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.
“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.