Only hype and the good fortune of winning the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition has elevated Joshua Redman ahead of fellow tenor player, and second-place finisher, Eric Alexander. Both are outstanding young players who have grown up musically in public, and on albums, though they’ve both hit some big potholes along the jazz road. Their two new albums, however, show that road is evening out.
Redman and Alexander are outstanding technicians, but the former has been far more diverse in his choice of material. His seven previous Warner Bros. releases have blended tunes by James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton alongside hard bop, uptempo, ballads and the occasional outside forays. Redman’s original pieces, however, haven’t been consistently exciting, but they do show a willingness to mix light melodies, soul grooves and funk beats with challenging arrangements. Alexander, meanwhile, has stayed with more traditional compositional models on his various Criss Cross and Delmark CDs, playing show tunes, blues, blowing showcases and Afro-Latin items. Like Redman, Alexander has yet to demonstrate much flair for songwriting, though his work on his 2000 release, The First Milestone (Milestone), indicated substantial growth.
Those who dismiss every saxophonist who is not in the avant-garde or working in obscure European combos as derivative have sharpened their swords looking for flaws in Redman and Alexander’s records. Of course, neither player has been faultless. Redman’s recurring failing on records are his periodically leaden, bland solos, which can kill certain songs. While he’s unquestionably a first-rate saxophonist, he does falter on midtempo and slower material, sometimes sounding almost bored in the middle of a song. Redman’s sound, approach and modus operandi don’t reflect the influence of his famous father, Dewey; rather, Redman’s best moments echo the stately style of Sonny Rollins and scorched-earth blasting of John Coltrane. Alexander’s best qualities include a warm, inviting tone and ability to deliver entrancing phrases on blues and ballads. He’s been accused, however, of trying to squeeze too many notes into every solo and not varying his time or volume.
Evidently Redman and Alexander have at least considered some of these criticisms: both their new releases indicate they are correcting past mistakes. Redman’s eighth Warner Bros. outing, Passage of Time, is his most adventurous work ever: a single song delivered in eight parts, with segments shorter than two minutes and longer than 10. The CD is anything except the customary theme-solos-theme-conclusion format that makes so many contemporary jazz releases dreary. Alexander’s The Second Milestone, meanwhile, presents a more relaxed, less boisterous and blustery Alexander; he seems content to trim the excesses, modify the tone and deliver smoother but still passionate and confident solos.
Redman’s best working band was the unit with pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Brian Blade. The current ensemble includes top-notch percussionist Gregory Hutchinson and otherwise competent types in pianist Aaron Goldberg and bassist Reuben Rogers. Yet it may work to Redman’s advantage that he doesn’t have superstars on board. His tenor work on such numbers as “Time,” “Free Speech, Phase One: Declaration,” “Free Speech, Phase Two: Discussion” and “Enemies Within” are spiced with powerful, authoritative lines, and an unwavering, full sound. Redman’s playing is more consistently furious and inventive here than on any of his albums since Freedom in the Groove, which, along with MoodSwing, are the only discs that closely mirror Redman in live performance.
On Passage of Time, Redman sounds free of having to approximate a pop hit or having to create something fresh within a shopworn concept like a tribute album; he and his mates provide music that challenges and confronts the listener. More records like this one will go a long way toward dissuading those who feel Redman’s stature is more the product of clever marketing than that of a major improviser.
On The Second Milestone, Alexander’s assemblage gets invaluable support from the remarkable pianist Harold Mabern. His joyous playing and energetic presence are a delight throughout the album’s eight tunes. “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “John Neely Beautiful People” are great examples of Alexander at his surging best in an uptempo, competitive setting. “Moment to Moment” and “The Cliffs of Asturias” display the other side of Alexander’s personality. These are beautifully executed numbers with tasty melodies and some delightful contributions from bassist Peter Washington, drummer Joe Farnsworth and Mabern. Trumpeter Jim Rotondi’s only problem is not being featured on every song; his stints on “The Man from Hyde Park,” “Luna Naranja” and “The Cliffs of Asturias” add a second assertive solo voice to the pieces, and bring some vivid contrast to Alexander’s fine improvising.
There are certainly many valid criticisms that can be directed at today’s saxophonists, Joshua Redman and Eric Alexander included. However, on these releases they prove that they are maturing, carefully assessing past works and are growing as players.