May 27, 2005


Playing the Diplomatic Changes (BEN RATLIFF, 5/27/05, NY Times)

THE saxophonist Joshua Redman is one of the most visible jazz musicians of the last 15 years, which says something not just about his natural flow as an improviser and his command as a bandleader, but also about his willingness to use words. The chance to represent jazz to the outside world involves a certain amount of rhetoric, and Mr. Redman has risen to that challenge in a friendly, nearly guileless way.

Since at least 1996, when he released "Freedom in the Groove," Mr. Redman, now 36, has been advancing a theory of why jazz can and should share a space with pop. It has to do with sincerity as much as form: acknowledging what musicians truly listen to as they grow up and develop, as much as figuring out a way to make jazz phrasing fit over backbeats. Ultimately, he is playing what he likes and trying to make jazz records that in a gingerly way reflect advances in pop.

"Art, in the world of honest emotional experience, is never about absolutes, or favorites, or hierarchies, or number ones," he wrote in the liner notes to "Freedom in the Groove." "These days, I listen to, love, and am inspired by all forms of music ... I feel in much of 90's hip-hop a bounce, a vitality, and a rhythmic infectiousness which I have always felt in the bebop of the 40's and 50's. 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 60's avant-garde."

What he plays reflects the noncombative nature of those liner notes, and nothing he has said or played has come back to haunt him - even as jazz has increasingly come to be seen by some as endangered by pop rather than enriched by it. He currently plays with his trio, the Elastic Band, veering back and forth between mainstream jazz and different versions of funk and pop. [...]

Recently, while in town with the SFJazz Collective, Mr. Redman agreed to listen to a few pieces of music (not his own) that he had chosen; the goal was a conversation about how the music works and the possible musical ideals it suggests to him. In preparation, he came up with two different lists and nearly 30 records, including Led Zeppelin, D'Angelo, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett and Bjork. But it was pretty easy to condense them. For Mr. Redman, all other interests recede when you bring up Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. One other choice got in, a current band that many younger musicians see as a creative ideal in jazz: the Paul Motian-Joe Lovano-Bill Frisell trio.

In the Beginning, Rollins

Mr. Rollins is the living exemplar of narrative structure in jazz improvisation, and that is principally what Mr. Redman has absorbed from him: the logical, symmetrical, advancing and recapitulating storytelling impulse. We listened to "St. Thomas," the calypso track from Mr. Rollins's 1956 album "Saxophone Colossus."

"It's funny," Mr. Redman said as the track started. "I actually haven't listened to this album for many years. But I went through a period where this was literally the only thing I listened to. I discovered it shortly after I started playing the saxophone, when I was 10. I'd certainly listened to a lot of jazz records - a lot of Coltrane, some Miles, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, you know, the musicians who my father was associated with." (Dewey Redman played with Mr. Coleman from 1967 to 1974, and with Mr. Jarrett from 1971 to 1976.)

"My mom couldn't afford to buy me that many records," he added, "so I went to the public library in Berkeley, checked this out, came home, put it on, and here was the first track. And it was, for me, as monumental an experience as I've had listening to music." [...]

Mr. Redman knew he wanted to talk about Coltrane but thought it might be too obvious, and then fretted about what to choose. He felt, he said, that the suite "A Love Supreme" was too sacred to pick apart, so he chose "Transition," an album from 1965. It is one of the last recordings of the intact Coltrane quartet, with the pianist McCoy Tyner, the bassist Jimmy Garrison and the drummer Elvin Jones.

"It's pretty long, so let's just play it and start talking," he said. "It's going to be a little sacrilegious for me - but, hey."

"Transition" isn't cited often as anyone's favorite album. In the timeline of Coltrane's career, it sits just inside the period when he began making individual pieces that sounded rather alike, sometimes built on a single mode. What does Mr. Redman hear in it?

"The sheer force of it," he said quickly. "As far as a single piece of Coltrane with the classic quartet, it has perhaps the greatest force, impact, feeling of surrender; you know, abandon, devotion. I had been listening to Coltrane since the day I was born, probably, but someone turned me on to this record in college."

Trane to the Next Level

After Berkeley High School, Mr. Redman went to Harvard in 1987, eventually completing a B.A. degree and graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, while edging closer to jazz and playing with musicians from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the summertime.

"Someone from Berklee hipped me to this," he said. "I think it might have been Mark Turner, I don't quite remember, but someone said, man, if you think the other stuff is potent, check this out. I remember thinking, how could it get more intense?"

(Coltrane moves up to the next level in his soloing, chipping up his fast and assured middle-register runs with high shrieks on the tenor saxophone.)

"With this track, from the beginning, there's no intro, there's no lead-in," Mr. Redman said. "It's just, like, bam: here we are at the apex. You can't go any higher. Yet they keep climbing and climbing, and then they come down a little bit, and then they climb again."

We started it over again from the beginning: Jones hits the downbeat and Coltrane lines out a scale. "You know, that was the melody, basically," Mr. Redman said. "It's so simple. And just the quality of Trane's sound - it sounds like he's screaming and praying at the same time. I mean, he's playing so much horn, so much technically, so much harmonically; the constituent elements of what he's playing are so complex. Yet it's like he's trying to blow the horn apart and just play his emotions through the instrument."

Mr. Redman said he was moved by it spiritually, but then added that he was not a religious person. So what does he mean?

Apologizing for sounding new agey, he said: "At certain times in my life this music has kind of swept me up and transported me to a place where I can sense that there is something greater than the material existence of things. And a fabric that binds the material world together, and offers an escape from that world."

"This is definitely one of the last for this band where everything is still happening around a tonic center, a mode," Mr. Redman continued. "It's in D-something: D-Phrygian, D-Dorian. And they're still operating in these even-numbered bar phrases. Not when Coltrane's playing, but the way McCoy and Elvin interact, every 16 bars, there's that big crash on the cymbal and the bass drum, and McCoy playing the root and the fifth. That was a style that they introduced in '62 or '63, I guess, but here you hear it at its furthest development.

"You can hear the band pushing the limits of its style. You can hear Trane's desire to escape. Part of Elvin is pushing in that direction too, but part of him wants to stay, wants to keep those cycles in place."

A Regular Working Band

It's still mysterious, I said, how Coltrane started going all-out during this period, just as a matter of course. "Yeah," he said, "I can't imagine doing that. But the sense you get from Trane is total commitment. I think that exists for all of us jazz musicians, as this ideal. I mean, he's like an ideal type, a Platonic ideal."

We still eagerly await the rematch between Mr. Redman and Yo-yo Ma to settle the question of which music is better; classical or jazz>

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2005 8:51 AM

OJ, do you go for the planned, or the unplanned?

The problem with unplanned is that it tends to fall into the habitual "whatever comes naturally" category. Music must be written down in scores to be great, releasing the composer from his habits and the tyranny of real time. Then it is freed, potentially becoming contemplative and transcendent.

Posted by: Randall Voth at May 27, 2005 10:06 AM


Posted by: oj at May 27, 2005 10:13 AM

I remember someone's signature in a music forum as follows:

"Mozart teaches us what it is to be Mozart. Beethoven teaches us what it is to be human. Bach teaches us what it is to be God."

Posted by: Randall Voth at May 27, 2005 10:20 AM

Not human, just Beethoven.

Posted by: oj at May 27, 2005 10:28 AM

The beauty of jazz is that the structures (chord changes, arrangements) provide a framework for improvisation and personal expression. To overuse an analogy, it's like the institutions of liberal democracy making true freedom possible. Listen to a great Ellington piece or one of Benny Carter's arrangements for Lionel Hampton, and you'll hear the perfect interplay between structure and personal expression that leads to great art.

Posted by: Foos at May 27, 2005 12:30 PM

jazz odyssey.

Posted by: cjm at May 27, 2005 12:45 PM

My favorite part of Redman's career path is that he turned down Yale Law to play jazz fulltime.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 27, 2005 4:06 PM

A similar quote I have seen is: "It is often times said that when God wishes to hear music, He commands the playing of Bach. When the angels wish it, they request Mozart."

Posted by: jd watson at May 27, 2005 5:43 PM

Well, I listen to Buddy Rich when I'm writing. Have no idea if he'd be allowed into heaven.

I don't like Joshua Redman. For saxophone, I prefer Joe Henderson or Joe Lovano.

I have been to a solo Yo-Yo Ma concert and he was fantastic. Rostropovich, however, is immortal. If you ever want to know what modern classical music is all about, you must listen to Mstislav Rostropovich.

Posted by: Randall Voth at May 27, 2005 7:36 PM

Randall - If Buddy Rich got into Heaven, then He has really lowered his standards. I spoke to the man once (I was 17), and he cursed at me.

Besides, I'm pretty sure the house rhythm section in Heaven is Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. (At least it would be if I were Him)....

Redman is a terrific player, but I agree with you: I'd rather listen to one of the Joes.

Posted by: Foos at June 2, 2005 12:23 AM