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Dewey Redman: The Sound of a Giant

R.J. DeLuke By

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If you got the technique and I got a good sound, I?ll beat you every time. You can play a thousand notes and I can play one note and wipe you out.
Dewey Redman has been on the scene for a long time, adding his musicianship to diverse musical settings with a long list of great jazz artists, and pursing his own challenging projects. It seems that each path he has taken, he has done so in a manner that speaks to who he is: straightforward and genuine.

Whether it's stomping out blues or bop, playing free with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, spicing up the work of Pat Metheny or Keith Jarrett, or performing in larger groups like Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra, this Texas tenor is always up to the task. He adds his sound, which can both warm and excite any setting. He has something to say.

One of the last of his generation of outstanding tenor saxophonists, Redman is still playing great and is still adventurous. But it gets kinda weird sometimes, because in today's mass media-fed society, many people only know him as Joshua Redman's father. Often, he's kind of taken for granted in the jazz community. But it doesn't dissuade him. The accolades would be nice, of course. But the artist keeps on moving, and creating and is grateful for the things that have come his way.

Diagnosed six years ago with prostate cancer, the Fort Worth native — transplanted to New York City since 1967 — was able to beat it and go on. He has also been able to stay afloat in the very unstable world of the jazz music business, which has been unkind to many in the past and is in a period that has just about everyone shaking their heads and shaking the bushes for gigs and recording opportunities.

"I'm lucky to be here. You know what I mean? At this point, I'm 72 and a lot of my colleagues didn't make it," he says. "To think that the great John Coltrane, who I knew personally when I lived in San Francisco — I used to have conferences with him whenever he came to San Francisco — he passed at 41, which is a terrible tragedy."

"I'm a survivor," he says.

Along the way, he has amassed a great track record. His work with boyhood friend Ornette is well known. The controversial art produced in the 1960s by that aggregation of musicians is more accepted today, but they had to survive the slings of many arrows at the time. In doing so, Redman put his stamp on some important music of the time. He has also played with Old and New Dreams, made up of Coleman band mates Cherry, Haden and Ed Blackwell, and led his own groups. He's performed with other illustrious musicians in his long career, and doesn't show any signs of stopping. The distinct sound of his horn will be heard for some time to come, it appears. And that's a good thing.

Like so many of his generation, an identifiable sound has always been important to Redman. "I can't be critical of other musicians or other saxophonists. But back then, you could listen to Coleman Hawkins and tell that it was Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young and it was Lester Young. The same with John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. You could tell the difference. Today, we're in the post-Coltrane era where a lot of saxophonists are still in the Coltrane genre," he says. "It's not only saxophones, it's like that in other areas. For example, female singers. I guess I'm getting old. Back then, I could tell the difference between Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae. And Sarah Vaughan and whoever. But today, they all sound the same to me. I can't tell one from the other. Times change. That was then and this is now."

What doesn't change is Redman's approach to his instrument, and his open-minded approach to his art.

"In my world, that's the first thing I reach for is the sound. Technique is Ok, but if you got the technique and I got a good sound, I'll beat you every time. You can play a thousand notes and I can play one note and wipe you out. That's what I reach for is a sound."

He's a self-taught player who "learned by trial and error and watching other saxophone players do what I do and asking them questions. That's the best lessons in the world." Those lessons, he says, will soon be published in an instructional book. And through it all, whether it be blues, bop, free or pop, Redman has a simple — even if somewhat self-effacing — way of categorizing himself: "I think of myself as a country boy from Texas trying to make it in the big city."

"If you listen to my records, I'm not just in one dimension or one style. I play some blues, which is from Texas. I play ballads. Some avant-garde. I like all of the above. If I played in one style all night it would bore me."

Redman's first job after college and a stint in the Army was as a schoolteacher, and he planned to keep it that way. But music began to have a stronger pull and led him on a path.

"My folks had an old record player and the used to play Duke Ellington and all that. I always liked music, so at the age of 13 I decided I wanted to play." His parents did not play instruments, but Redman surmises that he had a musical link in the family.

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