Philadelphia trombone player Jeff Bradshaw has been a fixture on the city’s neo-soul, hip-hop and jazz scene for the past 20 years. After backing several artists like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Michael Jackson, and Earth Wind & Fire over the years he released his first solo album in 2003. As an instrumentalist leader he is rare in the world outside of jazz occupying a space only shared with New Orleans musician Trombone Shorty. His mellifluous phrasing automatically changes the musical environment into a soulful space of rhythm and meditation. This year he made an incredible career stride with the release of his fourth album, Home: One Special Night At Kimmel Center. Bradshaw got together with his friend Robert Glasper and they chose songs, artists and arrangements for the historic evening and the album recording. The outcome is an evenly paced offering of Bradshaw’s R&B/gospel/hip-hop and jazz sensibilities served up by, but not limited to, a range of artists including Black Thought, Marsha Ambrosius, Kim Burrell and Bilal. Bradshaw talked to Kick Mag about the importance of the album, his history withing Philly’s neo soul scene and how he came to be a leader on an instrument that’s always assumed to belong in the background.
There was love and healing and a spiritual move of togetherness in that building and that’s going to resonate when you hear that record
I know that you started playing the trombone in church with your father Norman Bradshaw, how is the church connected to Home?
As a young child I came up in the United House Of Prayer where brass is the focus of the musical ministry. So I was around trombones, trumpets, tubas and drums pretty much for my entire life especially growing-up. My father played trombone and guitar, and he also played trumpet and tuba. I’m kind of like second generation trombone. I was raised around it. I don’t think that’s totally why I chose it but I was definitely raised around it.
How did your church end-up having such a strong brass section? When we usually think of the churches in the north we think about the singing and the organist, your church sounds like New Orleans?
It almost is that way in the United House Of Prayer it was always brass bands from the beginning. I didn’t take it as a New Orleans connection but as something that traditionally happens as the church got bigger it’s like a church in New Orleans but all the way in Philly.
How did you decide to play secular music professionally?
It’s ironic, I was hanging out in a club called City. I was playing in clubs around the city and there was this club called Back To Basics on Monday and DJ King Britt, he was the DJ for Digable Planets, but he was an iconic DJ who was versed in acid jazz, European soul music and American soul music and hot dance music all around the globe. And he had this concept of playing DJ versus live band so he would play and then the live band would pick-up from where he left off and from there to the Black Lily all these groove clubs where there were open mics The Roots were at Black Lily which was an incredible open mic extravaganza. Tuesday night where people could come and we could see everybody from Jill Scott to The Roots, Musiq Soulchild to Jaquar Wright, Jazzyfatnastees, Jazmine Sullivan, Floetry it was an amazing thing and that’s where I hung out. Playing in Jazzy Jeff’s studio, A Touch Of Jazz which is where the Jill Scott album was birthed, where the Floetry album was birthed and where Musiq Soulchild’s album was birthed. And one night we were playing and I never wanted to be solo out front I was playing for a guy named Jafar Barron, a trumpet player and he had this band that played grooves and stuff we called it vibing and that was big in the mid-‘90’s in Philly. And one night he was having a bad night and the owner kind of put him out and the band was kind of like, ‘well, um we’ll play with you.’ So I started playing, leading the band and it wound-up being cool and I liked it and I came-up with some really cool ideas and concepts and that’s how Jeff Bradshaw became an artist at that moment. So I would play the music that influenced me; hip-hop, soul music, neo-soul some hip-hop, jazz that’s how I kind of found my way.
Of all your musical heroes on your instrument, who do you feel has shown that a trombonist can be a leader?
Mr. Fred Wesley from the JB’s. Case in point Fred Wesley he did it, he played with the Godfather Of Soul, he put together most of those arrangements and also was a trombone player who had solo projects and solo albums. But back then late ‘70’s early ‘80’s he had a number one hit song on R&B radio called, “House Party.” So it has been done, it was over 30 years ago but it has been done. And it was an honor to meet him and he was so humble and he can still blow that trombone. I think when people hear this album I think it really really resonates with people who love real music.
What was your original vision for Home and how did you and Robert Glasper make it happen?
I’ve known Robert for about 12 years and I talked to him about the record because I knew that he is a brilliant mind when it comes to arranging and putting things together. We sat in Virgil’s Barbeque in New York City for about 8 and a half hours and we talked about who I wanted to work with and we wrote down the names of people my friends, people that I was fans of and we talked about what songs we would do. We would do a couple of songs from my first album, which covers we were going to do which originals we were going to do. Rob talked about creating wild moment and oh no he didn’t moments on this record. This record is loaded with oh no he didn’t moments when you put an album together that has people like Trombone Shorty, Kim Burrell, Take 6 and Bilal it’s like what they’re all on the same album. It’s like going to a restaurant and opening up the menu and seeing all your favorite foods all on one menu. I think the album kind of speaks for itself.
You have some classic songs and new material, how did you decide on the music?
I always like to have a neo-soul Philly classic so “Love” is a great song I always like to have great love songs, so who can we get to sing “Love” by Musiq Soulchild and I was like Kim Burrell. She is the most innovative voice on the planet and nobody can sing like her. To have her sing that song was one of the highlights she made me cry. To have Bilal sing a classic like “Where Do We Go From Here” it’s definitely a few people who can sing that song; Bilal, D’Angelo, Prince and the original artist. These moments are incredible to pay tribute to the late great Grover Washington, Jr. with a song I wrote with one of his closest friends Najee, that was full circle to be a Philly artist to be able to pay tribute to Grover was everything to me. Having Take 6 sing a song from my first album a song called “Beyond The Stars” featuring Glenn Lewis from my first album, Bone Deep. The way he arranged the vocals it sounds like Take 6 is singing background. And there is a duet with my homeboy Trombone Shorty. In the mainstream outside of jazz it’s me and Trombone Shorty.
What about the song you did with Marsha Ambrosius?
We did that song six years ago in the studio and we were going to put it on my record before this, Bone Appetit and we didn’t feel like it was time yet. Marsha wrote this song and she tells everybody that’s the most played song in iTunes she has played the song over 10,000 times in her iTunes. She said she wrote it on a tear-soaked napkin she had just lost her grandmother she was going through a lot of emotion. When you hear it live it’s just like whoooaaaa.
What are the pros and cons of making a record like Home live instead of in the studio?
I was the first African-American artist to record a live concert at The Kimmel Center and that’s huge. It was so big, the mayor gave me a proclamation an hour before the show in the lobby at Kimmel Center live on television. It showed that great artists can come together for a great musical cause. Cons? Finding the money to do it! I wanted to record with 12 R&B artists, a 15-piece band, and a string section from the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and a 50-voice choir but God made a way and we got it done and it’s amazing. It was worth every tear, every sweat, every sleepless night it was worth it all.
People don’t know that’s you on Erykah Badu’s “Otherside Of The Game” and Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” or that you are on an Earth, Wind & Fire album how did those sessions happen?
“Butterflies” was a song written by Marsha Ambrosius and Andre Harris and Andre is a good friend of mine. He was one of the producers who did Jill Scott’s first record. He let me hear the record and they were tweaking it and taking it back to New York to let Michael hear it. And he let me hear it and I was humming this horn line while the song was playing , he was like “Oh my god we have to go back in studio you have to put that on the song.” We got out of his car and went back into the studio and myself and my good friend Matt Cappy, trumpet player, flugel player and we back in the studio and we put that beautiful line on “Butterflies.” And we made history Michael loved it, he screamed when he heard the horns and we knew we had done something special. Earth, Wind & Fire it was from the Illumination album and it was a song called “Elevated” featuring Floetry and was produced by Keith Pelzer and Darrin Henson once again in the studio in Philly with Maurice White, Phillip Bailey and Verdine White who was playing bass on the song. Maurice White is on the other side of the booth nodding his head. James Poyser and Questlove from The Roots called me and told me they were working on a record with this new artist out of Dallas named Erykah and they said it was really cool. I got there Erykah was sitting on the floor in the corner cutting up apples, doing her thing, she was sweet and warm. We went into the booth and for about 2 hours we played all these horn lines and it was two or three line that they kept and once I heard the record understood why because it was space and it was just simple brilliance. It was an honor to work with Philly’s legendary producer James Poyser who’s worked on every Erykah Badu album and to work with Questlove and The Roots.
What was it like to watch Jill Scott morph from a local poet into a superstar?
I remember when Jill use to work at Gantos I think it was cashiering. And she was always so beautiful and an amazing poet and I use to do shows with her band as a poet. None of us knew she could sing until years later when Miguel, Jerry and the guys are telling me we’re working on this song at Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch Of Jazz studios on Jill Scott’s alum and she’s singing. I ended up playing on that record and toured with Jill from the very beginning. I left Jill in 2008 so 1999 to 2008 and I played on all those records and we remain friends to this day. It was an honor to be with her from the beginning and watch her blossom into a true artist.
How do you want people to feel when they’ve listened to Home?
They’re going to feel like they’re there. The way the album was mixed the way a live album is supposed to feel it’s supposed to draw you in and make you feel like you were there. It’s a very powerful album with the spirit of love the spirit of kindness. Incredible musical integrity and great artists that were their best that night. It was 3500 people packed into the Kimmel Center and there were tears, they were smiles there were laughs it was just an amazing night and when you hear this album that’s what you hear and feel. There was love and healing and a spiritual move of togetherness in that building and that’s going to resonate when you hear that record.