In publishing, marketing makes us do funny things. For example, the edition of JT you’re holding now is the annual saxophone issue. A jazz rag running with a sax theme is a bit like Forbes doing a We Like Money annual or Playboy boasting about a Special Sex Issue, but whatever works. Somehow, themes tend to expand and balance our purview rather than limit it; we become less beholden to trends and more willing to showcase musicians of various approaches and statures who are devoted to the instrument in question. So here you get jazz’s reigning rock star, Kamasi Washington, revered elder Jimmy Heath, up-and-comers Roxy Coss and Braxton Cook, consummate mainstream players like Don Braden, Bobby Watson and Steve Wilson and more.
All of these artists present an unmistakable mastery, though I’m not sure any of them could surpass the display of saxophonic brilliance I absorbed at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 1. Joshua Redman, performing that weekend with his Still Dreaming quartet of cornetist Ron Miles, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, brought to bear only the most enthralling facets of the jazz tenor tradition, sometimes within the same solo. There was an overwhelming sense of harmonic surprise, in which improvisations avoided cliché but also delivered the comfort of resolution; the wide-ranging, rousing textural delights the tenor is capable of, from R&B honks to out-jazz cries; and the ability of the horn to carry a melody with all the pathos of a peerless singer.
Redman isn’t a singular personality so much as he’s an atypical virtuoso; few living tenor players this side of Chris Potter can make their godsent talents go down so easy, and Redman specifically can use his unparalleled technique to evince historical styles with surreal accuracy, like seeing a silent film in Technicolor. The lineup and repertoire—including originals and tunes by Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and the saxophonist’s late father, Dewey Redman—certainly helped in savoring Redman’s gifts. Miles made for a delightfully lyrical foil, and the cozily perceptive group dynamic certainly lived up to the meta-tribute concept; Still Dreaming pays homage to the elder Redman’s Old and New Dreams, a collective that honored Ornette. But really, the new band came off like a paean to great small-group jazz and a love letter to the saxophone.