Joshua Redman: Playing Through the Changes

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Joshua Redman
By Peter Hannert
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Joshua Redman
By Michael Wilson
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Joshua Redman
By Michael Wilson

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From his first confident step onto the national stage with his triumph at the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, he soloed with preternatural maturity, improvising with a beguiling blend of recklessness and poise. Off the bandstand, his demeanor was similarly engaging. Bright and curious, thoughtful and garrulous, Redman emerged as an irresistible story, the scion of a jazz legend who was giving up a slot at an Ivy League law school to pursue a life in music. Gary Giddins, one of Redman’s earliest champions, captured the compelling appeal of his music for many jazz lovers when he wrote in a 1993 “Weather Bird” column that the saxophonist’s sound “answers a need I didn’t know I had…. Not since David Murray’s debut 18 years ago has a tenor saxophonist filled a role I didn’t know was lacking, the absence of which now seems unimaginable.”

Whether Redman has lived up to that deeply felt sense of expectation is for each listener to decide. But as he completes the journey from young star to mid-career veteran, the 38-year-old Redman is also in the midst of several life transitions, passages that seem to resonate powerfully in his music. In a conversation over tea at a café not far from his home in Oakland, Calif., Redman talks about the recent changes in his life, beginning with the birth of his son Jadon in February 2006.

“As everybody does leading up to parenthood, I had a lot of questions,” Redman says. “How am I going to feel? Am I going to love my child? Am I going to know what to do? And the thing that was amazing to me was that instantaneously, I knew what to do. I’m a very rational, analytical person, and music has always been an escape from my brain. That’s where I really experienced myself emotionally, viscerally and instinctually. Outside of music, I’m always thinking about things, trying to figure them out and second-guessing myself, rather than responding to instinct. In this case biological programming and instinct just took over. This is what I’m here for. This is the most important thing in my life. This is my meaning.”

Looking fit but a little peaked from jetlag a day after flying home from a tour of Asia with the SFJAZZ Collective, Redman keeps coming back to the subject of parenthood. After talking about his son’s anchoring force on his own life, he mentions the passing of his father, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, last September. In becoming a parent, one experiences the miracle of life beginning. In losing a parent, one is forced to confront mortality. For Redman, the confluence of life and death has made for an emotional whipsaw that continues to reverberate.

“The past year has been a year of huge change on every level: musical, artistic, physical, emotional,” Redman says. “I was there in the room when my dad passed away. That and being in the room when my son was born were, without question, the two most profound and powerful experiences of my life. I’ve never really felt like I lived in the moment, except through music, until very recently. Now when I’m present, I’m really present. I don’t know if that’s a reaction against all these heavy things going on and all this change, or maybe all that stuff has galvanized my soul, and I’m really focusing on the moment and what’s immediate.”

Having grown up in Berkeley, where families come in just about every imaginable configuration, Redman is quick to say that there’s no real norm anymore when it comes father/son relationships. But there’s certainly nothing typical about how he and Dewey got to know each other. In many ways he forged a relationship with his father in the public eye, particularly when he started touring and recording with him after winning the Monk Competition and moving to New York City. While the jazz world loved the storyline about Dewey taking Joshua under his wing, it was a fraught apprenticeship with a father he had only intermittent contact with while growing up.

“It was a very unique relationship,” says Redman, who was raised by his mother, the dancer and librarian Renee Shedroff. “I didn’t grow up with him, and we went through periods when we were speaking a lot, and periods when we weren’t speaking a lot. Periods when I think we both felt very close, and periods when we didn’t. But my father lived a good life, a full life and a long life. He made great music, and he had amazing people to support him. He used to say that his wife Lidija saved his life, and I think that’s true.”

As Redman talks about his family, it’s clear that he’s still working out a tangled skein of feelings, but then conversing with Redman is always a singular experience. Like just most artists who do numerous interviews, he sometimes lapses into set pieces, repeating anecdotes about the project that’s on the agenda. But more than most musicians, Redman gives the impression that the act of speaking is part of his process for figuring out what he believes. He changes courses, contradicts himself, tries out an idea for size, and after several reformulations settles on a conclusion that feels right. It’s the blessing and curse of a probing and candidly undoctrinaire mind. Rather than wedging his experiences into a tidy mold, he’s weighing his perceptions and feelings as he talks. Which isn’t to say that he’s not guarded at times. When the subject of SFJAZZ comes up, he turns cautious and chooses his words carefully.

The news is that his relationship with the powerful jazz-presenting organization is coming to an end, though the door remains open for future endeavors. As of this summer’s tour, Redman is turning the SFJAZZ Collective’s tenor saxophone chair over to Joe Lovano. And by mutual agreement with the SFJAZZ institution he’s exiting his position as artistic director of SFJAZZ’s Spring Season, an annual concert series that has expanded to include some three-dozen high-profile performances stretching over three months. While his involvement as a programmer has waxed and waned since he took over as artistic director in 2000, Redman has been the first among equals in the Collective, and a key component of the octet’s commercial and artistic success.

Founded in 2004 with a three-year, $300,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation (support that was renewed at a lower level this season), the Collective has been engaged in an exciting experiment as a dual-purpose ensemble dedicated to both exploring jazz repertory and generating new compositions. With national and international tours and two releases on Nonesuch, the project has turned into SFJAZZ’s public face, a moveable jazz feast that carries the organization’s progressive agenda around the world. Each season, the Collective singles out a seminal composer’s work for attention and commissions each member to write a new piece for the ensemble. While the investigations into the music of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk have made for some riveting performances, the Collective has really established its identity through the painstaking process of hammering out the original pieces.

“I feel great about what has happened with the band artistically,” Redman says. “I think the band does something musically that very few if any other bands do. Some of the things we’ve done in the Collective have been among the most challenging and profound that I’ve been involved with, compositionally. I also feel that the past two years have been breakout years for the Collective artistically. Last year felt like the first time we really started to realize the potential, to define ourselves as a band.”

While each season has seen at least one personnel change, through the first three years the band’s core remained intact, with Redman, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Renee Rosnes, altoist Miguel Zenón and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who left the Collective last year and was replaced by Dave Douglas. With the departure of Redman and Stefon Harris taking over the vibraphone chair this summer, the band’s personality is very much in flux. While it doesn’t seem to have hampered its creativity, the Collective has been run with an unwieldy group decision-making process. But where smaller collaborative groups—Fly, with Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, for instance—have fewer personalities to contend with and were initiated by the artists themselves with an inherent sense of communion, the Collective is a top-down creation with a dynamic that’s exponentially more complicated.

“I think that was a realization for me,” Redman says. “I wanted to see this as springing out of the jazz community, like this organic thing, while knowing that obviously it required institutional funding to make it happen. If an institution is creating a band, there’s an artifice, which isn’t bad, but it’s different. It’s not the [Modern Jazz Quartet]. I believe this band does work and can work and there’s a great potential for it to work a lot better. Hopefully it’s a band that can have an identity beyond any one or two or three members.”

If Redman was able to put his stamp on the Collective by facilitating the group’s internal workings, he was less successful in steering the Spring Season’s programming. In his seven years at the helm, the concert series has come to rival SFJAZZ’s centerpiece San Francisco Jazz Festival in terms of scope and visibility. But it has been slow to play a role in presenting leading players of Redman’s generation, like Argentine pianist/composer Guillermo Klein, who makes his California debut in June. It’s a gig that Redman had been advocating since 2000. Clearly grateful for the artistic-director opportunity, Redman is looking forward to now being able to focus more singlemindedly on music.

“At one point I was attracted by this notion that I’ve got something else in my career, not just relying on playing the horn, which seems so volatile and mercurial,” Redman says. “Maybe I started to think I’d be prioritizing that a little bit more. But no, the absolute priority for me is playing, and that’s one of the reasons why I felt it could be good to take a break from being an artistic director. I remain very hopeful about the possibility of working closely with SFJAZZ in the future. But now, I’m finally starting to feel that I’m learning to play the saxophone and play jazz, and that’s the most important thing to me. That’s what I love, that’s why I got into the music.”

Evidence of Redman’s revivified passion for the horn can be found on his new Nonesuch CD, Back East, his most authoritative statement yet. A consistently enthralling project that uses Way Out West, Sonny Rollins’ classic 1957 Riverside album with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, as a touchstone, Back East features a series of bass-and-drums rhythm sections. Larry Grenadier and Ali Jackson join him on the bulk of the album. Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland play on three tracks, while Redman’s longtime comrades Christian McBride and Brian Blade are featured on two pieces. Besides its obvious reference to Way Out West, the first in a series of Rollins’ seminal bass-and-drums trio sessions, the album’s title works on many levels, starting with Redman looking back to the East Coast for his collaborators. While it didn’t seem that way at the time, the most significant meeting was with his father, who brings a majestic sense of drama to the tenor conclave on Coltrane’s “India.” Afterwards, Dewey asked to record a track on alto with just Jackson and Grenadier, a priceless offering that closes the album. “It was just a record date,” Redman says. “He came and played and that was it. It turns out the last time I saw him before he died was in the studio.”

From a Berkeley perspective, looking east speaks to a Pacific Rim orientation. As a child Redman soaked up sounds from various Eastern traditions, particularly Carnatic drumming from South India and gamelan. Beyond the pieces conceived as East/West encounters, such as “India,” Redman’s “Indonesia” and Wayne Shorter’s “Indian Song,” which features a stirring meeting with Joe Lovano on tenor, one can clearly hear Asian influences on the two tunes indelibly linked to Rollins, “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Wagon Wheels.” The album also harkens back to Redman’s early years on the Boston scene when he first met Chris Cheek, who contributes to a sinuous soprano sax dialog on Redman’s insistent “Mantra #5.” For Redman, Cheek’s presence is like a personal yardstick, measuring how far he’s come in developing a personal voice.

“Hearing Chris in Boston, I was just amazed at how complete a player he was, how mature he was, in terms of obviously assimilating all these saxophone influences,” Redman says. “It was the same people we were all checking out; Trane, Rollins, Prez, and he was particularly deep into Shorter and Stan Getz, but he’d done it in such a natural, organic, unselfconscious way. He had this glow and ease to his playing, this natural lyricism: an incredible sound with incredible soul. I always had the sense that he was really singing and telling a story when he was playing. After hearing him, it helped me find my own path through this maze of influences and history and vocabulary and all the things you have to learn.”

It was while he was attending Harvard that Redman first started playing in bass-and-drums settings, one of the most demanding formats for a horn player. He wasn’t consciously seeking out piano-less gigs as much as picking up work wherever he could find it, which often meant playing in joints without a piano or with a budget that barely accommodated three musicians. After moving to New York and joining his father’s piano-less band, he spent almost two years touring and recording with Dewey backed by bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Leroy Williams (or Leon Parker). And he absorbed classic trio albums by Rollins and Joe Henderson, whom he saw perform several times in the Bay Area backed by George Mraz and Al Foster. “Another big influence for me was Branford [Marsalis],” Redman says. “He had an incredible trio with [Jeff “Tain” Watts] and Bob Hurst. Bloomington is my favorite Branford record. For me that’s right up there with Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard.”

Despite his early experiences in piano-less settings and a brief 1997 tour with McBride and Blade in a collective combo, Redman had consciously avoided pursuing a bass-and-drums trio project of his own. In surveying the landmark recordings by his tenor sax elders, he decided that it was just too daunting—until now. “I think I was basically scared to do it for a long time, and I still am,” Redman says. “The challenge of trying to create music which is meaningful, interesting, focused and varied enough to sustain interest without a dedicated harmonic instrument is incredibly challenging, especially in this day and age when so much of the sound of modern jazz is defined by harmony. That’s not to say there isn’t harmonic content playing in a saxophone trio. There is and there needs to be, but the harmonic statements that really define a lot of modern jazz can’t be made in the same way without a pianist or guitarist. A lot of the writing I had done up to this point was predicated on at least one harmonic instrument. In some sense it’s been like starting from scratch again.”

It’s the second time in the last few years that Redman has set about reinventing his musical approach. He launched a groove-oriented combo after collaborating with keyboardist Sam Yahel on a project that resulted in Redman’s ninth and final album for Warner Bros., 2002’s Elastic. What started as a bare-bones concept turned into a four-year creative sojourn, as the Elastic Band stretched from a trio with Brian Blade or Jeff Ballard into a quartet with guitarist Mike Moreno. Over time, it evolved from an effects-laden project with loops and feedback into a lithe, highly interactive combo with an open, uncluttered sound. For Yahel, who’s watched Redman develop since they met in the early 1990s, the saxophonist has navigated the treacherous shoals of early success by focusing his creative energy. Rather than playing the fox, exploring many ideas at once, he’s pursued the strategy of the hedgehog, delving deeply into one big idea to see where it takes him.

“When you’ve got a guy as talented as Josh is, making this transition from wunderkind to a serious contributor is a huge challenge,” Yahel says. “Here’s a guy who’s got a good career, who’s out on the road with an audience and a chance to present his ideas. So what does he do? He can play straightahead with anybody. He can play free with anybody. He can play funk. He loves all these different influences. When you have so many options, the trap becomes, I’m doing A, but what about B, C and D? You end up getting in your own way, because you can’t do everything. The transition lately, with the birth of his child, a lot of that falls by the wayside. There’s no time to doubt what you could be doing. As he matures as a human being, he’s getting more and more comfortable in that way, making the commitment to say, ‘This is what I’m doing now. This has room for my creative expression, with ties to a tradition while also moving forward, and trying to contribute something new.’”

Christian McBride sees Redman’s evolution in a somewhat different light. Though two years younger than Redman, the bassist was already well established in New York when Redman moved to the city, and he took it upon himself to show the saxophonist the ropes. Redman calls McBride his “big little brother,” and they ended up working together frequently. From McBride’s perspective, Redman’s decade-long hiatus between the 1997 trio tour with Blade and the Back East recording sessions reflects the saxophonist’s dogged determination to go his own way.

“You have to develop at your own pace,” McBride says. “Now Joshua’s at that point in his career where he rightfully feels like he can do anything he wants to do. It’s been wonderful to watch, particularly a guy like Joshua, who’s been pretty much under the microscope ever since he got on the scene. The thing I love most about Joshua’s development is that in the early days, there might have been a real small part of him, or maybe not so small, that actually used part of the hype machine to dictate where he went musically. Now, in the last couple of years, he is so not interested in the hype machine. I don’t know if he’s oblivious to it, but he’s just like, ‘Man, I really could care less about any of that stuff. I just want to play some good music.’ I remember in the early days he would make a conscious effort to play to the crowd a little bit, and he doesn’t do that anymore. I think that’s all part of maturity. I can remember at the age of 21 thinking, ‘Oh man, we’re so grown, we’re not 16 anymore.’ Now at the age of 35, I’m looking back thinking, ‘Man, we didn’t know shit.’”

It was some of life’s painful lessons that brought Redman back to the East Bay after a decade in the New York area. When he relocated to Oakland in 2002, it wasn’t a triumphant homecoming. Rather, he was seeking refuge at a moment of personal crisis following the dissolution of his marriage to Gabrielle Armand. Easing off his career as a bandleader, he threw himself into his job with SFJAZZ, while pursuing occasional special projects and sideman work with players like guitarist/composer Kurt Rosenwinkel. At first he assumed that he was going to return to New York, where he had become addicted to the constant flow of cultural stimulation. But he experienced something of an epiphany when it dawned on him that he was happier navigating the East Bay’s calm than Manhattan’s constant bustle.

“I realized that at heart I’m a simple person and I like to live simply,” Redman says. “This is a good place to do that, and yet still be culturally stimulated. I’m such a Berkeley boy, even though I live in Oakland. I spend my time grocery shopping. I listen to music at home, watch a movie from time to time, read a book. I go running on the street, that’s about it.”

As he settled back into life in the East Bay, Redman was involved in a series of SFJAZZ concerts that anticipated his engagement with Sonny Rollins on Back East. Just about every season, he was featured in a concert predicated on exploring a watershed album, such as delving into the music of Crescent with McCoy Tyner or teaming up with Brad Mehldau to investigate the revelatory 1957 Carnegie Hall performance by Monk and Trane that was released on Blue Note in 2005. While at first he rejects the notion that he’s engaged in an active dialogue with his jazz heroes, after talking about it for a while Redman reverses himself with a major caveat. The notion of “tradition” is anathema to him, with its connotation of reverence and emotional distance. He’s looking for a usable past, a past that isn’t past.

“Now that I’m thinking about it, gradually I’m starting to feel more comfortable explicitly dealing with influence, maybe because I’m starting to feel more comfortable in my own sound and identity,” Redman says. “Not that I’ve figured anything out. But I know that 10 years ago I would have never done what I did with Back East, taking music that Sonny Rollins played and reworking it. I guess now I’m a little more confident in my own voice as an artist, and being more confident can allow me to explicitly interact with influences and feel like I don’t disappear.”

On one level, being seen for who you are is the desire of just about every musician, not necessarily in an ego sense, but for the primal connection inherent in performing for an audience. If Redman is striding into the next phase of his life with renewed passion and energy, it might have something to do with how he knows that his father had the chance to experience his music on its own terms. Life is rarely so obliging that complex relationships tie up neatly, and Redman certainly has his share of regrets. But when he performed with the Elastic Band at the Blue Note in December 2005, Dewey was in the house.

“I wish I had been able to say this, or that we resolved that,” Redman says. “It sounds clichéd, but I’m thankful for all the great experiences we did have, and that I was able to play with him this one last time. Before that, I was at the Blue Note, and that was the first time he ever came to see me play. He heard me plenty of times, but it was always playing with him. There were a lot of other times I thought he was going to show up, but never did. I’m nervous in my life all the time, but I never get nervous playing music. When I saw him out there in the audience, I was nervous. Afterwards Sam was asking me, ‘Is everything cool? Are you OK?’ He hadn’t seen Dewey, and all I had to say was, ‘Man, my dad was out there!’ and he got it.”

Gearbox

Saxes: Selmer Balanced Action tenor saxophone

Selmer Mark VI soprano saxophone

Mouthpieces: #7 Otto Link hard-rubber mouthpiece

Reeds: #4 Alexander DC Superial reeds for tenor

#3 1/2 Alexander DC Superial reeds for soprano

Originally published in June 2007

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