Joshua Redman has made some fine albums in the past, including Timeless Tales (For Changing Times) (Warner Bros., 1998), Passage of Time (Warner Bros., 2001) and Spirit of the Moment Live (Warner Bros., 1995), but he's never recorded one with such clarity of purpose as the self-produced Compass. In keeping with the dual meaning of the title word (alternately a verb to accomplish as well as the noun as a tool of direction) the saxophonist leads two different trios into unfamiliar terrain with authority and aplomb.
The short, two-minute intro to the album is called "Uncharted," and its gentle crescendos sound like nothing so much as an invocation of the creative impulse. Not that Redman and his band mates hadn't already tendered a supplication to the Muse; aligning themselves in various combinations for the three sessions that produced the album stands as a collective act of courage and artistic self-confidence.
The music bristles with vigor throughout. Whether it's the leader plus drummer Brian Blade and bassist Larry Grenadier navigating the contours of "Faraway" or the three teaming with drummer Gregory Hutchinson and bassist Reuben Rogers on "Just Like You," with all involved instinctively dancing an instrumental ballet of sorts, these musicians pirouette around each other ever so gracefully, with nary a misstep on a melody line when not interlocking on a rhythmic phrase.
What's all the more remarkable about Compass is that, while it is Joshua Redman's twelfth recording as a leader (not counting his tenure at the forefront of SF Jazz Collective), it is just his second since returning from his foray into the land of electric groove with The Elastic Band. The preceding Back East (Nonesuch, 2007), showed more than a few signs of uncertainty, as Redman somewhat tentatively reacquainted himself with the textures of acoustic music and the dynamics of a three-piece lineup. This album, in contrast, betrays none of those qualities but rather a strength and certainty all around, centered in the gentle but forcefully wrought horn lines Redman proffers on "Moonlight," a variation of Beethoven's enduring Moonlight Sonata.
Even on lighter pieces such as the whimsically titled "Hutchhiker's Guide," or when he imbues his soprano horn lines with so much gusto on "Round Reuben," Redman sets the tone for the group. His staunch presence in the role of the bandleader is as crucial to the success of the individual tracks as to the end result of Compass in total.
What may be most impressive, however, is that by the time the original material has been traversed (mostly the saxophonist's, with one each from Grenadier and Blade), there's the palpable sense that the Redman has opened himself up to all manner of possibilities for future musical endeavors, proceeding directly from the cathartic self-renewal that is Compass.
Personnel: Joshua Redman: saxophones; Larry Grenadier: bass; Reuben Rogers: bass: Brian Blade:
drums: Gregory Hutchinson: drums.