In 1994, Joshua Redman was the “It Musician” in jazz – a young guy getting a ton of press because he was a biracial guy who had gone to Harvard and decided to pass up Yale Law School for the life of a jazz musician. Plus, he was the son of the great tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and took the top prize in the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition in 1991. Oh, and the guy could really play – boasting a rich, round tone on tenor and a natural, conversational style that was utterly appealing. All this resulted in a major recording contract, rare for almost any jazz musician, on Warner Bros. And the young player delivered with a debut that showed him as equally adept at “Body and Soul” and “I Feel Good”, then a sophomore effort where he played even-Steven with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. The hype was not all hype.
For his third release, 1994’s Moodswing, Redman recorded with his working quartet. And it seems fair to guess that Warner Bros. decided to reissue this record because of that band. Pianist Brad Mehldau has become not only a top-flight jazz pianist but also a phenomenon of his own – a daring recording artist who tackles classical material and fascinating pop hybrids. Christian McBride has become jazz’s most prolific bassist, a man for all seasons and all styles. And Brian Blade has become not only the drummer in Wayne Shorter’s adventurous quartet but also an ingenious composer, arranger, and collaborator across musical styles. In retrospect, it is an all-star band, a supergroup. So how does Moodswing sound 18 years later? And how well does it fulfill its own mission, stated in Redman’s high-toned liner notes, to demystify jazz a bit, to rescue it from being seen only as an “intellectual music” and, instead, create feeling?
Well, it’s hard to say that this particular record, more than others of its ilk, communicates with truly unusual directness. This is mainstream jazz of the 1990s: post-bebop but also post-free jazz, jazz that has as its playground not only the whole history of the music but also popular forms from soul to rock and hip-hop. What Redman seems to have been doing here is something purer than any kind of “jazz crossover”, but maybe more substantive and valuable. He was working through several distinct jazz styles that have always satisfied, creating self-conscious variety. He was also making mainstream jazz that kept things concise and tasty – jazz with its swing and history intact, but a bit less fussy. Moodswing seeks to be that one jazz record you really want to play for your “non-jazz” friends.
The album begins with a smoky sense of melancholy on “Sweet Sorrow” – a slow, minor theme that allows Redman to show off his most vocalized tone. He bends the notes like a soul man, suggesting that part of Moodswing’s strategy for creating appeal is to let the saxophonist testify like a preacher – or a lover. The start of Redman’s improvisation comes on a series of notes that are bent far from pitch, after which he dives deep-down to begin the statement in his huskiest place. It’s a rich and compelling ride on a set of gorgeous blues phrases that are then curved around the larger harmonic structure. If the goal is to make the listener feel, then this is working.
“The Oneness of Two (In Three)” is an up-tempo jazz waltz that is, arguably, in the “My Favorite Things” bag – relatively simple chords changes that propel first Mehldau and then Redman’s tart soprano sax to thoughtfully ecstatic unfurlings. Blade, at least, is certainly operating in his Coltrane Quartet mode, splashing cymbals with delight like a lighter-handed Elvin Jones. This kind of cherry picking of previously successful styles continues with real precision on “Rejoice”. It’s a ripper, but not just a fast jazz tune. Instead, it calls on the kind of gospel-tinged groove that Keith Jarrett put into his quartet music back in the 1970s (of which Redman’s father was a key component) and then alternates it with energetic swing sections. Also, it is the longest tune on Moodswing, and it gives the soloists the chance to develop ideas within their improvised solos. This kind of thematic development is exactly what people ought to love about jazz, but it’s also the kind of taxing “thinking while listening” that Redman’s liner notes seem to be pointing away from. Whether that takes away from the leader’s garrulous tenor solo, with its section of over-blowing and soulful wailing, will probably depend on how big a jazz fan you are in the first place. “Faith” also cops a bit of the Jarrett gospel/jazz sound, but it starts as a gentle meditation and then develops a backbeat played on the rim of the snare as the theme is bandied about.
Without a doubt, Brad Mehldau is the secret ingredient on this disc. “Chill” finds a groove that lives somewhere in the Pink Panther/”Fever” zone: slinky and blue, set low in the tenor’s range, the bass and piano playing a lovely descending pattern. It’s a theme that isn’t, in and of itself, all that interesting, but it sets up the soloists just fine. Here is where the young Mehldau does his damage –playing light and easy, but with a melodic invention that is exceptional. It’s a solo that you might play for a skeptical friend who “doesn’t like jazz” and maybe win a convert. And when it’s Redman’s turn, things get interesting in a different way: the band sets of simple syncopated groove with no harmonic motion, and then the tenor and McBride’s bass trade blues rips. Nice.
Mehldau is also fascinating on the album’s clearest departure, “Dialogue”, which begins with a simple exchange of melodic lines but then becomes freely improvised. This track is surely not something that will make jazz more accessible to novices, but that doesn’t stop Mehldau from doing a majesterial job of creating a frame for what might otherwise be atonal exploration. From this track, his knottier future work winks at you.
In working through previous styles of jazz that struck a nerve with popular opinion, Redman does not ignore the bossa nova (“Alone in Morning”) or the jazz-funk groover (“Headin’ Home”). On the latter, McBride plays like a true groove machine with Blade hard on the backbeat throughout – not dumbed-down fusion, but a tough-minded take on the kind soul-funk that Blue Note produced in droves back in the 1960s. Mehldau colors it all with the hip rhythmic accents associated with Herbie Hancock’s funky playing. It is appealing, but not anything truly new or daring for a jazz quartet to pull off. And that is where any judgment of Moodswing probably has to land. It’s terrific music, but it is played over well-traveled territory. In jazz, that’s common and just fine, but it doesn’t really live up to Redman’s liner-note manifesto in emotional directness. As great as the band is, with a vintage that now spins our heads, in 1994, this was a young working band making its first recording. I’d call it lovely but not essential, incredibly fun but not ... moving. Not that it doesn’t make me feel something. Good jazz always does. If that’s not true for every music fan, I’m not inclined to lay it at the feet of a single saxophone player, particularly one with such range, tone, and ambition. Josh Redman was under no compunction to lead a movement. Moodswing shows how fine even a merely good date is by a strong player.