In 2016, flutist Andrea Brachfeld did something few serious jazz composers do. She took the entire year off as a writer to reflect, meditate, and basically get deeper as an artist. “I wanted my work to come from a place that had nothing to do with ego,” says this committed spiritual seeker, who is ever in pursuit of “the energy you feel when your mind stops thinking and what you hear links to your heart.”
That may sound pretty new agey. But judging by her exhilarating new album of originals, If Not Now, When?, other jazz composers may want to try the same thing. “All this music just came to me,” she says.
On an instrument most often sought for its breathy beauty, Brachfeld boasts what the late New York Times critic John S. Wilson described as a “vigorously dark, gutty quality.” It’s no wonder that the first jazz flutist to turn her head was free jazz pioneer Eric Dolphy. In her music, that energy she described can pour out to bruising effect.
“If you want to play jazz, you have to be able to get the articulation of Charlie Parker, to make the instrument sound like a trumpet or saxophone,” says Brachfeld. “With a lot of flute players, I don’t hear those articulations.”
If Not Now, When? was produced by Andrea and her longtime collaborator Bill O’Connell, whose deep-in-the-keys lyricism at the piano and gut instincts as an arranger suit her to a T. For this project, Brachfeld said, Bill initiated a new approach. “You write the melodies and I’ll write the harmony” she recalls discussing with O’Connell, an expression of great mutual trust.
When she first brought in her pulsating song, “Steppin,’” she had four or five parts in mind. O’Connell suggested they just do the first part and then “play.” The eight-bar melody breaks into high-stepping improvisations before settling into a shifty groove with bassist Harvie S, longtime duo partner of Sheila Jordan, and drummer Jason Tiemann.
Not until the session was nearly over did Brachfeld pull from her bag of compositions “Anima Mea,” which she describes as “a simple folk tune with sheets of sound.” No problem: “Bill harmonized it within five minutes” and the quartet whipped it into a kind of McCoy Tyner homage.
“The great thing about Bill is wherever I go musically, he comes with me, and sometimes gets where I’m going before I do,” says Brachfeld, pointing to the open improvising on “Deeply I Live” as an example of that. She knew from start to finish that this music was special. “Every note,” she says, “felt good in my body.”
Andrea Brachfeld was born on May 3, 1954 in Utica, New York. She began playing piano at age six and flute at 10. Escaping what she called a “challenging family situation,” she would play her flute outside their 30th-floor apartment in New York City. In 1969, she enrolled at the High School of Music & Art on West 135th Street. At 16, Andrea got her first jazz gig, playing her own pieces with her quartet at an “All Night Soul” presentation at St. Peter’s Church. She attended Saturday morning Jazzmobile workshops, where Jimmy Heath was one of her flute instructors. At the Jazz Interactions program on Thursdays, another legend, Yusef Lateef, introduced her to Eastern music and other ethnic sounds.
She went on to study flute at the Manhattan School of Music, where her teachers included Harold Bennett and Andrew Loyla. She also studied privately with Hubert Laws, Eddie Daniels, and George Coleman during that time, and her fellow students included Kenny Kirkland, Fred Hersch, and Angela Bofill. “I tried playing saxophones in the course of my early career, but I didn’t like what they did to my sound,” she says. After sitting in with Lloyd McNeil, fellow flutist who also studied with Eric Dolphy, at the Tin Palace in the Bowery in 1974, she met Mauricio Smith who connected her to Tipica New York, a Charanga band—“the beginning of my Afro-Cuban musical influence.” She worked with various name bands and got to sit in with a trio of immortals: Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, and Machito.
Brachfeld has been named jazz’s best flutist by Hot House Magazine. Her numerous other honors include Latin Jazz USA’s Chico O’Farrill Lifetime Achievement Award, but by now she had many more roles to fill than musician. In If Not Now, When?, Brachfeld refined her approach to composing. “The way I composed all of the songs was like taking a huge block of marble and chopping away until I got the image inside the marble,” she says. “It was about seeing what melodies came out and working on them until they felt right.”
A grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for the CD— “a wonderful affirmation”—assured her she was on the right path. So did numerous opportunities to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival, perform and teach master classes in Croatia, and otherwise make her presence felt on jazz’s world stage.
“In the end,” she says, “it’s all about your voice, your journey to find your voice. It’s about the inner work you do in finding your voice, on a spiritual and personal level. It’s about finding out who we are and translating it into the music.”
Just how well the personal and the spiritual can work together is revealed on the closing rendition of “Amazing Grace,” the album’s one non-original. Brachfeld’s improvising is bold and beautiful, a statement of belief not only in heavenly authority but human creativity as well. How sweet the sound, indeed.