Joshua Redman: Takes On The Challenge of the Trio

R.J. DeLuke By

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Joshua Redman, one of the most consistently creative musicians of his generation, a fiend on whatever saxophone he chooses to pick up, and a thoughtful, imaginative person, is at it again.

He's not re-inventing the wheel, he says with a chuckle when discussing Back East (Nonesuch, 2007). But this exploring musician has gone back to an acoustic format. Specifically, a piano-less trio, the type of thing Sonny Rollins wowed critics with in the 1950s. Others have done it too. It's not even new to Redman, but it's a change after playing for the last couple of years in a larger band —the SFJazz Collective—and his more groove-based Elastic Band that features guitar, keyboards and other electronics.

Back East is at once an examination of the trio format, a dabbling into Eastern music elements that have intrigued Redman over the years, a tribute to some of his great influences of the past—Rollins, Stan Getz, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter— and a re-acquaintance with some present day saxmen that have been an inspiration to him. It also, even if inadvertently, presents some poignant musical moments with his father, Dewey Redman, the saxophonist extraordinaire who died months after the recording. The Back East is the last time the pair played together. It was the last time Joshua saw his dad except for just prior to his death when the extent of the illness beckoned the son from his California home to New York.

Redman isn't new to this trio format. He played it a lot jamming around the Boston scene while going to school at Harvard University. After graduating summa cum laude, then deciding to turn down his acceptance to Yale Law School and move to New York to pursue music, he experienced the trio setting there as well. "But it's never been a format that I've chosen to tour extensively with or to record with. I think part of the reason is I never really felt ready. I'm not entirely sure that I'm ready now, he says with a disarming chuckle.

Redman, always one who likes a musical challenge, was looking for another project. He said his work in the last couple of years in aggregations that were thick with sound, by the sheer number of players and by context, led him to seek out something more stripped-down.

As simple as it may seem, the piano-less trio is not an area where players should tread lightly. Redman approaches it with respect. In his playing and writing there's introspection that leads to invention. There's experimentation that leads to discovery. There are thoughtfully written schemes over which to improvise. And there is a good fit with the three rhythm sections he chose to help carry out his ideas. This is done by the teams of Christian McBride on bass with Brian Blades on drums; Larry Grenadier on bass and Ali Jackson on drums; and the bass of Reuben Rogers with drummer Eric Harland. They are not musical strangers to Redman, and so there is a cohesiveness achieved. The guest artists, saxophonists Joe Lovano, Chris Cheek and Dewey Redman, are all people who Redman respects a great deal.

As Back East implies in the title, it's an album that has Eastern musical influences on many of the tunes, whether it's Coltrane's "India or Redman's own "Zarafah. But that's not the whole disk. He said he heard Rollins' classic Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957) for the first time in years and it inspired him to investigate some of that music ("I'm An Old Cowhand and "Wagon Wheels ). There are also nods to Trane, Shorter and Getz. But through it all, Redman remains himself. His facility on the horn, as always remarkable, enables him to spread his sound across the arrangements with power, when need be, but also with of and interesting phrasing befitting some of the music he heard growing up.

"I guess I craved the intimacy and the openness of trio, says Redman. "I felt like maybe I had gotten to a place, musically, where I felt ready to take on a project like this. That's kind of how it started.

The music makes a strong statement and further entrenches Redman as one of the most captivating artists on the scene, always worthy of one's attention. His reworking of songs done by Rollins is superb, because it is re-working, and Redman carries his own sound and attitude. His playful lines with Lovano show two saxophonists who love to see what is going on in the moment. And his work with his father shows a simpatico between the two, and yet shows two distinct artists in their own right. The support by all three rhythm sections is excellent.

Not many people are making albums like this. But Redman is one who puts his passion for the music first and not business considerations. He realizes that to be a successful artist, music has to be done for the love of it. He has always looked for ways to be creative, to step forward. He's succeeded here.

Just prior to going out on tour in support of the new music with a trio—a journey that will take him to places like the Montreal Jazz Festival, as well as several dates in Europe—Redman spoke with All About Jazz about the music on his eleventh recording as a leader.

All About Jazz: The new CD is not only a return to acoustic, but a piano-less trio. How did it come about for you? How did it get in your mind that you wanted to do it?

Joshua Redman: It's always been an exciting context for me to work in because of all the freedom there is. Without piano or guitar, or a dedicated harmonic instrument, there's a tremendous amount of freedom that's available to all of us, the saxophonist in particular. There's a lot of harmonic freedom and along with that comes a great deal of melodic freedom. It's a very open context, but it's also kind of raw, naked and intimate context as well. But it's really challenging, because when you don't have a dedicated harmonic instrument, all the harmonic responsibility essentially falls upon the saxophonist and the bassist. It can be intimidating. It took me a while before I thought I was ready to do a whole project devoted to that sound and that approach.

The time just felt right. The two main bands I had been working with before this, the Elastic Band and the SF Jazz Collective, were very thick bands. In the case of the Jazz Collective, it's an eight-piece ensemble with a four-horn front line, vibes and piano. You've got a lot of harmony. In the Elastic Band, even though it was only three or four musicians, once again there was a lot of sound. Lots of keyboards, guitars, effects.

Originally, I thought I just wanted to do a trio record. I had some material and I'd get deeper into that and craft some songs for that format. Then these other concepts started to take shape. This idea of doing these arrangements of these tunes Sonny Rollins had done on Way Out West. Then it took on all these other concepts that started to emerge.

AAJ: I was listening to Sonny's Way Out West to see the contrast. It was interesting.

JR: Yeah. [laughs]. When I was working on this music, I kind of heard that (Way Out West) again for the first time in maybe ten years. I was really inspired to immediately try my own takes on some of that music. But I don't really like to listen to myself next to Sonny Rollins. [chuckles] It's a pretty humbling experience. I try not to play the music back to back. I don't play my record at all so that makes it easy.

AAJ: It sounds good, and you didn't give the exact same feel to it.

JR: That was really important. That would have been musical suicide if I tried to do the same arrangement and approach of Sonny Rollins. Obviously his influence is huge on me. He's probably my biggest influence as a saxophonist and as an improviser. But the way I tried to approach the music was with different grooves, different tempos, different arrangements. In the case of "Wagon Wheels, a completely different coloration. Sonny Rollins did it slow, loping, kind of cowboy-ish song. My approach has more of a Middle Eastern flavor to it. It has a different time signature, a different key.

AAJ:You have a lot of Eastern feel and influence in some of the tunes you use on the recording.

JR: It's there. It's something that is part of my musical upbringing and musical roots. But not in a studied way at all. My mom [Renee Shedroff] exposed me to all kinds of music at a very early age. Not just Western music, like jazz and classical and rock and funk—which I was exposed a lot to. She was a dancer and she loved Indian dance and music and Indonesian dance and music. She took me to a lot of concerts. In the Bay area [Oakland area, where Redman grew up] in the early '70s, there was a lot of opportunity to experience those non-Western art forms.

I feel like those sounds are there. They've always been there, kind of a part of my musical perspective; the way my ears are tuned to harmony and to melody. But I never really studied that music. To the extent that those sounds come out in my music—and in this record they come out in a lot more explicit way than in previous projects—it's not through a deep knowledge or analysis of those forms. It's not in a formal way. I don't know different ragas, I don't play with different beats cycles that come in a structural way from these musics. It's more just a feel and a flavoring that in a certain sense have to do more with these musical sounds that have been in my ears for a long time, since I was very young.

I should stress that there are a lot of jazz musicians out there that have immersed themselves in these musics and really know them. I'm not one of those musicians. I haven't studied the form.

AAJ:Some of the other tunes taken from Wayne Shorter, Coltrane. That's obviously from their influence on you as a saxophonist.

JR:Yeah. Originally when I started working on the material, I was focusing mostly on original compositions. Then I had this burst of inspiration to arrange those Sonny Rollins Songs from Way Out West. After I was done I felt ... not satisfied, but like: Wow. I can do this now. I can take these songs that were recorded and played by these iconic saxophone players and do them in a way that wasn't just repetition, re-creation. I could do them in a way where I felt I could really have my own sound and identity through them.

Once I did the Sonny Rollins songs, it opened the door to involving myself musically with some of my other saxophone influences, so I decided to do a Coltrane ["India ] song and the Wayne Shorter song ["Indian Song ]. "East of the Sun, West of the Moon, even though Stan Getz didn't write it, it's a song I associate with him. I know it from a record he did called West Coast Jazz (Universal, 1955), which also fell into this east-west concept.

This idea of influences, saxophone influences in particular, became a part of the project. Through that I was inspired to ask some great saxophonists who I knew, who were influences—my father and Chris Speed and Joe Lovano—to play with me.

It started because I just wanted to do a trio record. Little by little these other concepts started to emerge to the point where there are so many different layers. It's nice. I've always shunned the idea of a concept record, in the sense that I never want the concepts to dictate the music, I want the concepts to flow from the music. In this sense I kind of felt like they did. But in the end, the only value, if there is value, is the music itself.

AAJ:How much time do you spend writing? Is it difficult? Is it something that you do just when you feel it? Or can you sit down and write when you have to on a deadline?

JR:Yes. [laughs]. I don't have a method. When I started working on the music for this project, some of the music was already written. But there were a few months when I kind of created all of the music, whether it was original or arranged. It came in that burst. With writing it comes in waves for me sometimes. I'll go through long periods when I don't write anything, and then I might have a burst of creativity, or I feel inspired or focused to do that.

I'm starting to realize that writing doesn't necessarily have to be this mystical creative process that I used to think it was. I used to think, "I can't write anything until I'm inspired. And I can't summon inspiration. So it just kind of has to happen when it happens. Part of me still feels like that, but a part of me also feels like part of it is just making the commitment to write. If I say I'm going to just sit down and write, that doesn't really mean I'm going to sit down and immediately write this incredible tune, but... Part of it is just the process, committing yourself to the process, and through the process you'll find something. I might start writing a tune that may get jettisoned, but there's some kernel that comes out of it; it becomes the seed for something else.

If I want to be more prolific as a writer, it's kind of simple. I just have to write more. [laughs].

AAJ:Which isn't always easy.

JR:: Which isn't. Especially when you have a kid.

AAJ:I know that...The rhythm sections you picked, you know them and have played with them. Was it a certain feel you wanted from them? Why did you pick them?

JR:I picked each rhythm section first of all because individually, these guys are among my favorite musicians. But also because I had played with each rhythm section a fair amount in different contexts. I'd also played with of them in trio. They're all great and they're all very different. I like the idea of a variety of sounds and approaches for this record. I still wanted it to be very focused, and hopefully it is. But because it's such a simple format from an instrumental standpoint, one of the challenges is having variety, having different tunes sound and feel different. Because when you don't have the chords, you sometimes run the risk of everything sounding the same. I like the idea of having these different flavors and this variety. I thought having different rhythm sections would help. I knew each one would have a unique approach and hopefully bring something exciting to it.

AAJ:Joe Lovano, Chris Speed and your father, how was that planned? Especially with your father. Did you say, "Yeah. I want him to be on this record, or did it evolve differently?

JR:At a certain point I thought about having some special guests and in particular having some saxophonists who had been big influences on me at different times in my musical development. It fit with the concept of playing the music of these great master saxophonists like Coltrane and Rollins and Shorter and Getz, who I had never met or interacted with, but were big influences. I liked the idea of bringing in some saxophonists who were huge influences, but in a more direct way. Musicians I had played with, saxophonists I had listened to and played with. I naturally thought of each of these guys. Each them is from a different generation. Each has been a big influence on me in different ways at different times.

As far as my Dad, I asked him to play a tune on my next record. I wasn't sure what he was going to say. Every time we played together before this, it was always, as it should have been, in one of his projects, in his band or on his record. I didn't know what he was going to say, but he said yes. At that point I asked Joe and Chris and they both said yes.

AAJ:That has to be one of the last recordings your father made.

JR:Yeah. I don't know that he did another recording after that. He recorded that in the middle of May [2006] and passed away very early in September.

AAJ:I know he was still out playing.

JR:Yeah, he did some gigs. I don't know that he went into the studio after that. It was the last time that we played together. It was the first time we recorded together for over ten years and the first time we played together for, I think, five. It was the last time we recorded together and played together and actually the last time I saw him until right before he passed away.

AAJ:Those two songs must have a special feel for you.

JR:Yeah. "India, that was the tune we were supposed to do. I came up with an idea for a simple arrangement that I thought would be nice for us to play together. I was really happy with the way it turned out. We both had a lot of fun. It was nice to play a Coltrane tune, which was appropriate. I really liked the interaction that happened between us.

That's true with all the saxophone players. I really tried to structure the tune so it wasn't really just about two tenor players playing a bunch of tenor player stuff. I really wanted each song in a different way, in its own way, to feel like a conversation. That worked out really well with my Dad.

"GJ was kind of a surprise. He asked to record something without me. He did it one take. I wasn't even there. I stepped out of the studio. It's a dedication to his grandson, to my son, who was born in February (2006). He had met time one time, in April. So that song, originally, I didn't know what we were going to do with it. I didn't know if I was necessarily going to put it on the album. But after he passed away, it has a lot of significance and I thought it would be a nice coda.

AAJ:The disk sounds great. You have gigs with that format?

JR:I've got a gig in Boston coming up with Christian and Brian. Right after that I go to D.C. and play four nights with Larry and Ali, then in June I start touring with Reuben and Eric, so I'm actually gigging at different times with all three rhythm sections.

AAJ:Any idea about future projects?

JR: I haven't toured that much over the last year and a half. Mostly with the Jazz Collective and that's only been about a month and a half out of the year. So I want to focus on getting back out there with the trio and playing the music, and hopefully writing some new music.

I have a lot of ideas about future projects, but I kind of don't like talking about them until I start to do them. I try not to get too far ahead of myself. I try to be in the moment as much as possible.

Selected Discography

Joshua Redman, Back East (Nonesuch, 2007)
SFJazz Collective, SFJazz Collective 2 (Nonesuch, 2006)
Joshua Redman, Momentum (Nonesuch, 2005)
SFJazz Collective, SFJazz Collective (Nonesuch, 2005)
Kurt Rosenwinkel, Deep Song (Verve, 2005)

Roy Haynes, Love Letters (Columbia, 2003)
Joshua Redman, Elastic (Warner Bros., 2002)
Yaya3, Yaya3 (Loma, 2002)
Joshua Redman, Beyond (Warner Bros., 2000)
Joshua Redman, Passage of Time (Warner Bros., 2001)
Joshua Redman, Timeless Tales (For Changing Times) (Warner Bros., 1998)
Chick Corea, Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch, 1997)
Joshua Redman, Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros., 1995)
Joshua Redman, Moodswing (Warner Bros., 1994)
McCoy Tyner, Prelude and Sonata (Milestone, 1994)
Joshua Redman, Wish (Warner Bros., 1993)
Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band, Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band (Winter&Winter, 1992)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Marianne Hamann-Weiss
Bottom Photo: Ben Johnson

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