Can't Spell Funk Without F-U-N
A lot of people want to believe in Joshua Redman. I know I do; the idea of a brainy and ambitious young saxophonist finally breaking out into his own is an extremely inviting bandwagon. The problem is, however, that Redman has been standing on the verge of getting it on for a very long time now. He scored some early successes with Wish and Mood Swing, but a lot of his work for the last several years has seemed too much like a holding pattern.
This summer, Redman is breaking out with two major projects, making his play to regain the spotlight. This album is the more groove-focused of the two (the other is the first album from the SFJazz Collective, of which he is the artistic director), and is probably supposed to show that Josh Redman can, in fact, get down and boogie.
Well, he can, but that doesn’t make it a whole lot of fun. It’s not his band’s fault; Sam Yahel wears a whole lot of hats, from bass synth to keyboards to clarinet, and the tag-team drummer role is filled nicely by both Jeff Ballard and Brian Blade. And Redman’s saxophone technique is above reproach—he can noodle, he can riff, he can burn, he’s just a very talented player.
But there’s something that’s just not there, vision-wise, at least for me. “Sweet Nasty” has all the prerequisites for instrumental funk, but somehow lacks the funk itself, abandoning its momentum with a chorus that is too-sweet and not-nasty-enough. “Greasy G” has a dirtier beat, and Redman puts a little more feel in his solos, but the final result is still overly-thought-out and mannered. Not even the extra-showy bass pops from guest Me’shell NdegeOcello and Eric Krasno’s wah-wah guitar can make this tune more than just a cute attempt.
I think the main problem is that Redman’s main funk reference points seem to be the fusion work of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Minor artists like Yellowjackets and Bob James are cool and all, but if that’s as high as you aim, then you can only accomplish so much. What exactly the hell is wrong with a little P.Funk up in the mix? James Brown was a major jazz artist (ever hear him play organ?), Jimmy Smith knew how to get down in it, there are examples of funky jazz everywhere, stuff that didn’t stop and get smooth just when it should be getting hard.
Redman does pull this off a couple of times, however. “Swunk” has more grit to it, and is therefore more successful. (It also doesn’t hurt that Kurt Rosenwinkel and Stefon Harris are along for the ride, on guitar and vibes respectively; these two artists understand how to commit to a piece emotionally, rather than just intellectually.) And “Put It in Your Pocket” actually accomplishes the slow gutbucket slink that “Greasy G” tries so hard to do.
I guess this review wouldn’t be complete unless I mentioned that Flea does a pretty good job on his two guest spots, one of which is a short take on Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge”. That Flea can actually go on the funk and jazz tips shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but I’m just saying. On the other hand, I also have to mention that one of the songs here is a cover of a song called “Riverwide” by Sheryl Crow. Maybe the problem is that Redman needs a new CD collection, stat.
I still believe in Joshua Redman’s ability and technique and talent and desire. I just think that the concept of an Elastic Band for him is inherently flawed, because he seems to have more fun playing on Ornette Coleman songs (especially this record’s drum-n-bass take on “Lonely Woman”) than on anything ostensibly (and ostentatiously) “funky”. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does some more with this band and this format, but I sincerely hope he tries for something a bit more than “pleasant but uninspired” next time.