[2 February 2009]
To the untrained ear, it might appear that Joshua Redman is in the midst of a mid-life musical crisis. Actually, it seems like that to the trained ear, too (if you count four tumultuous years of jazz bass lessons and one year spent torturing a helpless violin as training). On 2007’s Back East, Redman departed from his bread-and-butter neo-bop stylings, which he perfected to relatively huge critical and commercial success (for a jazz artist) over the course of ten albums. For the first time in his career, Redman abandoned accessibility in favor of experimentation. Back East featured the tenor saxophonist in his sparsest setting to date, with little more than bass and drums to back him. It certainly was a bold move, foregoing the safety that keyboardists like Brad Mehldau, Aaron Goldberg, and Sam Yahel brought to Redman’s previous works. What made Back East such a success, though, aside from brilliant individual playing, was that you figured it was merely a temporary departure for Redman, a momentary nod to the great experimental horn players that came before, particularly Redman’s father Dewey, and that he would soon return to his roots, albeit with a little more experience and a little less self-consciousness.
Redman’s new album, the aptly titled Compass, makes it clear the free jazz meanderings and rhythmic spontaneity that graced Back East were anything but temporary, and were instead just the tip of a huge existential musical iceberg waiting to be revealed. That’s good and bad. On one hand, it’s nice to see an incredibly talented and well-respected jazz musician continue to try new things, to search for a new musical direction, and to push himself further. On the other hand, it forces the listener to truly take the experimentation seriously, which means to compare it, whether consciously or unconsciously, to the experimental jazz greats.
Why would Redman abandon his tried-and-true recipe for musical success? A psychologist (with or without the arm-chair) might say Redman wants to surpass the standard his father set for him, a standard he only toyed with on Back East. However, what’s most likely (and what I’d like to believe after listening to Compass) is that we are simply witnessing the natural evolution of an intelligent, forward-thinking, and dynamic artist—and everything that may entail—for better or worse. And with Compass, that’s what we get: better and worse.
First, the better. Redman’s tone is as full and buttery as it’s ever been, matching that of his oft-compared hero Sonny Rollins. On “Identity Thief” and album opener “Uncharted”, he slides and skips around the musical staff with ease, making the low notes and interspersed high squeaks sound equally resonant and strong. It’s clear that Redman is excited with his new musical direction.
For the most part, the songwriting and arrangements on Compass, nearly all courtesy of Redman and his band, are compelling—though perhaps not yet in the same league as Redman’s experimental forefathers. On the quirky “Hutchhiker’s Guide”, all three musicians march in step as the tune goes from a rousing syncopated riff into a silky swing groove. Redman uses this playful foundation to birth the album’s best saxophone solos, trading bars with drummer Gregory Hutchinson. “Ghost” features Redman at his most soulful, using a minimalist bassline to launch into Sephardic-like solo lines that bow and arc, evoking the blues at every step. “Round Reuben” is Redman doing a subtle yet blistering Charlie Parker impression that ends in a feast of noise and atonal mayhem.
As always, Redman’s supporting players are among the best available. “Faraway”, the most accessible tune on the album, swings along beautifully thanks to excellent bass work by Larry Grenadier—and Redman’s Turrentine-esque melody. Some of the album’s most exciting solo moments come courtesy of Grenadier. His playing on “Hutchhiker’s Guide” proves quirky and spontaneous, echoing his work with Mehldau. Drummer Brian Blade’s playing is also stellar throughout, especially his cymbal work during lightning quick passages on “Round Reuben”.
Now, the worse. On Compass, Redman expands on the trio format of Back East by performing in something he calls a “double-trio” for nearly half of the album’s tracks. “Isn’t a ‘double-trio’ just a sextet?” you might be wondering. Not quite. It’s actually Redman with two bassists (Grenadier and Reuben Rogers) and two drummers (Blade and Hutchinson). “Isn’t that really a quintet?” you may now be thinking. Again, not exactly. If anything, the “double-trio” is a simple exercise, albeit a fairly original one, in knob twiddling. Essentially, Redman, who served as the album’s producer, mixes one drummer and bassist to the right stereo channel and the other drummer and bassist to the left stereo channel. In this way, it’s supposed to sound like he’s playing with two drums-bass trios at once: a choose-your-own-bassist-or-drummer game.
While the idea is clever, a sort of theoretical amalgam of Ornette Coleman’s recent two-bass band and Phillip Glass’s prepared tapes, the result just seems to confuse everyone involved—the musicians and the listener. On “Moonlight”, a composition based loosely on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” melody, the bassists in particular seem to step on each other’s shoes quite a bit. The only tracks on which the “double-trio” format proves moderately successful are the bluesy “Little Ditty”, when each musician is introduced pretty much one at a time, giving the listener a chance to fully digest the resulting barrage of sound, and album closer “Through the Valley”, which features Grenadier and Rogers in an interlocking bass groove.
Fortunately, while the result of Redman’s “double-trio” experiment lands well short of revolutionary, the idea and intention go a long way to making the listener hear the rest of Compass more acutely, searching for any other creative tidbits of which we now know Redman is surely capable.
After Back East, it seemed a certainty that Redman would return to his more traditional jazz and fusion roots, that he had gotten experimentation out of his system. He proved this critic wrong by forging ahead, for the most part successfully, into less-traveled terrain (at least on the mixing board). Now, it’s anyone’s guess, whether you’re a trained expert or a musical novice, as to where Redman’s compass will take him next. And perhaps that’s Compass‘s most emphatic point of all.