Joshua Redman, Sam Yahel & Brian Blade: Get Yer Ya Ya Out

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Joshua Redman
By Jimmy Katz
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(Left to Right:) Joshua Redman, Brian Blade & Sam Yahel
By Jimmy Katz

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Joshua Redman is slouched on a blue, padded bench in the back of his tour bus, which is parked behind the Recher Theatre in Towson, Md. His short hair is thinning on top, but his honey-toned handsomeness is still striking, especially when he dons his San Francisco Giants baseball cap. (And let’s face it: Photogenic looks have helped him and Wynton Marsalis as much as they’ve helped Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson.)

To the saxophonist’s right is keyboardist Sam Yahel, whose three-day stubble doesn’t disguise the boyish roundness of his face. To Redman’s left is drummer Brian Blade, whose neatly trimmed Afro, black-framed glasses and quiet demeanor give him the air of a graduate student deep into a dissertation.

Together, they are both the Yaya3 and the Joshua Redman Elastic Band.

Freedom in the Groove was the title of Joshua Redman’s 1996 album, but in a sense those four words have provided the guiding principle of the saxophonist’s entire career.

“I’ve thought a lot about that phrase recently,” Redman says. “That’s the challenge I’m always working on: How do you achieve the potential to have the music be improvised and interactive and still groove? It’s not like we’ve solved it; sometimes we’re close to it and sometimes we’re far away. But I think the possibility is there. And this trio is the freest setting I’ve ever had for playing groove music.”

The threesome has released two albums this year: the self-titled Yaya3 and, under Redman’s name, Elastic. The first is an organ-trio record with Yahel playing a Hammond B-3 and supplying most of the material. The second is a Weather Report-style fusion disc with Yahel playing a wide array of keyboards and Redman writing 10 of the 11 tunes.

Both albums try to solve the same problem: How do you provide the deep-pocket pleasures of a rock ’n’ funk beat with the emotional and intellectual satisfaction of open-ended jazz improvisation? Many jazz conservatives would insist that it’s not possible, that you can’t have jazz without swing. Redman and his bandmates are out to prove that you can.

When Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were making jazz out of swing, swing was the pop music of their generation. For three musicians in their early 30s, the pop music of their generation is rock ’n’ funk. Over his career, Redman has recorded jazz treatments of songs by Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Prince, but now the saxophonist wants to do more than just redefine what a standard is. He wants to redefine how harmony and rhythm interact.

“We’ve all been influenced by funk, rock and soul bands,” Redman says, “but we don’t want to be a funk, rock or soul band. We want to be a jazz band that assimilates the musical vocabulary of those other bands and uses it in our compositions, which then become the basis for our jazz improvisation. The challenge is to groove and blow at the same time in a way that’s natural. I see this band as an opportunity to do that.”

“This is not a groove band,” Redman argues. “This is a jazz band that uses groove as a crucial part of its vocabulary. Listen to ‘The Birthday Song’ on Elastic, for example. The first part is very free and full of complex lines that Sam and I play, but then it coalesces into this very strong song form with a definite beat.

“The challenge is to find the right balance between the freedom and the groove so the song doesn’t lose that momentum and doesn’t become static either. We’re always pushing that boundary. Of course, whether we lose the groove or not will depend on each individual listener and how long he or she can keep the beat in mind without it being stated explicitly.”

Yahel adds, “It’s harder to work with a groove than with swing. Sonny Rollins can slip and slide all around a swing beat and never lose it, but the funk groove is so unforgiving. If you drop it for just a moment, you can lose it. What we’re trying to do is keep reaching beyond the composition without losing that beat.”

“The hardest-grooving bands have rarely been improvising bands,” Redman admits. “A band like the James Brown Band grooves because of its very specificity. But then again, someone like Bootsy Collins could come into that band and play very freely.”

Blade says, “The groove bands that come closest to a jazz sensibility are Booker T. & the MG’s, Al Green’s band and the Meters. They had this duality where they could be absolutely grooving on one hand and yet had the freedom to do other things at the same time. They could roll as well as rock. They could play horizontally as well as vertically. Later, as the music became louder and simpler, a lot of that subtlety got lost.”

“The early fusion bands combined freedom and groove in an exciting way,” Redman insists. “Miles and Chick Corea made some great records in that format. Weather Report was one of the great jazz bands and they grooved all the time. When Herbie Hancock had that band with Bennie Maupin, Billy Hart and Buster Williams, he found a way to groove his ass off and still improvise. Sure, there have been a lot of bad fusion records, especially later on, but there have been a lot of bad acoustic-jazz records too.”

“When the three of us play together,” Redman asserts, “there’s a feeling of tremendous power and force but also tremendous openness and possibility. That’s the paradox of the trio format. Because there are only three people, there’s inherently more room to explore possibilities. But the fewer people you have in a group, the fewer lines of communication you have and the stronger each of those lines can be.

“Ultimately,” he adds, “this has less to do with what particular instruments we play or how many of us there are and more to do with who we are as musicians. We share some common inclinations and sensibilities and that allows us to do what we do.”

When the Joshua Redman Elastic Band took the stage later that night at the Recher Theatre, it demonstrated how to groove hard and blow free at the same time. “Switchblade,” from Yaya3, began with Blade playing freely over Yahel’s stabbing, two-chord organ riff. Redman entered on tenor sax, playing short phrases punctuated by full stops. Each phrase featured different, complex lines, but the repeating stops gave them a rhythmic shape, allowing him to wander at will without losing the R&B beat.

Then Redman went into his signature “one-man duet” shtick. Fast, darting phrases in the higher register alternated with honking phrases in the lower register. He bounced back and forth between the two so deftly that it was easy to imagine two sax men playing at once, one flying high and the other grooving low.

It was more than a trick; it was a lucid example of Redman’s strategy. Surely the listener can remember the honking beat when it disappears for two bars to be replaced by two bars of free soloing. Surely the listener can remember the spirit of the solo when it disappears for two measures to be replaced by the low-register groove. And if the listener can remember for two bars, why not four or eight or 16?

On “Still Pushin’ That Rock,” from Elastic, the groove was established by Yahel’s stuttering eighth notes on a bass synthesizer and Blade’s tapping 16th notes on the cymbals. Redman introduced his own bright, poplike melody on tenor sax, punctuating his short phrases with commas rather than periods this time. But as soon as the tune was planted in our minds, the whole trio sped up and attacked the melodic phrases with a rough rudeness, knotting them up with chord extensions and setting them free in long single-note runs.

Yahel’s left hand kept the bass-synth riff going for the entire piece, but his right hand took off on a harmonic tangent after Redman’s solo. And when Blade abandoned the ride cymbal for one of his rolling, tumbling solos back and forth across the kit, it was Redman who kept the groove going with short saxophone riffs. At all times there was at least one person playing free and at least one person playing the beat.

Joshua Redman, of course, is the son of saxophonist Dewey Redman. The younger man was a Harvard graduate planning to attend Yale Law School when a victory in the 1991 Thelonious Monk Competition propelled him to a major-label contract and overnight stardom as a full-time musician.

Brian Blade was the drummer on four of Redman’s earlier albums: 1994’s MoodSwing, 1995’s Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard, 1996’s Freedom in the Groove and 1998’s Timeless Tales (For Changing Times). The Louisiana drummer has also released two albums that showcase him as a jazz composer. He is the rare musician who has both the chops and the curiosity to play with everyone from Kenny Garrett to Bob Dylan, from Bill Frisell to Joni Mitchell, from Charlie Haden to Emmylou Harris. Most recently, Blade has anchored Wayne Shorter’s acoustic quartet, which also includes pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci.

Sam Yahel is not much known outside New York, but in Manhattan he attracted a good deal of attention for revitalizing the organ-group sound on two 1999 albums with Blade and guitarist Peter Bernstein, Trio (Criss Cross) and In the Blink of an Eye (Naxos, which also released his 1998 debut, Searchin’). Yahel was able to retain the familiar tonalities and vocabulary of the Hammond B-3 while playing riffs and solos that wandered outside the Jimmy Smith template.

“The organ has a tradition,” Yahel acknowledges, “but it’s not as overwhelming as the piano tradition. If you play the piano, it’s hard not to be compared to all the people who came before: Herbie [Hancock], McCoy [Tyner], [Thelonious] Monk, Duke [Ellington] and on and on. By comparison, the organ is a fairly new instrument in jazz with a relatively small group of giants. As a result, I think of the organ as an open instrument whose full potential has yet to be explored. My approach, for example, is influenced not just by soul-jazz but also by the Staple Singers and gospel music.”

Redman says the “tradition of the grooving blues organ associated with Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and the others is so powerful that a lot of people assume that organ jazz has to sound like that. There have been few organ players who have been able to free themselves from those boundaries, and Sam is one of the boldest. I don’t know how he does it, because he has to fulfill so many functions on the instrument at once. It’s like he’s playing a piano and a bass at the same time.”

For years Yahel has had a Wednesday night residency at Small’s, a West Village jazz club where Blade and Bernstein were his most frequent bandmates. When Bernstein couldn’t make it one night (perhaps at the end of 1999; the date keeps changing with the musicians’ memories), Yahel called Redman and asked if he’d like to sit in.

“I had sat in with Sam a few times in the past,” Redman says, “but this was the first time Sam, Brian and I played together. It felt great. It was such a break from what I usually did, which was leading an acoustic quartet or quintet. I could break out my horn and just blow without a lot of responsibilities.

“Gradually, though, I realized this was more than just a vacation from my regular job. There was something special about the combination of the three of us. Sam can hold back and be tasteful, but he can also make the organ scream when he wants to. And Brian’s concept of playing goes way beyond just the drums. He plays so dynamically and so melodically that it’s like he’s creating a whole landscape of music.”

Yahel says, “Josh and I hadn’t played together much, but I had a long history with Brian and so did Josh, so we connected through Brian.”

Redman says he found himself “looking forward to Sam’s call whenever I was in New York. Then it got to the point where I was calling him. ‘Hey, I’m in town. Is Brian around? Do you want to play?’ From there it just snowballed out of control.”

By this time it was the middle of 2001, and Redman was finishing up the tour with his acoustic quartet (pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson) in support of Passage of Time. He was at the phase of the write-record-tour cycle where he should have been bubbling over with ideas for the next album, but the ideas weren’t there.

“It was weird,” he admits. “We were playing some of the best music of my life, and I was having a great time, but I felt if I tried to follow up Passage of Time with Part II it would have been less inspired than the first one. When we were touring behind that record, I didn’t have the feeling that I usually have, which is, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see where this is leading. I can see what comes next.’

“The few song sketches I did have had less of a swing element to them. They were groove tunes that seemed to call out for electric instruments. That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to do an acoustic quartet next. But it never dawned on me that I would do an organ trio. I was thinking not on a smaller scale but on a larger scale, a bigger band with electric bass, electric keyboards, electric guitar.

“Sam was always encouraging me to bring my own music to play with the trio,” Redman says, “but I was reluctant, because this was the one place where I wasn’t playing my own music. But one day I brought in ‘Boogielastic’ and ‘Jazz Crimes’ into rehearsal, and before long I realized that this was the band I wanted to use on my next record. That acoustic quartet was a great band, and I’m sure I’ll play with them again, but this is the project I’m committed to for the time being. I hope we’ll get to do more tours and more records.”

As he worked out Redman’s new songs in rehearsal, Yahel supplemented his organ with a full array of electronic keyboards. This wider range of textures put the sonic accent on the beat that the music required.

“Some of Josh’s music called out for the clarity and precision of an electric-bass line that organ pedals just can’t match,” Yahel says. “And once we used a bass synthesizer, the organ didn’t sound right, so we added the Fender Rhodes. But the Rhodes isn’t a great soloing instrument, so we added another synth. From there it just grew.”

Meanwhile, the three musicians were still playing as an organ trio on Wednesdays at Small’s. “A weekly gig like that allows long-term development to happen very quickly,” Blade says. “Getting together at the same time at the same place means there are a lot of things you don’t have to worry about. And with a trio, the development is even faster, because that triangularity allows you to react and report more quickly. We soon had a very strong rapport.”

“I thought it was important to document the music we played at Small’s,” Redman says. “It was also important to release it first before my new music, because that’s the way this band developed. It’s not only where we came from; it’s who we are. We recorded Yaya3 in January and Elastic in March; it was a pretty intense few months.

“I didn’t want to combine the two sounds on one album, because the more records I make, the more I realize the importance of having a focused sound on each one. Onstage, however, we keep a pretty even balance between the two projects. But Sam and Brian were more than just musicians on both albums; they were arrangers and editors. Just as Yaya3 is more Sam’s album than the credit implies, Elastic is more of a trio record than the credit implies.”

It’s a measure of Redman’s clout, however, that he was able to get Yaya3, which is essentially a Sam Yahel organ-trio record, released on Loma, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. With the Marsalis brothers having left Columbia, Redman is one of the last mainstream jazz artists on a major label.

“Jazz is going through a tough time economically,” Redman concedes. “There are fewer instrumental jazz musicians on major labels and less attention in the media than five to 10 years ago. A lot of musicians, myself included, have experienced declines in record sales and in live attendance.

“But despite the economic downturn, it’s a great time creatively for jazz. For one thing, there’s a lot less division in the jazz community than there has been. There’s a lot less talk about the necessity of holding up the tradition, about the divide between the traditionalists and the innovators. The scene seems more open now to combining the old and the new.”

Redman is promoting that openness not just as a player but also as the artistic director of the San Francisco Jazz Festival’s Spring Season. Working with the overall festival director, Randall Kline, Redman programs the spring events and, as a member of the board of directors, contributes ideas all year long. In February, the saxophonist even moved from the New York suburbs back to the Bay Area, where he grew up.

“I never thought of myself as a serious music player until I was 22,” Redman says. “I’m 33 now, so for two-thirds of my life I’ve been a music listener rather a music performer. The festival gives me a chance to be involved with the music as a listener again. The Bay Area has always been less concerned with musical boundaries and restrictions than other places; that’s the environment I grew up in and that’s the sensibility that the festival has adopted.

“That same openness is essential for this band. When I had the acoustic quartet, I could look to Miles or Trane or Keith Jarrett as signposts. There’s a lot less of that history with a jazz groove trio, so there’s less of an atlas, less of a compass. On the one hand, that’s very exciting. On the other, it’s very scary.” J

Gearbox:

When you think of electric keyboards, you think of the latest, cutting-edge technology, but Sam Yahel prefers older equipment. Whether he’s in the studio or on tour, his equipment has a vintage feel to it, and it has the scruffs and dents to mark its age. He plays a Fender Rhodes from the ’70s and a vintage Hammond B-3 organ pumped through a Leslie speaker. His synthesizers include a monophonic analog Yamaha from the early ’70s and a Korg MS2000. He also uses an Electrix Repeater and a Voce organ module.

“There’s a warmth to the older stuff that I like,” Yahel says. “Even when I buy a new keyboard, I buy one that’s designed to sound like the old analog stuff. I may have an electric setup, but there’s an acoustic feel to it.”

Joshua Redman still uses the same Selmer saxophones he always has. “They have the warmest, prettiest sound around,” he says, “and they’re consistent from top to bottom.” For this tour, he has added two effects processors—an Ensoniq DP-4 and a Lexicon PCM 80—as well as a Nord Electro keyboard for comping during Yahel’s solos.

Blade owns several complete trap kits, and he picks the one that seems to best fit each project. For example, he used a Gretsch set on the trio’s recent recordings, but on tour he’s using a Slingerland set with Zildjian cymbals. “Right now,” he says, “I’m into the roundness of the Slingerland tone.”

Originally published in December 2002

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