By Joshua Myers for DownBeat
In composing the music for With Peter Bradley, a brilliant new documentary on the abstract painter directed by Alex Rappoport, saxophonist Javon Jackson is also painting a series of pictures. The original music from the documentary, released on his own Solid Jackson Records, is like a full exhibit, an extended play expression of the lightheartedness and verve of the enigmatic Peter Bradley.
“Every sound has a color,” said Jackson, recalling Bradley’s words in a poignant moment in the documentary. “Certain keys have a certain color … whether it’s red, whether it’s blue, whether it’s black, whether it’s yellow or white.”
If sound has a color, then some of the most important jazz colorists were also associates and friends of Peter Bradley. Born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, in 1940, his adoptive father would host everyone from Miles Davis to Art Blakey in a rooming house he owned some 30 miles away from Pittsburgh. There Bradley met Blakey, which is how Jackson, a former member of the famed drummer’s Jazz Messengers band, met Bradley. Yet, Jackson initially had no idea that Bradley was an artist.
“When Art Blakey passed away, I stayed in touch with Peter,” Jackson recalled. “And he would come to see me play. He was just a supporter, like a big brother or uncle. But I never knew he was a painter. He never told me.”
Instead, they shared in each other’s love of the sartorial. “We would go shopping. He loved clothes. I love clothes,” remembered Jackson.
It was only later, after Bradley’s move to Saugerties, New York, rejecting the gallery scene, that he and Jackson reconnected. Now living in an 18th century stone house, and working out of a shipping container, Jackson encountered Bradley in the element that With Peter Bradley beautifully captures. An artist with his paint and canvases at work, attempting to bend reality to one’s hopes and dreams. An honesty that is never without sound. A deep listener, Bradley’s art practice incorporates jazz as a method for seeking and finding, manipulating and shaping the colors of our lives. When it was time to think about the music for such a vision, Bradley tapped Jackson to provide the sound.
Jackson’s approach mirrors Bradley’s practice in some respects. Upon landing the project, he sat with Rappoport to talk styles and certain moments where music would help tell Bradley’s story. But in the end, it was Bradley’s own musical tastes and creative spirit and those of the people around him that inspired Jackson’s creative process.
“I try to evoke some of that spirit in the various compositions, Jackson said. “Knowing him and the way he spoke about his mom, I had my own melody in my mind for him and then the melody for her.” The tune, “Edith Ramsey,” pays moving tribute to the most significant spiritual force in Bradley’s life. Jackson easily related to that force, recalling that his own mother helped create the space for his growth and evolution as a saxophonist. It was not simply a question of technique or a theoretical intervention. That would come later. For Jackson, it was his mother’s injunction to “play it pretty” that set him upon this path. This esthetic choice has an even deeper resonance for Black artists in America.
While there are no explicit political messages in Bradley’s art, one cannot escape the contexts driving the absence and marginalization of abstract artists of color. In fact, one of the themes of the documentary is Bradley’s absence from not only the galleries, but from historical memory. Jackson’s most recent album, The Gospel According To Nikki Giovanni, features Giovanni, a Black Arts Movement poet known for open and direct confrontation with those contexts. But Bradley’s approach to art making is more subtle.
For Jackson, who is clearly inspired by both approaches, “You have to find out what it is that what you stand for. And hopefully, as John Coltrane was saying, you’re a force for good and you’re not one that’s part of the problem. You can be part of the solution. And you can be part of something that you can feel good about.”
Taken together, these two recent projects are not opposite ends of the spectrum as much as they are products of a single evolution — a way of dealing with varied experiences in unique ways. That a single musician can be equally inspired by the fiery poetry of a Giovanni and a painter who works in abstraction (with no less fiery a personality) says something about the complexity of the musical tradition we call jazz.
For Jackson, “It just goes with the territory. Because in some ways, those artists like Peter and definitely Nikki, they’re going through stuff in the way that you and me don’t have to. And then we’ll go through stuff, and then the next generation won’t have to go through as much, or it’ll still come back in certain ways.”
This continuous cycle is represented by the fact that the release is coming out on Solid Jackson Records, an independent label Jackson founded to gain some perspective on the music as an entrepreneur. Alongside The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni, the Bradley project adds to a list that began with 2012’s Celebrating John Coltrane. To further illustrate the continuity, the score from the documentary is coupled with four quartet tunes from the same session that produced the Giovanni project, rounding out the final album version of With Peter Bradley. The latter can truly be felt as a standalone statement. Still, the power of this sound is fully realized when heard alongside the visuals so artfully created by Rappoport. In grand tribute to Bradley’s art, Jackson played it pretty.
There is a scene in the film that finds Bradley working with water to represent movement, offering that it does something on the canvas that a paintbrush could never accomplish. Similarly, Jackson believes that the connection his music has to art is producing a creative moment that is like “when you pour water, you can’t stop it, the water just seeps everywhere.”