Submitted by siteadmin on Fri, 05/27/2005 - 00:00


  • May. 27, 2005
    Playing the Diplomatic Changes

    By Ben Ratliff
    The New York Times

    The saxophonist Joshua Redman is one of the most visible jazz musicians of the last 15 years, which says something not just about his natural flow as an improviser and his command as a bandleader, but also about his willingness to use words. The chance to represent jazz to the outside world involves a certain amount of rhetoric, and Mr. Redman has risen to that challenge in a friendly, nearly guileless way.

    Since at least 1996, when he released "Freedom in the Groove," Mr. Redman, now 36, has been advancing a theory of why jazz can and should share a space with pop. It has to do with sincerity as much as form: acknowledging what musicians truly listen to as they grow up and develop, as much as figuring out a way to make jazz phrasing fit over backbeats. Ultimately, he is playing what he likes and trying to make jazz records that in a gingerly way reflect advances in pop.

    "Art, in the world of honest emotional experience, is never about absolutes, or favorites, or hierarchies, or number ones," he wrote in the liner notes to "Freedom in the Groove." "These days, I listen to, love, and am inspired by all forms of music... I feel in much of 90's hip-hop a bounce, a vitality, and a rhythmic infectiousness which I have always felt in the bebop of the 40's and 50's. I hear in some of today's alternative music a rawness, an edge, and a haunting insistence which echoes the intense modalism and stinging iconoclasm of the 60's avant-garde."

    What he plays reflects the noncombative nature of those liner notes, and nothing he has said or played has come back to haunt him - even as jazz has increasingly come to be seen by some as endangered by pop rather than enriched by it. He currently plays with his trio, the Elastic Band, veering back and forth between mainstream jazz and different versions of funk and pop.

    Like a lot of jazz musicians, Mr. Redman talks about paring down, working toward an ideal of simplicity. At the same time, his interest in pop music with strong beats and a more digitally processed sound - records like Meshell Ndegeocello's "Peace Beyond Passion" or Tortoise's "Standards" - has led him toward the atmospheric funk of "Momentum," his 10th album, which Nonesuch released last week.

    Basically, his music is geared toward pleasure. Some feel that this is a fault, that his inclusive conception of jazz doesn't stake enough of a claim, is not finally exclusive enough. If so, perhaps that's the San Francisco in him.

    His father is the jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman. He was raised in Berkeley by his mother, Renee Shedroff, a retired dancer and librarian, and he recently bought a house there after having returned to the Bay Area in 2002, completing a full-scale return to his hometown that was in the works for five years. Since 2000, he has balanced his own career with his responsibilities as artistic director of SFJazz, the San Francisco jazz organization, which increasingly looks like the West Coast equivalent of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

    His sense of pluralism helps define the SFJazz program, which centers on jazz as it has sounded since the 1950's and includes every kind of music that shares affinities with it. Nonesuch also released this week the first recording by the SFJazz Collective, eight musicians who make up the resident orchestra of SFJazz.

    Recently, while in town with the SFJazz Collective, Mr. Redman agreed to listen to a few pieces of music (not his own) that he had chosen; the goal was a conversation about how the music works and the possible musical ideals it suggests to him. In preparation, he came up with two different lists and nearly 30 records, including Led Zeppelin, D'Angelo, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett and Bjork. But it was pretty easy to condense them. For Mr. Redman, all other interests recede when you bring up Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. One other choice got in, a current band that many younger musicians see as a creative ideal in jazz: the Paul Motian-Joe Lovano-Bill Frisell trio.

    In the Beginning, Rollins Mr. Rollins is the living exemplar of narrative structure in jazz improvisation, and that is principally what Mr. Redman has absorbed from him: the logical, symmetrical, advancing and recapitulating storytelling impulse. We listened to "St. Thomas," the calypso track from Mr. Rollins's 1956 album "Saxophone Colossus."

    "It's funny," Mr. Redman said as the track started. "I actually haven't listened to this album for many years. But I went through a period where this was literally the only thing I listened to. I discovered it shortly after I started playing the saxophone, when I was 10. I'd certainly listened to a lot of jazz records - a lot of Coltrane, some Miles, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, you know, the musicians who my father was associated with." (Dewey Redman played with Mr. Coleman from 1967 to 1974, and with Mr. Jarrett from 1971 to 1976.)

    "My mom couldn't afford to buy me that many records," he added, "so I went to the public library in Berkeley, checked this out, came home, put it on, and here was the first track. And it was, for me, as monumental an experience as I've had listening to music."

    After the opening theme statement, Mr. Rollins plays around with a two-note pattern, finally breaking into a flowing melody, and returns to the two notes again. "As symmetrical as it is," said Mr. Redman, struck by it anew, "it still has the element of surprise. It's not bland, it's not derivative. And he's going to do it again here." (The same two notes, the fifth and first degrees of the scale, return to close the next chorus.) "It's like you couldn't have written it better, but you couldn't have written it. You know?"

    Immersed in the Language This has been the overriding view of Sonny Rollins since Gunther Schuller wrote "Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation," a persuasive essay published in Jazz Review in November 1958. But Mr. Redman's deeper point is not so much that Mr. Rollins does the impossible, but that he heightens your awareness of what really is possible. "He makes it sound easy, you know," he said. "And yes, he makes you think you can do it, and he makes you really want to do it."

    (Here he stopped cold to hear Mr. Rollins play a sing-song five-note line, and then repeat it eight more times, just before Tommy Flanagan's piano solo.)

    "There's a quality about Sonny Rollins' playing that makes improvisation acceptable - no, it isn't easy," he continued, laughing. "You do have to immerse yourself in the language."

    We listened to it again, picking out a few strange points. One occurs when Mr. Rollins plays three braying, stubborn long-notes that break down the eighth-note swing he's established. I suggested that he was doing a few different things here: asserting control and elbowing the listener, as if to ask, "are you still with me?"

    "It's definitely assertive," Mr. Redman agreed. "I don't know how much I feel it's like asking the listener that. I mean, it's very different from the way Illinois Jacquet would use repetition in his Jazz at the Philharmonic solos; like, you know, riff-based repetition to get the band going and get the crowd going. That's very powerful and exciting, but it's a kind of specific device. To me, Sonny's use of repetition is not like that. It's always in the service of a flow."

    Lean, shaven-headed and energetic, Mr. Redman speaks with fidgety, expansive comfort, saying "yes" regularly as you make a point, even if he goes on to disagree. He is also an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand kind of guy, which perhaps explains his frequently self-effacing comments - that he hasn't heard enough or that he can never reach the level of someone-or-other.

    "Listening to an improvisation like this," he said, "I'm struck by the mastery and the seriousness of it, as this perfectly constucted, spontaneous narrative. And at the same time, there's this quality in Sonny that he cautions you against taking anything too seriously."

    The Sacred and the Coltrane Mr. Redman knew he wanted to talk about Coltrane but thought it might be too obvious, and then fretted about what to choose. He felt, he said, that the suite "A Love Supreme" was too sacred to pick apart, so he chose "Transition," an album from 1965. It is one of the last recordings of the intact Coltrane quartet, with the pianist McCoy Tyner, the bassist Jimmy Garrison and the drummer Elvin Jones.

    "It's pretty long, so let's just play it and start talking," he said. "It's going to be a little sacrilegious for me - but, hey."

    "Transition" isn't cited often as anyone's favorite album. In the timeline of Coltrane's career, it sits just inside the period when he began making individual pieces that sounded rather alike, sometimes built on a single mode. What does Mr. Redman hear in it?

    "The sheer force of it," he said quickly. "As far as a single piece of Coltrane with the classic quartet, it has perhaps the greatest force, impact, feeling of surrender; you know, abandon, devotion. I had been listening to Coltrane since the day I was born, probably, but someone turned me onto this record in college."

    Trane to the Next Level After Berkeley High School, Mr. Redman went to Harvard in 1987, eventually completing a B.A. degree and graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, while edging closer to jazz and playing with musicians from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the summertime.

    "Someone from Berklee hipped me to this," he said. "I think it might have been Mark Turner, I don't quite remember, but someone said, man, if you think the other stuff is potent, check this out. I remember thinking, how could it get more intense?"

    (Coltrane moves up to the next level in his soloing, chipping up his fast and assured middle-register runs with high shrieks on the tenor saxophone.)

    "With this track, from the beginning, there's no intro, there's no lead-in," Mr. Redman said. "It's just, like, bam: here we are at the apex. You can't go any higher. Yet they keep climbing and climbing, and then they come down a little bit, and then they climb again."

    We started it over again from the beginning: Jones hits the downbeat and Coltrane lines out a scale. "You know, that was the melody, basically," Mr. Redman said. "It's so simple. And just the quality of Trane's sound - it sounds like he's screaming and praying at the same time. I mean, he's playing so much horn, so much technically, so much harmonically; the constituent elements of what he's playing are so complex. Yet it's like he's trying to blow the horn apart and just play his emotions through the instrument."

    Mr. Redman said he was moved by its spirituality, but then added that he was not a religious person. So what does he mean?

    Apologizing for sounding new agey, he said: "At certain times in my life this music has kind of swept me up and transported me to a place where I can sense that there is something greater than the material existence of things. And a fabric that binds the material world together, and offers an escape from that world."

    "This is definitely one of the last for this band where everything is still happening around a tonic center, a mode," Mr. Redman continued. "It's in D-something: D-Phrygian, D-Dorian. And they're still operating in these even-numbered bar phrases. Not when Coltrane's playing, but the way McCoy and Elvin interact, every 16 bars, there's that big crash on the cymbal and the bass drum, and McCoy playing the root and the fifth. That was a style that they introduced in '62 or '63, I guess, but here you hear it at its furthest development.

    "You can hear the band pushing the limits of its style. You can hear Trane's desire to escape. Part of Elvin is pushing in that direction too, but part of him wants to stay, wants to keep those cycles in place."

    A Regular Working Band It's still mysterious, I said, how Coltrane started going all-out during this period, just as a matter of course. "Yeah," he said, "I can't imagine doing that. But the sense you get from Trane is total commitment. I think that exists for all of us jazz musicians, as this ideal. I mean, he's like an ideal type, a Platonic ideal."

    With Coltrane, and with himself, it's the group that makes the music work, he explained. "It's always been very important to me to have a regular working band. Right now this is the first time that I haven't really had one. I do the Collective, which is a couple months out of the year. The Elastic Band has been on hiatus, and we're going to start working again. I've been doing some acoustic trio stuff, too. But not one of them is a full-time, year-round commitment."

    He was also part of the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's group for several months last year; after touring Europe, it made the recently released album "Deep Song" (Verve), one of the better places to hear Mr. Redman's rawer, more adventurous style, which doesn't get as much of an airing on "Momentum."

    Mr. Redman first played with Mr. Rosenwinkel at Smalls, the West Village club that opened in 1994. He was already established by then, having played at the Village Vanguard with his father in 1990 and having recorded his first album for Warner Brothers in 1992.

    "I had subbed for Mark Turner a few times in Kurt's band in the mid-90's, at Smalls, and it was always really inspiring," he said. "But I always felt kind of like a sad substitution for Mark Turner." Though he was the one with the much greater fame, it wasn't until he played again with Mr. Rosenwinkel in 2003 that he felt comfortable amid that group's fluid, collective improvising.

    A Group's Fragile Counterlines Talking about that kind of sound brings him to "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" by the Paul Motian-Joe Lovano-Bill Frisell trio, from the 1994 album "Trioism." "That's the highest level of free group improvisation that you can get."

    "It's kind of like magic," Mr. Redman said, as the track started misting out of the speakers, with saxophone, guitar and drums playing fragile counterlines against one another. "The sense of three musicians becoming one."

    The group reaches the end of the melody. "I mean, now they've finished the song, I guess, but who's soloing?"

    Here Mr. Lovano's saxophone extrudes a short line. "Joe's kind of soloing, but Bill's in there. This is true group improvisation, and it's not just melodic improvisation. I mean right there: they're playing in a minor key, and Joe introduces the major third. All of a sudden it's this new color, and Bill picks up on it."

    We went back and listened to the major third coming in again. "It's astounding," he remarked, "the degree to which they're listening and reacting to one another, the sense in which each voice will kind of come to the fore and then recede in a completely continuous way. It's so fluid. It's like water."