Start with the obvious play on titles between Sonny Rollins’ 1957 classic Way Out West and saxophonist Joshua Redman’s Back East, and the way each name signals its leader’s change of venue and musical inspiration. Replicate a couple of tunes—in ’57 Rollins played “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels,” and 50 years later so does Redman. Then note that like Rollins’ iconic explorations of the piano-less trio, Redman offers his own spin on the concept and what emerges, with guest stints from tenor Joe Lovano and Redman’s late father Dewey, is a masterful moment in an already impressive career.
On Back East, Redman uses three rhythm sections to great effect. The opener, a warm, propulsive “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and five other tracks feature Larry Grenadier on bass and Ali Jackson on drums. Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland are all power on the title track and the two updated Rollins acknowledgements. Bassist Christian McBride and Brian Blade join forces for Wayne Shorter’s “India Song” and “Zarafah,” a Redman original. Subtlety and certitude mark these performances all around. There are the exotic tunes, some explicitly open and meditative that achieve an “Eastern” feeling in which rhythms seem more implied than stated, though Redman’s own “Indonesia” moves to a tambourine’s shake. But mostly there is confidence throughout as Redman creates a multitude of tonal colors on both tenor and soprano sax to mark and match the tempos set by his various collaborators. Redman can cry, all reedy and plaintive—sounding (listen to the cover of Coltrane’s “India”), or blow full and brassy through the changes on “I’m an Old Cowhand.” Back East cannily displays Redman’s talents and successfully echoes jazz tradition while actively extending it.