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Joshua Redman Makes His Move

Compass

Joshua Redman
Nonesuch, 2009

If it takes rock-steady self-assurance to court comparisons with recognized artistic giants, then saxophonist Joshua Redman may be jazz’s most confident performer. And if it takes bravery to invite judgment against the standards set by legends like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, then Redman has balls of brass.

Redman openly sought association with tenor master Rollins when making 2007’s Back East. The title responds to Rollins’s Way Out West. Redman reinterprets “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels,” which Rollins did fifty years earlier. The disc opens with “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein song countless jazz artists, including Rollins, reinvented. Nodding to Rollins, Redman also looks in the direction indicated by the title track and by the original “Indonesia” as well as in versions of other saxophonists’ compositions, such as Wayne Shorter’s “Indian Song.”

The eastern tinge of some of Redman’s performances, especially when he plays the soprano saxophone, shows his affinity for Coltrane as well as Rollins, who prefers to mix his bop with calypso rather than sounds from southern Asia and the Middle East. On Back East, Redman extends the eastern theme (as well as the tribute to his forebears) by interpreting Coltrane’s “India.” The album closes with “GJ,” written and performed by Redman’s father, saxophonist Dewey Redman, who died soon after recording it. (The two Redmans play together on one other track.)

Back East includes several of the members of the “double trio” Redman convened for 2009’s Compass: drummer Brian Blade and bassists Reuben Rogers and Larry Grenadier. However, Rogers and Grenadier worked separately on different songs on Back East, but join forces at times on Compass, and Gregory Hutchinson complements Blade’s percussion.

While Redman’s double trio may be unconventional, others have also experimented with augmented rhythm sections. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, with whom Redman has close connections, developed a quartet with two bassists. (Dewey Redman worked with Coleman from 1967 to 1974. As frontman of the SF Jazz Collective, the band affiliated with California festival organizer SF Jazz, for which the younger Redman served as artistic director, Redman made several recordings of interpretations of work by celebrated musicians. SF Jazz designated Coleman the first recipient of this treatment.) Around the time Nonesuch Records released Compass, saxophonist Joe Lovano (who joined Redman in a dual-saxophone piece on Back East) was playing with a group dubbed Us5, a quintet with two drummers.

What distinguishes Compass is not the instrumentation but the variation. Playing an elaborate game of musical chairs, the Compass ensemble works in multiple configurations. “Faraway,” for instance, is a conventional trio effort with one drummer (Blade) and a single bass player (Grenadier). “Hutchhiker’s Guide” swings via a standard threesome, with the drummer whose name the title plays on backing the band leader and Grenadier. Here, the influence of Rollins can be felt. The second track with a title tied to one of its performers, “Round Reuben” displays the skills of Reuben Rogers and Blade along with Redman. “Ghost” also has three players, with Blade taking the sticks from Hutchinson. Redman exchanges his tenor for a soprano saxophone. “Insomnomaniac” conveys the frenzy its title describes with Redman, Hutchinson and Rogers effectively expressing the restless urgency of an unsettled mind and cleanly demonstrating how tight artistic control can transform suggestions of psychic disturbance into pleasing music. Blade, Rogers and Redman work out vigorously on “Un Peu Fou.”

Two tracks involve a Coleman-like quartet. On “Uncharted,” the album’s loose opener, Grenadier’s bass thumps in the left channel, Rogers’s in the right. The group composition by Redman, the bassists and drummer Hutchinson, seems to see the players sorting out which way to go. Rather than setting out on a fixed course with a definite destination, it has a ruminative, wandering feel. “Through the Valley,” the thirteenth and final track, features the same foursome.

“Identity Thief” announces the double trio concept, with Redman flanked by Grenadier and Blade on the left and Rogers and Hutchinson on the right. Like the record’s first cut, it starts moving at a casual gait but picks up the pace as the sonic emphasis bounces from one side of the room to the other. “Just Like You” also involves all five musicians, as does “March,” which bassist Grenadier wrote. The double trio returns on Redman’s arrangement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” which provides further evidence of Redman’s fearlessness in tackling venerated works.

While touring in support of Compass, Redman started a Friday night set in Seattle with yet another gesture to Rollins by playing “Mack the Knife.” While innumerable musicians have interpreted the Weill-Brecht tune (also known as “Moritat”), Rollins issued his version on 1956’s Saxophone Colossus and kept it in his repertoire throughout the more than 50 years of performing that followed the release of his breakthrough album, which was “a tremendous success with the jazz public and acclaimed … by virtually all critics and reviewers,” in the words of Charles Blancq, author of Sonny Rollins: The Journey of a Jazzman and the session notes for Rollins’s The Complete Prestige Recordings.

In concert, Redman makes self-effacing remarks between songs. He said “Mack the Knife” (performed with Hutchinson and bassist Matt Penman) probably sounded like ten different songs, though it was definitely recognizable, if agreeably sprawling. The humble demeanor keeps his creative conviction from coming across as arrogance. When the work speaks for itself, and the worker in sound can speak through his music, then boastfulness would only betray weakness. Despite the on-stage banter, Redman becomes thrillingly expressive and confidently assertive when in deep into the music. If Redman suffers self-doubt, he doesn’t let listeners hear it blowing through his horn.

Responding to the emcee’s introduction promising an evening of “pure” jazz, Redman remarked that he was not feeling especially pure; in fact, he felt rather “sullied,” he said. He routinely engages in what hidebound jazz purists might consider sullying. In addition to exploring work by the likes of Coltrane and Coleman, he has also recorded songs by rock stars. Momentum, the 2005 album by his Elastic Band (which involves electronic keyboards), includes material from the likes of Led Zeppelin (with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass) and Sheryl Crow.

In Seattle, Redman performed “Little Ditty” with one drummer and one bassist instead of two of each as on Compass. If “Round Reuben” showcases the bass player named in its title, “Little Ditty” gives Redman a chance to strut, this time with his soprano saxophone.

Guts, inventiveness, intensity and an eager engagement with tradition brought Redman the notice he sought. He aimed for a spot on jazz’s Mount Rushmore alongside Rollins and Coltrane, and his clean-shaven head just might make it there, if critical accolades offer any indication. In 2005, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff essentially declared Redman the face of jazz, describing him as “the most visible jazz musician of the last 15 years.” Four years later, writing for the same newspaper, Nate Chinen says Redman makes “some of the best music of his career” with the Compass double trio. Chinen describes Redman as working “in the Sonny Rollins’s vein.” Reviewing Redman’s 2007 release Back East, Ratliff says the saxophonist could “play with almost anyone, and with almost any stylistic intent,” but that the player he most resembles is Rollins (with dashes of Coltrane and Shorter). With Compass, Redman “turned what could have been chaotic into an exercise in discipline and defining musical space,” in the assessment of The Seattle Times.

Rollins achieved a reputation among jazz enthusiasts as a performer best caught live because his best cannot be fully captured in a studio. His famously magnetic shows motivated one fan, Carl Smith, to follow Rollins around the world with recording equipment and then give hundreds of hours of tape to the saxophonist to use (or not) as he chose. The highly self-critical Rollins decided to release several tracks on 2008’s Road Shows Vol. 1. In the album notes, Gary Giddins writes: “In concert, Sonny courts exultation. In concert, he pursues the thin line between beauty and danger. In concert, a nearly irrational spontaneous magic is permissible.” Something of this is also true of Redman. His live playing has a fierce energy his albums don’t always quite match. Back East and Compass have moments that approach the unbridled raucousness and sly sweetness of his live playing.

Although he encourages (and deserves) comparisions with Rollins and Coltrane, Redman has refrained from the sort of self-aggrandizing evident in album titles like Saxophone Colossus, and his firmly grounded album names, even with their suggestion of ceaseless motion, do not suggest the sort of cosmic questing intimated by Coltrane’s Ascension or Interstellar Space. A title like Compass was clearly intended to indicate deliberate, informed movement. Near the end of his boisterous, funky set at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle, during a pause in one of Redman’s solos, I heard someone sitting behind me whisper, “Wow” – testimony, if any were needed, that he is traveling in the right direction.

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John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s work has appeared in publications such as The Mailer Review, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Slow Trains, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, The Humanist and the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. He has lived in Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan.

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