Joshua Redman Quartet
In the liner notes to his 1996 album Freedom in the Groove, Joshua Redman wrote: Art, in the world of honest emotional experience, is never about absolutes, or favorites, or hierarchies, or “number ones.” The “desert island” scenario is wholly irrelevant to real-life tastes, choices, and attitudes. These days, I listen to, love, and am inspired by all forms of music. And once again, I sense the connections. I feel in much of ’90s hip-hop a bounce, a vitality, and a rhythmic infectiousness which I have always felt in the bebop of the ’40s and ’50s. I hear in some of today’s ‘alternative music’ a rawness, an edge, and a haunting insistence which echoes the intense modalism and stinging iconoclasm of the ’60s avant-garde.
These words had, and continue to have, a profound effect on the way I listen to music. It’s likely that we jazz fans have gone through a phase or two of “jazz snobbery” in our music-listening careers, and not always for bad reasons. Jazz musicians put lots of time, effort, energy and artistry into their music, and for what? The measly three percent of the music buying public that actually pays to listen to their stuff? Probably not. They do it because they love it and would play jazz even if nobody listened (which really isn’t that difficult to imagine, come to think of it). But for the three percent of us who actually do care about the music, it’s easy to deify these musicians. We make them into martyrs—often at their expense—because they are “spreading the jazz gospel”, i.e. doing something that we feel the public could use but just doesn’t have the time, sense or, alas, sophistication to appreciate. We convince ourselves that, as saxophonist Donald Harrison once said, “Jazz can save the world.”
Now, it’s one thing for a saxophonist like Donald Harrison—who, by the way, has admittedly been influenced by all kinds of music, from soca to calypso to hip-hop—to say “Jazz can save the world.” He probably believes that it can. But he’s a bona fide musician, and, as I just pointed out, he acknowledges that, while he does play jazz, his conception of jazz has been informed by many different kinds of music. What we jazz fans sometimes do, I fear, is play into the idea of jazz as some kind of sublime, timeless entity that resists “contamination” via contact with other (read: lesser) forms of music. This line of thinking is merely a riff on the old prelapsarian myth of “purity” before the Fall, and we’d do good to debunk it. There are no lofty or “pure” origins to which jazz might return. We treat the music as if it existed within a vacuum, untouched by the complex social, cultural and political forces that have surrounded it at all times, from its inception to the present. There is no such vacuum. Jazz exists within in the world just like any other form of music, even if it has a unique position within that world (it’s the only form of music, to my knowledge, that has had such a profound and wide-ranging influence on musicians of all stripes). It’s up to us, then, as responsible jazz fans, to, like Redman says, “sense the connections” between different forms of music and try and gain inspiration from it all.
This has turned into an essay of sorts, and I didn’t intend for that to happen. I’m supposed to be writing a review of the Joshua Redman show that I caught at Yoshi’s a couple of months ago. But background information always helps, and I feel that my diatribe is particularly salient for this occasion. Why? Because after seeing Joshua Redman and his quartet perform live (and after giving his latest album, Beyond, numerous listens) I can safely say that he has come through on his word—and it’s great for the jazz community. When I say that he’s “come through on his word,” I mean that Redman, with this latest incarnation of his group and with the music he’s been writing lately, is really making explicit the things he talked about in those liner notes to Freedom in the Groove. He’s obviously “sensing connections” between different forms of music and embracing those connections, because his music is infused—sometimes in spirit, other times more ostensibly—with everything from rock to hip-hop to Eastern music. And it all makes sense, proving that in the world of music, influence is of a circular nature, confined not by genre boundaries but by people who would rather live with those artificial, socially constructed boundaries in place.
And that’s why I’m such a fan of Redman’s music—because it works to deconstruct those boundaries. What we’re left with is not ambiguous, pointlessly eclectic music that sits on the fence, eluding classification for elusion’s sake, but stuff that really seems new and fresh and crosses the so-called boundaries in a thoughtful—and thought-provoking—manner. If it’s true that there’s nothing new under the sun, we can at least try and figure out new ways of configuring the raw material at our disposal. By taking other forms of music seriously (Many of which were influenced by jazz in the first place—See? It is circular!) and finding ways to incorporate them into his own aesthetic, Joshua Redman is doing just that.
The show at Yoshi’s, then, served more as a confirmation for me that Redman is succeeding in his quest to make “music,” not just “jazz.” It helps that he’s got a great new group: pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. I caught this group back in April in Seattle, and was amazed to see how much progress they’d made in just a little over four months. A number of the songs they performed at Yoshi’s—mostly from Beyond, Redman’s latest album—had undergone noticeable changes, and the group members seemed much more comfortable in each other’s presence. This was no more evident than on the opening tune, “Leap of Faith.” After two intense, well-thought-out solos by Redman and Goldberg, the saxophonist, accompanied by Goldberg and Rogers, laid down a wicked 7/4 groove over which Hutchinson soloed, practically tearing up his drum kit in the process. Redman got so excited that, in the middle of it all, he had to take the saxophone out of his mouth to let out a loud exclamation, cheering Hutchinson on. This, in turn, got the crowd into it, and several audience members—this one included—felt the uncanny urge to sound off in praise of the group’s effort. It was amazing. For a moment, I felt like I was at a rock concert or a hip-hop show—the energy in the air was electric.
The group performed the rest of the material with similar aplomb. Highlights included Reuben Rogers’ funky, nimble-fingered intro to “Suspended Emanations”; Goldberg’s weird, Herbie-esque (as in Hancock) runs on the same tune; Redman’s intriguing dialogue with Goldberg (trading eights, then fours) on “Belonging”; and the stunning group empathy exhibited on the tricky, odd-metered Redman composition “Our Minuet,” an as-of-yet-unreleased tune that, Redman said, should be on the next album. The group also pulled off a beautiful reading of Redman’s lovely “Twilight...And Beyond,” a composition that, like many of Redman’s songs, evokes a wide variety of moods and colors.
And that, to me, is what Redman’s music is all about. The technical prowess that he and his fellow group members possess is not valuable in-and-of-itself, but only as a means to more expressive ends. Interestingly, Redman has written that, when it comes to his music, he’d like people to focus primarily on what kinds of moods his songs (or his arrangements of other people’s songs) bring out. This appeal to the emotions may seem somewhat namby-pamby, but it is grounded in the very real notion that you, the listener, can, in Redman’s own words, “...take these moods and use them as windows to your own souls.” As Redman continues to progress and grow as a musician, the moods that his songs evoke are increasingly complex and nuanced. Jazz may not be able to “save the world”—props to Donald Harrison for giving it a good faith effort, though—but it will always have that unique potential to, as pianist Brad Mehldau has written, “...[take] leads from pop music of its day, and [reanimate] the stylistic garment into something transfigured by the forces of its composition and improvisation.” Which is to say that jazz musicians should really focus in on their talent for reconfiguring things and reanimating material in heretofore unheard of ways. Joshua Redman is doing that very thing right now, and you’d be silly to miss him if he’s touring in your neck of the woods.