Submitted by siteadmin on Wed, 09/14/2016 - 12:51


  • September. 14, 2016
    Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau Discuss Their Debut Duo Album, "Nearness"

    Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau released their debut duo album, Nearness, on Nonesuch Records last week to critical acclaim, with Mojo exclaiming: "Magic always seems to happen when [they] play together," and BBC Music magazine calling them "extraordinary." The Wall Street Journal has weighed in as well, saying: "Few records released this year better define what jazz sounds like today." Reviewer Martin Johnson notes the "stellar intuitive interplay between the musicians" and sums up the album as "an impressive work that showcases two active minds smartly updating classics."


    Redman and Mehldau recently spoke with writer Michael Hill about the album and their long friendship and history of working together:


    Nearness, a set of duo performances recorded at several European concert stops, illustrates in the most direct and intimate way the extraordinary musical rapport between saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau—label-mates, friends, and fellow travelers in jazz for 25 years. Though their career paths have often followed separate but parallel tracks, they have intersected at crucial points: Early on, as two of the most promising young jazz artists to migrate to New York City in the early '90s, they each landed solo deals with Warner Bros. Records and, for 18 months, Mehldau played in Redman's quartet, and recorded together for the first time on 1994's Moodswing. Later, after both joined the Nonesuch roster, Redman played a key role in Mehldau's ambitious Highway Rider, a 2010 double-disc of original pieces for quintet and chamber orchestra. Mehldau then produced and performed on Redman's similarly orchestrated 2013 ballads collection, Walking Shadows.


    "I've been playing with him virtually since the time I got to New York," says Redman, who came to the city after graduating from Harvard and deciding to delay—forever, as it turns out—a future in law. "I was living in a house with [drummer] Jorge Rossy and [saxophonist] Mark Tuner and some other fantastic musicians I'd known in Boston. Brad was in a band that rehearsed at our house, so I think that's when we first met. Then I had a chance to really hear him play at the Village Gate with his trio and, as with everyone else who heard him for the first time, he completely blew me away. More than anything it was just the depth of soul in his playing, the maturity of it, and how deeply and naturally he heard and felt and expressed himself through music. To witness that from someone of my generation on that level was mind blowing."


    "Josh was first my bandleader, starting in 1993," Mehldau recalls, "and I learned a lot from him in that setting. He was an example for me in terms of the principles that he applied to the music that are also more universal: Listening to others, giving space and freedom, yet giving a strong direction, making a connection with the audience and not just navel gazing, those kinds of things."


    After several years of working apart, both solo and with their own ensembles, Mehldau and Redman reunited in 2008, this time as a duo. As Redman describes, "I remember that it was like coming home. That connection was still there, and the amount of time we had gone without playing had made it even stronger. I had the time to mature and develop my own playing."


    Next, Redman joined Mehldau as a featured soloist on Highway Rider, and then the two musicians resumed performing as a duo at concert halls and festivals around the world, garnering superb reviews every time out. The tracks on Nearness were culled from recordings made during summer and fall 2011 European dates in concert halls, theaters, and, one night in Norway, at a church.


    On Nearness they employ both jazz standards and original compositions as their jumping-off points, fuel for expansive improvisatory journeys. Listening to Nearness is a kind of privileged eavesdropping: the sheer thrill of hearing players so utterly in sync with each other that it feels like one has stumbled onto an intense and animated private conversation. Redman concurs: "It really does feel that we are just talking with each other."


    "I just feel this general deep sympathy with him as a musician, a simpatico," says Mehldau. "We listened to a lot of the same records when we were coming up, for one, so there is a shared general vocabulary, a shared language that has deep roots for both of us when we go to improvise together."


    He continues, "The format of duo is one that fascinates me and this one with Josh has given me a lot of inspiration, satisfaction, and welcome challenges. In order to play duo in this jazz-improvised setting, I would say that a few things have to be in place. One is that there has to be a commitment to deep listening to the other player at all times—there is not really a possibility to rest and sit back and let another party interact with your foil, because that other party doesn't exist.


    "Josh and I are both into this kind of listening, and one thing that makes Josh unique is that he continues that listening even as he is soloing—he is listening back to me, listening to him," Mehldau says. "This is something he already inaugurated in the quartet he led years ago, but in this setting his 'listening back' is constant. That makes for a particular kind of challenge, as the lines between accompaniment and solo become less relevant: It is more like we are always both contributing ideas that flow into each other. There is never a moment to just coast."


    Given the quality of Redman's "listening back," says Mehldau, "I feel quite free to throw him a curve ball, be it harmonically or rhythmically, as he solos, and I feel he welcomes that. In another musical setting, some of those gambits might be seen as almost anti-social or overbearing, but with Josh here, because of his strength and a certain readiness to jump into the unknown—an unknown to both of us until we find it together—this approach works."


    They leap right into that unknown from beat one of the opening track, with a free-wheeling version of Charlie Parker's "Ornithology." Redman says, "Brad and I are big bebop heads. We come from that language, we are super influenced by it, we still love it, and that's been a source of our connection from the beginning. This version of 'Ornithology' is pretty far afield from the traditional but I guess that is one of the reasons we gravitated toward it. That conservational thing is so manifest from the beginning. We play the melody and then we are immediately improvising melodic lines that are snaking around each other."


    Conversely, "Always August," written by Mehldau, speaks to the emotional temperature in much of his writing. "At his core, he is a supremely lyrical musician," notes Redman, "and a blues-oriented musician. There is a pathos and a romanticism to his music. 'Always August' has a great melodic directness and clarity, but also so much harmonic subtlety, which in turn opens up a lot of emotional territory to explore."


    Unlike their approach to "Ornithology," on the Thelonious Monk classic "In Walked Bud, "we are laying down a strong swinging, more focused, bluesier groove from the beginning," Redman says. "It's cool how sometimes Brad and I seem to be able to stay in a certain zone for a while, but still feel very free and conversational within that vocabulary and approach. And I think this track, in particular, has a nice arc. Even in the midst of improvisational discourse, we're always trying to be aware of the larger structure."


    His tune "Mehlsancholy Mode" was written with Mehldau in mind: "Something about the way the song moves harmonically reminds me of Brad's music. We both have a penchant for writing tunes with tinges of melancholy and also strong centers of tonal gravity. You feel everything in relation to it the common tone or the tonic. 'Mehlsancholy Mode' has that—as does 'Always August'."


    The pair partially derived the album title from the penultimate track, a version of Hoagy Carmichael's beloved classic "The Nearness of You," which Mehldau has described as "the eye of the hurricane, the calm in the middle of the storm." Redman concurs: "It is the most epic track, the longest…but it's also the most settled. One of the strengths of that performance for me is in its pacing—a commitment to a vibe and a mood and then the patient exploration and development of that mood over the long haul." He continues, "A lot of times interaction in jazz manifests itself as a lot of melodic and rhythmic motifs being tossed back and forth, which can often escalate quickly and end up generating a barrage of rapid fire, ping-ponging, criss-crossing notes—maybe more like what happens in 'Ornithology' or towards the end of 'Mehlsancholy Mode.' But with this ballad, I feel like much of our interaction happens within the silence itself. It probably sounds a little nutty, but sometimes it almost feels like we're tossing space back and forth. There's a pregnancy in the pause. A sense of possibility and spontaneity and dialogue even (and maybe especially) in what is not played. An intense in-the-moment conversation where some of the deepest things remain unsaid."


    The final cut, "Old West," is a version of a Mehldau composition that the pair first recorded together on Highway Rider. "That one became a favorite in our live duo performances," Mehldau recounts. "It was recorded in a considerably shorter version in the studio, but here we really stretched it out. This track, and also 'The Nearness of You,' have an 'epic' quality, a fleshing out of ideas in a more leisurely manner that lets them arrive at fruition by their own accord. This approach, for me, fulfills the promise of a live record. Josh and I didn't discuss so much the idea of going in the studio, because it seemed that a big part of what was special with this batch of music was what happened when the electricity of an audience lighted it up. So the live aspect of the record is a big part of its DNA."


    Redman agrees: "There is a groove thing with 'Old West' that we get into that's unique and super fun to play and that none of the other songs have in quite the same way. But I think one of the things that sets this particular performance apart is the journey at the end. We play the theme and take our solos, the groove winds down, and it seems like we're coming to a conclusion, but then we morph into this world where, for something like five minutes, we are basically playing completely free; There are no set harmonies, form, or structure. We are just searching and finding our way and creating our own melodic and harmonic paths. It wasn't something we planned. We just found ourselves there, felt it, and went with it. Playing with Brad, it's all about empathy, and trust."


    —Michael Hill