, lending myriad bands an agile but hefty center of gravity and a muscular, propulsive kick. For his first recording under his own name, he leads a trio with drummer Dana Hall and reedist Geof Bradfield, two players who’ve worked with him on and off in many settings over the years. In the liner notes for the new Ba(SH) (Origin), Chicago bassist Dennis Carroll describes how the three of them developed their relationship slowly and casually, watching one another perform at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse in Evanston and shooting the shit during breaks. These days Sommers is a fixture in bands led by Bradfield and Hall, but under the bassist’s baton they can let rip in a way they rarely do in their own projects. From the very first track, the Sommers original “Garrison”—named for no-nonsense bassist Jimmy Garrison, who played with the likes of John Coltrane and Jimmy Giuffre—the music is refreshingly pared-down and direct, but the absence of complicated arrangements doesn’t leave the players starved for material to work with when they improvise. Sommers does so sparingly but meaningfully—on the melodic midtempo number “Quanah,” for instance, he takes a short, knotty solo that quickly builds in weight and tension, opening the gates for Bradfield to deliver one of many knockout improvisations. In fact Ba(SH) showcases some of the hottest, most expressive playing I’ve heard from Bradfield, and he contributes a few tunes too; “Fathom-a-Ning” borrows some rhythmic strains from Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning,” but its changes are based on “How Deep Is the Ocean” rather than “I Got Rhythm.” Throughout the record Hall works beautifully with Sommers, swinging ferociously and driving the music with explosive accents—not even the biggest rhythmic bombs he drops can disrupt its forward motion.
Bassist Sommers has been an increasingly busy figure in Chicago and beyond for more than a decade, and here he makes his belated recording debut as bandleader. Throughout, Sommers puts the emphasis on the music, rather than himself, creating a welcoming environment for colleagues Geof Bradfield on reeds and Dana Hall on drums (hence the title of the album, a kind of acronym for these musicians’ names). These players speak the same musical language, but it’s Bradfield who probably will capture most listeners’ ears (and hearts). The depth, urgency and intensity of Bradfield’s sound on “Garrison” and the profundity and idiosyncrasy of his expression on “Quanah,” both by Sommers, as well as the serene poetry of Bradfield’s solos on Billy Higgins’ “Inga” and the searching, questing character of his tone on Sommers’ “Liano Estacado” enrich our understanding of Bradfield’s art. Drummer Hall, like Sommers, goes out of his way to support his colleagues, indicating the camaraderie these three musicians share and enhancing austere beauty of their ensemble sound.
There’s something quite “free” about a trio without a guitar or piano in the mix, with no chords nailing the sound down. Seattle’s Origin Records has a history of offering up excellent saxophone/bass/drums outings: bassist Jeff Johnson’s Near Earth (2004) and Free (2000), and drummer John Bishop’s Nothing If Not Something (2006). Now three veterans of the Chicago jazz scene have teamed up under bassist Clark Sommers’ leader baton for an organic sounding outing.
Enlisting saxophonist Geof Bradfield and drummer Dana Hall, Sommers leads the sound into a fluid, smooth flowing music on eight of his originals and a couple of fine covers—pianist Thelonious Monk’s “Think Of One” and drummer Billy Higgins’ “Inga.”
With Bradfield employing by turns the soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet the group creates a sound that seems to transpire gracefully with an often probing mood, conveying a feeling of tranquility. Sommers “Garrison” opens the set. A nod, surely, to saxophonist John Coltrane’s bassist Jimmy Garrison, the tune throbs to life on a deep bass moaning over Hall’s whispering drums, soon joined by Bradfield on tenor, on a tune that has a searching and spiritual Coltrane vibe, with a restrained turbulence as someone, way down in the mix— kind of like a Keith Jarrett outburst—yells as if a sonic nirvana has just hit.
“Momentary Flux” has the trio sounding stealthy, with Bradfield laying down smooth and sinuous lines on the tenor horn, with Hall and Sommers rumbling ominously. “Quanah” opens with an extended drum solo from Hall that sounds like Native American percussion meets drummer Elvin Jones, channeled through Dana Hall’s percussive sensibilities. Bradfield enters with a simple melody on this memorable tune.
Billy Higgins’ “Inga,” showcases the feature, a pretty melody inside a cool and easy rhythm, and Monk’s “Think of One” has Bradfield again blowing with a restrained heat as he explores the nooks of the melody in front of Sommers’ rubbery bass and Hall’s perfect accenting, closing out this top shelf trio affair.