Middleman: Joshua Redman and Jazz’s Vanishing Division

Joshua Redman

Joshua Redman is not trying to make a statement.

But, you might argue, the saxophonist’s intentions are often to no avail. With his new recording, Compass, Redman set out to make a second consecutive album of saxophone trio music, but the project would end up featuring a “double trio” on many tracks — an innovative arrangement with two bass players and two drummers playing at the same time. It is the most riveting and daring statement of Redman’s career.

No Ideology

But this makes sense. Redman started his career as a wunderkind of sorts: the son of legendary saxophonist Dewey Redman, he went to Harvard with no intention of pursuing a career in music, only to win the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Without real intention, Redman found himself with a career — a string of no-nonsense and successful records as a leader on Warner Brothers, playing with jazz superstars such as Pat Metheny and an up-and-coming Brad Mehldau.

Handsome, smart, and winning in every respect, Redman found himself making a statement. “I think I have an almost irrational fear of making a statement,” Redman explains. “I believe in ‘making a statement’ by playing exactly what I feel, but not a statement about what music is or isn’t good or what is being done in the art.”

At the time Redman was emerging as an artist, the hoary jazz division between “traditional” players and “avant-garde” players remained a potent matter. “I don’t buy into that division, and I’ve never felt the need to take sides between inside and outside playing,” he says. “But I’m of the generation where that battle was still raging when I was coming up. When I got to New York, there was a real sense of a division between tradition and innovation. You had a choice: you could take either one side or the other, or you could take a stand of not taking a side.”

Redman’s lineage didn’t help him in choosing neutrality in the Great Jazz Debate. His father had always played both sides of the fence but was strongly identified with the Ornette Coleman band of 1968-72 and, therefore, with the avant-garde wing of jazz. “Even in opting out of the debate, you were making a statement,” Redman acknowledges. By emerging as a commercially successful player on a major label, it might have seemed like Redman was involved in both a family and a generational tiff.

But that, it’s clear, is not the affable musician’s way of doing things.

No Compass Controversy

Compass, released on January 13th of this year, is arguably Redman’s most avant-garde recording, but it is unlikely to spark controversy. The division between “inside” and “outside” playing has largely vanished, to Redman’s delight. “That conversation, that battle, is dead now. The younger musicians coming up don’t think about it. The position of not taking a side has endured.”

And so the “story” of Compass is as likely to be that Redman has arranged and recorded a version of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata as it is to be that the classical theme is developed in the manner of Ornette Coleman, with two drummers (Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson) rumbling and coloring in free time and two bass players (Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers) playing harmonies and lines in dialog. It is typical Redman, however, that both elements of this music are true: it has a “composed” and deliberate quality even as the music spreads out around itself with greater freedom and texture than we’re used to with this artist.

This, Redman assures us, was only partly deliberate. “It was almost by surprise that the session turned into this much more complicated thing. At no point did I feel like we were trying to make any kind of statement. We’re not trying to be daring or revolutionary. That’s not a natural thing for me.”

Rather, the “double trio” element of Compass emerged organically from the saxophonist’s interest in doing more composing and playing for the traditional saxophone trio, the format of his previous recording, 2007’s Back East. For that disc, Redman says, “the concept shaped the music more than anything else I’ve done”. He was paying explicit tribute to Sonny Rollins, particularly his trio playing on the classic Way Out West from 1957.

“All the songs on the new record came out of my experience playing trio,” explains Redman. “This music was written at the time my first trio record came out and I was touring with it. The more I played trio, the more I realized how hard it is. I was inspired to explore that format more in the context of original music.”

About half of the performances on Compass feature just a trio, while the others include either two basses (“Uncharted” and “Through the Valley”, the first and last tracks) or the full “double trio”/quintet. The plan had been just to play trio, but Redman — without too much deliberation — opened himself up to the unfamiliar. Would it be a mess? Redman applied his remarkable intelligence and imagination by thinking of the “double trio” format as a spatial challenge as much as a compositional one.

Composing and, Literally, Arranging the Music

Because the tunes on Compass were written with the trio — with no chording instrument like piano or guitar — in mind, Redman believes they are more “focused, clear, deep, and strong”.

“Writing for trio means that you can only write for two or three notes at a time,” he says. “The harmonic content has to be revealed in a sparser way. It forces me to think about everything melodically. I have to think of the bass as melodic part and not merely playing the root notes of the chords. So I’ve learned how to write intersecting melodic lines that imply the harmonies. Virtually every tune on this record has a composed bass melody as well as a saxophone melody, with the bass part as strong and important as the other.”

The music bears this out. “Just Like You” begins with tenor saxophone and bass intertwining graceful melodies with classical care. This dual theme is then repeated with accompanying drums and bowed bass. “Ghost” features not only a haunting melody for soprano saxophone, but also a memorable series of bass arpeggios that morph into a counter-melody on the bridge. “Insomnomaniac” finds tenor and bass playing a near unison — essentially converting what would normally be the bass part into the featured melody. Even the tunes that sound like relatively conventional jazz, such as “Un Peu Fou”, have a bass line with deliberate, composed motion and direction.

Beyond composition, Redman used a “spatial” approach to make the doubled rhythm section instruments function well together. “This was an opportunity to explore an area of music that I was not accustomed to exploring — the spatial aspect of music. When I play trio, the bass is in the middle, I stand to the right, and the drums are to the left. Double trio, we preserved that in the studio, but with the second bassist on the other side of me and the second drummer on the other far wing — like a reflection. This allowed me to play with the spatial elements of music, to have a sense of call-and-response or dialog not just between instruments but across a space.”

This approach turns into a kind of outside-the-lines playing that is less avant-garde than it is simply freshly invented. “Identity Thief” repeats a saxophone melody, which is accompanied differently by the two bassists and answered differently by the two drummers in a fascinating round of call-and-response. Then the improvised section opens up to a New Orleans-y funk that gives the whole group room to play over a strong pulse. “March”, written by Grenadier, cleverly puts the two basses in an interlocking pattern, then allows the two drummers to juxtapose swing and stiff feelings in a new kind of syncopation. And “A Little Ditty”, Redman explains, “was written in two parts, so we had each trio play a different part of the tune and then, at the end, they overlap.”

Knowing History, Knowing Jazz

If the reference point for Back East was Sonny Rollins and Way Out West, then the reference point for Compass must surely have been Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz from 1960. On the one hand, Redman is a scholar — a Harvard scholar — and knows a thing or two. On the other hand, Redman clearly does not mean for his latest record to be directly in Coleman’s lineage.

“The album Free Jazz, of course, was an archetype for this kind of playing. I didn’t revisit it before making this music, but I was familiar with it. To the extent that I felt I had a reference point, it was the biggest or most obvious one. I purposely didn’t reference it before we were going to do the album. I think if I had, I would have decided not to do it — Ornette is genius, and that’s a seminal album. I would have been intimidated.”

Redman is right — Compass hardly sounds like a Free Jazz clone. While there are rich passages of collective improvisation, these moments are mostly duets between the two drummers or two bassists. “Some of my favorite moments on this record,” Redman notes, “are when the rest of us become the backdrop for the conversation the drums are having. Those sorts of things weren’t planned — they just happened. We found ourselves naturally departing from the usual conventions of jazz playing and sometimes turning them on their heads.” Coleman’s “double quartet” had equal numbers of rhythm players and horns — “a natural balance”, according to Redman. His “double trio” has four rhythm section players and one horn, so the balance point is usually the saxophone itself.

It’s typical of Redman that these matters of history have been thought through but perhaps not over-thought or technically dwelled upon. Unlike many of today’s jazz phenoms, he is neither a product of music school nor obsessed with the technical elements of his art. “Not to characterize academics as a poison, but for me music was an antidote to studying. It was a counter-balance. I was very focused and rigorous about academics — very analytical. Music was my right brain activity, purely creative, and I had a hard time being analytic or rigorous toward it. I hated practicing, I never wanted to do exercises, I didn’t go about it in a methodical way.”

Redman does not say this kind of thing with misplaced pride but rather with some humility. “I think I lost out on a lot by not going to music school. Had I known I was going to spend the rest of my life as a professional musician, I would have gone.” Which is not to say that he didn’t learn his harmony or transcribe solos. “I did immerse myself in the language of jazz. In college, when everyone around me was listening to Guns N’ Roses, I went through my ‘jazz nerd’ or ‘jazz snob’ phase, really getting the language in my ear. But I mostly went to my horn when I was playing with other people.

“Jazz was just about listening and playing. For me, the joy of jazz is the freedom of spontaneous communication. I have not always felt that I was a great improviser, but I do feel that I improvise with a natural approach.”

On Compass there is a real balance between tradition and freedom, thought and spontaneity, analysis and emotion. Which tells us that Redman is still trying not to take a side, at pains not to cast his chips with one way or another way of making great music.

As a jazz musician who caught — and earned — a bunch of good breaks early in his career, he is acutely aware of how fortunate he has been to be able to make a good living playing the music he wants to play and with the people he wants to play it with without commercial concerns. He also seems aware that things are getting harder for many jazz musicians and that he honestly doesn’t know whether playing jazz will allow him to support his family forever.

For now, however, he talks about his music and his talent with a casual intensity. Joshua Redman is a guy, though hardworking and utterly serious about his art, who also counts his lucky stars. “Jazz may be in a tough place, economically, but artistically it’s in a great place.”

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