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The Joy of Sax, Part I

Miles Marshall Lewis

In France, a beloved musician needn't be 'successful', in the how-many-CDs-can-he-sell sense, to be vraiment réussi.

Saxophonist Joshua Redman leans forward into the thin air like he's sliding in between the legs of a woman, slowly but intensely, eyes shut, with a look of concentrated rapture on his babyface. He pulls out of this imaginary space quickly, repeatedly, cradling his sax like a physically attached organ; he knows how to hit it and quit it. The 36-year-old Redman's gangsta leans are his most telltale onstage signature. That, some occasional elbow jabs, and the lifting of his leg, lowering it on the downbeat sway of drummer Jeff Ballard during some of his quartet's funkier compositions.

These moves � and above all, the music � mesmerized the audience of the New Morning club two weeks ago. In college I cherished a scratchy bootleg of a 1987 Prince after-show recorded surreptitiously at the smallish New Morning in a scruffy section of the Tenth Arrondissement. His impromptu rendition of the Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" sounded divine, otherworldly. To finally attend an actual live performance here is a little dreamlike, my mind fantasizing back to '87 while the Joshua Redman Elastic Band coast through their nine-song set.

The French love affair with jazz that began at the Casino de Paris in 1917 � a show by Louis Mitchell's Jazz Kings � continues unabated today with the young guns of the art form; jazz savvily marketed the world over as America's classical music nowadays. Redman's sixth studio album, Momentum, features ?uestlove of hiphop's Roots on drums (the track "Put It in Your Pocket", on which even the keys sonically resemble the vibe of the Roots' keyboardist, Kamal), and otherwise caters to a youthful audience by including bassists Meshell Ndegéocello and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's part of a trend that began during the early '90s when Branford Marsalis enlisted DJ Premier to co-produce his Buckshot LeFonque, and evidenced lately by The RH Factor: Hard Groove, the latest from trumpeter Roy Hargrove. (Common, Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, and D'Angelo all guest on Hargrove's disc, with differing degrees of success.)

As a musical institution, jazz doesn't hold much more interest to the worldwide urban outfitted than blues or gospel, those other African-American-created precursors to rock 'n' roll, funk, and hiphop. And those who do get hip want their Coltrane, their Monk, their Miles, their Mingus -- leaving jazz players who are closer to the listeners' own ages on the shelf. Stellar talents like James Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Marcus Roberts, even the vaunted Marsalis brothers, struggle to sell even 15,000 copies of their latest works while hiphop MCs who fail to post less than a couple million in SoundScan figures risk losing face and pop relevancy to their Viacom/Clear Channel public.

Joshua Redman might've become an MC, it's the musical calling of his generation. Instead, he gravitated towards jazz, no doubt due to the household influence of his father, renowned saxophonist Dewey Redman. When I first heard of Joshua Redman in college, his publicist contacted the Morehouse school newspaper office promising an interview with Redman. The staff assumed this meant Redman of hiphop's Hit Squad. A year later I caught a show at the Iridium in Manhattan with the pop critic Touré, of Redman's peer James Carter. Redman stepped onstage from the audience to trade sax lines with Carter. Awesome then, awesome now.

He commands the stage of New Morning like a born bandleader, more Duke Ellington than, I don't know, RZA. In an army-green fitted T-shirt and black slacks, Redman opens with "Shut Your Mouth". I sit with my girlfriend and two of her romantically involved friends in the French audience; she feels the baby in her stomach stir at the swinging song's start, the fourth concert of our unborn son's pre-life. Keyboardist Sam Yahel, looking like a young Rick Rubin, takes a solo and the melody shifts into "Long Way Home".

Redman switches from alto to soprano sax and the tune swiftly warms up and fires to a boil. Redman is amiable, introducing the band (in English) and humbly announcing a 10-minute intermission halfway during the set. His use of echo chamber tricks on "Greasy G" and "Molten Soul" � sax sounds reminiscent of electric-guitar resonance � as well as his saxophone-key rattling and microphone reverb on Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman", lead my homeboy Paco to characterize Redman as a bit experimental. But then, Paco's never heard Sun Ra. He dances stage left during guitarist Jeff Parker's solo on "Swunk", offering a screwface mug to the funk. The audience clamor for an encore; he concedes with an on-fire cover of Led Zeppelin's "D'yer Ma'ker". (And why not? Jazzmen covering mainstream material is a long-standing tradition.) Flyers distributed on the way out promote an upcoming Herbie Hancock Quartet appearance at the Folies Bergère.

* * *

"Unlike in North America, business is not a subject of public fascination in France," say authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow in Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong (Sourcebooks, May 2003). "The French don't glorify their business leaders or boast about the accomplishments of their business sector very often, either in public or in private . . . Business leaders are not public heroes in France." Do you really think Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, George Bush, and Hillary Clinton listen to the Game's The Documentary in their spare time? Or any rap at all?

The reason, say, Sean Combs or Russell Simmons has been able to hobnob with all of the above is because they respect (worship?) the power of the dollar, the commerce � and hence commercial � aspect of the billion-dollar rap music industry. Hiphop dominates American pop culture largely because the US thrives on capitalism, and whoever can do that dance � whether in baggy jeans and tattoos or Brooks Brothers suits � is celebrated and welcome at the table. Some call this progress; make your own judgment. Just don't believe the culture or the community it comes from is being respected by the powers-that-be. It's the bling.

Lately, I've come to realize that hiphop will never be as large here in Paris as it is in America for precisely this reason. In France, big business isn't valued like that. The Fortune 500 listing bears this out: American corporations top the list regularly, with the first French companies beginning to appear somewhere in the 50s. On a whole, the French finance their companies privately rather than publicly through the stock exchange. What this means in terms of hiphop is, even if French MCs like Tandem were to start selling Eminem-level numbers, the Parisian public wouldn't suddenly accord rap more respect just because. The "cash rules everything around me" outlook only holds true depending on what part of the globe you rest your head.

Accordingly, jazz is neither less valued nor less valuable in Paris based on how many Joshua Redman CDs sell out à la Fnac.

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